MORE THAN ANY other administration figure of the Nixon-Ford years. Henry Kissinger dominated his chosen area of policy and became the focus of the public's judgement of it. Though later he rose as the favored aide of President who had entered the White House determined above all to restructure relations among the great powers. With the European intellectual's bent for conceptualization and the European survivor's knack for maneuver. Henry Kissinger was precisely the man to elaborate and execute the Nixon design.

It consisted, quite simley, of playing China against Russia. Its most celebrated results were the opening to Peking, the consolidation of the European status quo, and the onset of across-the-board negotiations with Moscow itself. This last was called "detente." Mr. Kissinger, with his chief, sold it to a wary public as promising a "generation of peace." In fact, he seems to have understood it himself as a defensive strategy meant to carry a Vietnam (and later Watergate) weakened America through a period of growing Soviet power. He was brave and profoundly right, we believe, to try. But the debate raging even now about Moscow's ultimate political and military aims is vivid testimony that the Nixon-Kissinger "structure of peace" was, if "buildable" at all, not built in the last eight years. Finding ways consistent with American values and resources to cope with Soviet power remains the central task of American foreign policy - thought it is far from this alone.

From the start, balancing off Soviet power preoccupied Mr. Kissinger. To impress the Kremlin with American will, he felt, the unpopular war in Vietnam had to be ended on American terms. The policy flowed easily from his belief that diplomacy should be based not so much on the informed consent of others in government or society as on his won perception of the national interest. He was mistaken, of course, in his notion of how foreign policy ought to be or could be made, and in his notion of how much suffering Americans wished either to sustain or inflict on account of Vietnam. Thus was his Vietnam policy destroyed.

In Chile, Cyprus, Angola and elsewhere, Mr. Kissinger conducted a policy similarly intended to bolster the American position toward Russia. But whether the policy succeeded or failed in those terms abroad, it further eroded Mr. Kissinger's political capital and his good name at home. The public and the political opposition came increasingly to believe, not always fairly, that Mr. Kissinger regarded it as a distraction to follow an open concern for political rights or economic needs in foreign lands.All of this left him progressively less able to prepare and conduct negotiations on the central issues relating directly to Soviet-power, he undertook tow major regional negotiations, in the Middle East and southern Africa, which are promising in different ways but have not yet run their course.

The analysis of Henry Kissinger's personality, and the matching of his personality to his policy; has been a thriving Washington enterprise for years. His own memoirs should be an important contribution to it. We would note here only that the qualities that have led Americans variously to celebrate and curse him are not necessarily those we would underline ourselves. To us, the measure of the man as a public official was that he had a large and serious conception of the world and of the United States' place in it. He sought to build an international order to tame the terrors of war and deprivation, and if in the pursuit of that order he sometimes offended the values he meant to serve - and he did - then he did so not through a moral failing but through a political and human one. We think his Washington career has provided one of the true contemporary adventures of striving in public life. It will be a long time before any future Secretary of State is not measured against the reach, and the record, of Henry Kissinger.