"A pamphlet worthy of Tom Paine," says Eugene V. Rostow of the Yale Law School. "His argument is unanswerable." Henry Kissinger says it "focuses public attention on what is in fact the central challenge of our time." To Sen. Henry Jackson, it's "everybody's required reading."

They are talking about "The Present Danger" by Norman Podhoretz, who is a principal exponent of what has come to be called "neo-conservative" thought. And even allowing for the natural exuberance of book jacket blurbs, the publication in book form of Podhoretz's prescription for a proper foreign policy is undeniably a Political Event, for he represents a distinct and respectable point of view.

We are on the edge, he believes, of the "final collapse of an American resolve to resist the forward surge of Soviet imperialism." That's the "present danger." The answer to it, Podhoretz argues, is to run the reel backward, past the defeatism of the post-Vietnam years and the disengagement of the Nixon Doctrine in 1969 to the Truman Doctrine of 1947: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure."

The core of the Truman Doctrine was the theory of "containment" -- that's Podhoretz's scripture. His high priest is George F. Kennan. A distinguished career expert on Russia and the first director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, Kennan gave the word "containment" to the language of foreign policy in a famous, anonymous article that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in the summer of 1947, signed "Mr. X."

Thus: "The Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy . . ."

There is something inherently troublesome about resurrecting for a "present danger" a prescription drawn up for a danger, and a world, of 33 years ago. But what immediately troubles me about "The Present Danger" is its extraordinarily heavy reliance on a layman's interpretation of something the high priest himself has consistently and effectively disowned.

Podhoretz has a fast and not-too-generous explanation for that. Kennan, he contends, has "grown weary fearful over the years."

It won't wash. There is more fiction than fact in the Podhoretz analysis of Kennan and "containment." And it is worth distinguishing one from the other, if "containment" is to be a conservative catchword in a developing debate over foreign policy.

Fiction: "Although it was in the Truman Doctrine that the policy of containment was officially enuciated, it received its most authoritative expression" in the "X" article.

Fact: Kennan has serious reservations about the broad sweep of the Truman Doctrine and it is recorded that he expressed them to his superiors at the time. A Policy Planning Staff paper prepared under his direction in May 1947 urged that an effort be made to discourage the notion that the doctrine "is a blank check to give economic and military aid to any area in the world where the communists show signs of being successful."

Fiction: "About 30 years later, in what was perhaps the most dramatic single case of the loss of faith in containment caused by the experience of Vietnam, Kennan for all practical purposes repudiated the position he had taken" in the "X" article. This would place Kennan's supposed recantation about two years after the fall of Saigon and the finality of America's Vietnam defeat.

Fact: Kennan repudiated large parts of the "X" article in his book "Memoirs, 1925-1950." It was published in 1967 -- not 30, but 20 years after the fact, when the Johnson administration was regularly proclaiming victory in Vietnam. In it, he listed "serious deficiencies" and "egregious errors" in the "x" article.

Perhaps the worst of these, Kennan conceded, was the impression it left that he was talking about military "counterforce" when what he had in mind was "the political containment of a political threat." By way of illustration, he described the Chinese-Soviet breakup as "the greatest single measure of containment that could be conceived."

Was that a self-serving, revisionist view? Not according to Ohio University history Professor John Lewis Gaddis. Armed with freshly available documentation of the 1947 period, he concluded a few years ago (also in Foreign Affairs) that the "X" article was an "incomplete and misleading reflection" of the arguments Kennan was making in policy-making councils at the time.

In short, "containment," as Kennan conceived it, does not serve Podhoretz's purposes -- if you believe Kennan. And if you don't (as Podhoretz makes plain he doesn't), why would you want a man of such questionable intellectual integrity as your high priest? That is not the style of Tom Paine nor the stuff of an "unanswerable argument."