A TIME FOR GIANTS The Politics of the American High Command in World War IIBy D. Clayton James Franklin Watts. 317 pp. $19.95

This book does not seem the sort of historical work that inspires instant confidence. We're talking about appearances here: a short book on a complicated subject, suspiciously wide margins in the text, largish -- although that is to say readable -- print. Perhaps this is, one fears, a spinoff based on some leftover research notes from D. Clayton James' very long, and in every sense weighty, three-volume biography of Douglas MacArthur.

But what a mistaken first impression. James has really done a remarkable thing in "A Time for Giants," which he calls "an introduction to the military leaders and the manner of their selection to the high command of the United States armed services during the Second World War." James has selected 18 senior officers for discussion, the men who were responsible for the highest direction of the war, that is, the Joint Chiefs (Marshall, King, Arnold and Leahy), the commanders of the major theaters (MacArthur, Nimitz, Eisenhower) and certain principal subordinates or, as in the case of generals Joseph Stilwell and Mark Clark, senior American officers who were subordinated to Allied commanders -- which may not be an adequate way to describe Stilwell's peculiar and hopeless position in China. James does it better.

There is almost nothing brand-new in this book. We are spared any further discussion of generals' alleged mistresses, and even the sayings of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery are limited to a (very) few essentials. What we do have is a well-planned, thoughtful and completely unmalicious work of military history.

James' method is both chronological and top to bottom. He traces the major organizational and strategic-political developments in historical order (separating European and Pacific matters) but works in his principal characters, starting with each member of the Joint Chiefs and ending with several field commanders (Patton, Holland Smith, Raymond Spruance). Somehow he manages to do this without having to tell the whole story over each time he introduces one of the players.

Why were these particular men selected? "Without exception," says James, "{they} seemed to have achieved their positions of high command by being the best qualified and most experienced officers available for the jobs at the time." James makes a compelling case for this simple explanation. Those selected remained in place or advanced; none, except Stilwell, was relieved, and even he moved on to other major commands. For those in the Army, it helped to have been associated with John J. Pershing or George Marshall, or both, which was the experience of Eisenhower and Patton. Omar Bradley was a Marshall man, as was Mark Clark. That connection provided opportunity, not certain advancement. Maj. Gen. Hugh Drum was a confidant of Pershing, but he showed shockingly poor form and judgment when offered the China position by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Gen. Marshall. He was finished. And Lloyd Fredendall, a favorite of Marshall's, had one of the great command opportunities in the war, as the senior officer first into combat against the Germans. He failed, and Eisenhower replaced him with another well-connected officer, George Patton.

But mostly, regardless of branch of service, it was a matter of giving the big jobs to those who had slowly and steadily built up high professional reputations between the wars. Most held only midlevel rank in the late 1930s after, on the average, some 30 years of service. These were not young men. Yet they had replaced, by 1942, the much older officers who held key positions before the war (and who mostly reached mandatory retirement age, curiously enough, just as war approached).

But of course no book about these famous generals and admirals can avoid their controversies. That war goes on. James is a sort of historical peacemaker, a fair and pragmatic observer. Read, for example, his masterful account of the command arrangements in the Pacific, which violated almost every military principle. Those arrangements worked, or at least did not fail, because of the immense areas involved and the limitations of the Japanese armed forces (hardly apparent, however, to those who had to fight them).

This is a successful historical work and a command opportunity. We await the unwritten books, perhaps "MacArthur's Lieutenants" and "The War in Washington."

The reviewer is a former Air Force officer who frequently writes on historical and literary topics.