JEAN MONNET was more than an enormously talented man. He was also a lucky one. He belonged to that very small group of statesmen who seize a noble but improbable idea and live long enough to see their countrymen not only accept it, but also begin to take it for granted. He thought of its as the United States of Europe. While Western Europe has not turned into a United States, and is unlikely to, it is rapidly evolving into another kind of tight federation. A young Frenchman now goes to Germany as casually as his counterpart in Virginia might go to New York, with hardly a thought to the way things might otherwise have been.

The Monnet vision hs suceeded to a point where it is now difficult to remember how shaky and unpromising a venture it seemed set against the wreckage of the early post-World War II years. The question for that generation was whether people could actually learn from catastrophes. After the First World War, Europe had been corrupted and deformed by the politics of accusation and revenge. The victors demanded reparations, and the defeated reneged. There was wild inflation in some countries and depression in the others. National passions rose, and shortly the whole horrifying collision was repeated, this time with more powerful weapons and greater hysteria than before. In the years of exhaustion, after 1945, the message of reconciliation and mutual trust, which was Mr. Monnet's singleminded theme, seemed unlikely to find much of a following.

A good many Europeans understood that the old tradition of Franco-German hatreds was a luxury tht the continent could no longer afford. But Mr. Monnet saw better than any European of his generation the economic conditions that a stable and pacific political life would require. He was uneasy about the role that the old national cartels in basic industries, like steel, had played before the war and might play again. He knew North America well, and perceived the importance of a huge domestic market for a growing economy. He saw the deep political significance in the free movement of commerce across national boundaries. He knew that internationalism would prove more durable if it were founded on interest rather than on ideals.

The first tentative experiment was the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. It worked effectively, perhaps to the surprise of some of the participants.They expanded it, at Mr. Monnet's urging, into the Common Market. Trade and living standards rose beyond anyone's expectations. Other nations joined. Now they are moving toward the direct election of a European parliament next June -- the first investment of real political power in the institutions of the community.

The two great Frenchmen of the last generation were Charles de Gaulle and Jean Monnet, and they represented opposite convictions on the idea of nationalism. One defended it with genius. The other -- never a dramatic figure, never in high public office, never a man to stir a crowd -- pushed implacably toward the supranational principle. The strange thing was that, by the time he died Friday, at his country house near Paris, Mr. Monnet seemed to be winning.