David McCullough's history of the Panama Canal, "The Path Between the Seas" (Simon & Schuster), has won the 1977 National Book Award for history. Gloria Emerson's first-hand account of the Vietnam war, "Winners and Losers" (Random House), got the award for contemporary thought, and Howard Nemerov's "Collected Poems" (University of Chicago) won in the poetry category.

The seven winners of the 29th annual awards were announced last night to a capacity crowd in the Grand Ballroom fo New York's Biltmore Hotel.

The award for biography and autobiography went to W. Jackson Bate's "Samuel Johnson" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), which also won a National Book Critics Circle award in January of this year, and was chosen over Will and Ariel Durant's "A Dual Autobiography" among other nominees.

The Children's award went to Judith and Herbert Kohl for "The View From the Oak" (Sierra Club/Scribner's an exploration of the way animals behave in their natural habitats. And Richard and Clara Winston won the award for their translation of Uwe George's "In the Deserts of this Earth" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), the German naturalist's study desert ecology.

The most surprising award was in the fiction category, which was won by Mary Lee Settle's "Blood Ties" (Houghton Mifflin), a novel about expatriate Americans and Europeans living on the Turkish coast. The first printing of "Blood Ties" was reportedly an unambitious 4,000, but it was chosen over competition including Robert Coover's highly publicized book, "The Public Burning" (Viking), and John Sayles' "Union Dues" (Atlantic/Little, Brown), which met with wide critical acclaim.

In addition, a Special Achievement Medal was awarded to S.J. Perelman, 74, the screenwriter, humorist and journalist. The medal was initiated this year "to honor those authors who have made a substantial and exceptional constribution to American writing."

The National Book Awards, sponsored and administered by the Association of American Publishers, are given to the "most impressive work" in each of the seven categories. Earlier this year, five nominees in each area were chosen by the NBA nominating committee, and final winners were selected by a three-judge panel in each category.

Long before the announcement of winners yesterday, however, the selection process for the awards already had generated bitter controversy in publishing circles. When the list of nominees was first made public, a number of books which had won National Book Critics Circle Awards for 1977 - among them Susan Sontag's "On Photography," Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," and Robert Lowell's "Day by Day" - did not appear on the list, along with a number of others widely regarded as being among the year's most distinguished books.

Spokesmen for Farrar, Straus, Giroux, one publishing house which suffered from the apparent omissions, blamed the situation on the NBA's formal instructions to its judge's which included a provision that "a book by an author who was previously won a National Book Award in that category should not be chosen," unless the book was "so clearly the most impressive work of its category so as to admit of no other truly satisfactory choice."

Referring to the controversy after the announcement of the award winners, AAP president Townsend Hoopers told the audience that, "Any reports you may have heard regarding (the NBA's) eminent demise are greatly exaggerated."