IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE for anyone acquainted with the illustrious career of Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., or with the character of the man himself, to conceive of Gen. James not continuing to involve himself in the welfare of his country.After all, he was America's only black four-star general. He had once written that "I love America and as she has weaknesses or ills. I'll hold her hand." Secretary of Defense Harold Brown had every good reason to say, during Gen. James' retirement ceremonies last month, that the general was merely beginning a "new phase" of his traditional "active behavior." Those new post-retirement duties had taken him to Colorado Springs, Colo., to deliver a speech last Saturday when he was struck down by a heart attack.

Gen. James's history of heart trouble was well known. Still, it is a shock to realize that this robust man is now gone. His death has robbed America of a fervent patriot who wasn't afraid to speak his mind without worrying about the possible unfavorable consequences to himself and to his future. That principled spirit characterized his career from beginning to end. There was a kind of rock-ribbed Americanism about Gen. James - a patriotism and a sense of gratitude that some found incongruous in a man who in childhood had known poverty and segregation first-hand. But there was really nothing incongruous about it. Chappie James simply possessed two qualities that nurtured his patriotism and powered his truly remarkable advancement to the top of the nation's military structure: An indomitable will to succeed and, with it, a profound sense of appreciation of the special opportunity his country offered him - whatever its flaws. There will be many tributes to Gen. James, but we think none will more eloquently characterize him than the words he once used to describe himself. "I am," he said, "above everything else . . . an American."