AS I SAW IT

By Dean Rusk as told to Richard Rusk

Edited by Daniel S. Papp

Norton. 672 pp. $29.95

EARLY ONE morning Secretary of State Dean Rusk was sitting in the oval office waiting for President Kennedy to arrive. Out from behind a screen came Caroline Kennedy, then 3 or 4, to say: "Mr. Secretary, what is the situation in Yemen today?"

Adds Rusk: "I heard someone tittering behind the screen, and it was John Kennedy. He had put her up to it."

That is about as close as Rusk, now 81 and out of office 21 years, comes to breaking his in-office vow never to write a kiss-and-tell book, indeed never to write a memoir. There are other tidbits: Jacqueline Kennedy, sitting next to Rusk at a White House dinner, said to him: "You know, it is very significant that my husband always calls you Mr. Secretary." But she didn't explain and he didn't ask.

Again: Lyndon Johnson, writes Rusk, as his adminstration came to an end, offered to name him to the Supreme Court. When he demurred that the Senate would never confirm him, LBJ said he'd already cleared it with Sen. Richard Russell who said "you'd be confirmed easily."

As to the third president Rusk served (in lesser posts), Harry Truman, Rusk once drafted for him a reply to an "unpleasant" letter from India's Nehru. Truman had scribbled "in the margins of the original such scathing remarks as 'What does he want me to do, consult Mousie Dung?' " For a souvenir, Truman marked up Rusk's copy with all his original remarks and Rusk considered it so hot he rented a safe deposit box "for many years" to hold it.

But, it is evident, all this is the trivia of history. Dean Rusk remains the Dean Rusk Washington remembers, a young man who in 1933 was forever seared by witnessing the Oxford Union debate in which the student majority voted that "this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country." The consequences of that attitude, Munich included, made collective security the rock on which Rusk stood -- from World War II as an army officer in the China-Burma-India theater through his eight years as secretary of state who never gave up on the American war in Vietnam because "there was the treaty {SEATO}, damn it. There was the pledge."

It was Richard Rusk, one of his three children, who prodded "pop" into this book. It is interlaced with the son's own story of their estrangement over the war and their ultimate reconciliation after Rusk's retirement to the University of Georgia. But that does not make it any less a first-person Rusk memoir. At Georgia, Rusk taperecorded in extensis his lifetime recollections. Those tapes were the backbone of Thomas J. Schoenbaum's Waging Peace & War, a generally favorable 1988 biography. Hence this Rusk memoir, even with the son's perceptive addenda, adds little, overlaps much, is often repetitive. Some people identified by name in Schoenbaum remain discreetly anonymous when Rusk tells the same story from his own tapes.

Secretaries of state, like most others in government, tend to leave with the intellectual baggage with which they arrived. Dean Acheson, an exception, was "present at the creation" of post-World War II policy and had a big hand in its formation. In retrospect, John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and the others all essentially followed Achesonian precepts. Only today, with the end of the Cold War catching the American government by surprise, has necessity become the mother of new inventions in statecraft, although not much of that is yet visible.

However, As I Saw It never gets to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and Dean Rusk on the last page still glories in being "a Cold War warrior of the old school." The book thus leaves an eerie feeling of disconnection from today's world.

A true Rusk memoir should have been written soon after his eight-year secretaryship ended in 1969. This one is old stew with its few odd tidbits, some old shafts at his twin enemies, Bobby Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and an essentially uncritical eye for both JFK and LBJ. The bulk is boiler-plate Rusk, except for the family history.

How this "rube" from Cherokee County, Georgia, won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, taught at Mills College, married a student there, became a soldier and a bureaucrat, took eight years out as president of the Rockefeller Foundation; and how this workaholic drove himself to collapse, far too often neglecting his children -- all this holds fascination as Americana. Among son Richard's contributions: "We lost our father for eight years," yet when the washing machine broke down the secretary of state piled the dirty laundry into the family car and fed quarters at the laundromat alongside unknowing housewives. And the son adds that "his passion for secrecy was so strong that after leaving office, he went back to the State Department, pulled out his copies of telephone memos of conversation with his two presidents and threw them away."

As to the hard facts of Rusk's stewardship, nothing has changed and little has been added. He may have been "somewhat naive in thinking that Washington and Hanoi could conduct meaningful talks." But he remains certain that what was involved in the American war in Vietnam was "the theory of world revolution." As Rusk writes, he had done "my thinking on Vietnam before we went in." And he never saw a reason to question or reconsider it.

Chalmers M. Roberts covered Rusk's secretaryship as The Washington Post's chief diplomatic correspondent.