On the day that David Bruce died I mentioned the news to a fellow journalist to whom I happened to be talking on the telephone. "I don't place him," the man said. "Who was he?"

I suppose this is the fate of diplomats. They stay out of the public eye and regard silence as an admirable posture.

Nevetheless, I have always been sorry that David Bruce refused to write his memoirs or be interviewed by people who wanted to write his biography. "I certainly can't step you," he told one of these, "but I'll do nothing to help."

It's too bad because Bruce played behind-the-scenes roles in his country's history for so long and during times when the history was so fascinating that, if he had been able to overcome reticence, he, like Dean Acheson, might have done almost as much for us by telling the story as he did by helping to make the story.

It may be that at some time in our history a diplomat served in posts as important as those in which Bruce served, but if so I cannot place the time or the man. In succession, he was ambassador to France, Under Secretary of State, ambassador to Germany, ambassador to Great Britain and special representative to the People's Republic of China. Acheson once compared Bruce's knowledge of and his influence in France to that of Benjamin Franklin and added. "His diplomatic career is very probably unique in American history." I'm willing to leave it at that.

He was, like Franklin, a marvelous raconteur who often held small groups spellbound with tales of men and events.

I remember his account of landing in France on D-Day with his immediate superior, Gen. William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan, chief of OSS. They had a rendezvous with a French spy and were creeping through hedgerows, approaching the predetermined point, when Donovan suddenly began searching through his pockets for his death pill. Out came wallet, pictures, credit cards, keys, everthing on the ground. Suddenly Donovan remembered that the pill was on his bedside table back at the Dorchester Hotel in London. "David," he said, rising to his feet, "I must not fall into enemy hands. I order you to stay behind me, shoot me if you see the enemy, then make your way back and get a message to the Dorchester about that pill."

Col. Bruce, as he was then, must surely have been among the most handsome officers in the American army - tall, blond, with twinkling blue eyes and possessed of a vigor that was catching.

Yet he hated public appearances, preferred private talk to public statements, often suggested that the best response to some foreign statesman's challenge was to say nothing. "Don't answer the letter," he once advised Acheson.

I suppose it must be said that he belonged to a very old school, but it's a school that represents an important strain in American history. It is exemplified. I think, in a paragraph Bruce once wrote about George Washington.

"Striking in appearance, fastidious in dress, courtly in manner, dignified in bearing, skillful in sport, as hospitable as Timon of Athens, he was the ideal Southern cavalier."

David Bruce might have been embarrassed to hear me say that this description applies to him. But it does.