Life of British foreign minister Bevin; Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary: 1945-1951, by Alan Bullock. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 896 pp. Illustrated. $37.50.

This massive tome, recounting Bevin's years as Britain's foreign secretary ( 1945-51), completes a still more massive enterprise: the three-volume ''Life and Times of Ernest Bevin.'' Volume I, which appeared nearly a quarter-century ago, chronicled Bevin's rise to the pinnacle of Britain's trade union movement. Volume II (1967) dealt with his tenure as minister of labor in Churchill's wartime coalition government. The delay in the appearance of this third volume was caused by Britain's 30-year rule controlling access to official government papers. Lord Bullock has indeed made such extensive use of these sources here that one can only say that the wait was worthwhile.

Author of a justly acclaimed biography of Hitler and one-time academic head of Oxford University, Lord Bullock does justice to his subject here. These years saw Bevin, a member of a highly partisan Socialist government, forge a powerful bipartisan continuation of Britain's wartime foreign policy, culminating in the formation of NATO. Perhaps the last foreign secretary to conduct himself as if his nation were still a great power, Bevin was able to translate this attitude into Realpolitik through a remarkable combination of energy, determination, patriotism, devotion to democratic ideals, and sheer guts, as Bullock shows.

But Bullock is less successful in dealing with Bevin's negative qualities - ignorance, lack of education, insularity, and extraordinary insensitivity, which sometimes had disastrous consequences, as in his handling of the final years of Britain's mandate in Palestine. Too often, Bullock comes across as an apologist for Bevin. It is unfortunate, too, that there is very little of Bevin's personal life in this biography. But as a study of the postwar diplomacy that continues to shape our world, this book is excellent.

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