Nuclear strategy: the definitive study; The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, by Lawrence Freedman. London: Macmillan. New York: St. Martin's Press. 473 pp. (STR)25. $35.

This tough but rewarding book reveals author Lawrence Freedman, currently head of policy studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London , as a short-term optimist and long-term pessimist about the capacity of mankind to keep from annihilating itself in the nuclear age.

''The Emperor Deterrence has no clothes, but he is still emperor,'' Freedman concludes in his short-term cloak, even after debunking various analyses and scenarios he regards with a mix of agnosticism and horror. He is exploring why deterrence -- the staving off of war because adversaries so fear the apocalyptic destructiveness of nuclear weapons -- has worked well in Europe since 1945.

He credits this to the fact that ''nuclear deterrence may be a viable policy even if it is not credible'' and doesn't make sense logically. However imperfectly, nuclear weapons do hold the international ''order together in shared awe and fear of the speed and completeness of the demolition of civilized societies that could result from a drastic breakdown in relations between nations.''

But is that good enough? Freedman puts on his long-term cloak: ''An international order that rests upon a stability created by nuclear weapons will be the most terrible legacy with which each succeeding generation will endow the next. To believe that this can go on indefinitely without major disaster requires an optimism unjustified by any historical or political perspective.''

Freedman also explains how he arrived at his conclusions -- and how the nuclear powers arrived at the world's present state -- by reviewing the 31/2 decades of strategic thinking since those first atomic bombs exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is, he says at the outset, a ''disagreeable subject.'' And one of the virtues of his treatment is the fact that he never loses the perspective of just how disagreeable nuclear weapons are. Freedman untangles the convolutions of massive retaliation, game theory, first and second strikes, countervalue and counterforce, and the theoretical ''window of vulnerability,'' a concept which he dissects and dismisses.

The book is a tour de force. For anyone who has longed to have a trustworthy guide through what Freedman calls the ''forbidding miasma of acronyms and jargon'' -- for anyone who has wanted to have the ideas of such nuclear strategists as Albert Wohlstetter, a one-time Rand Corporation analyst and University of Chicago professor, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger contrasted and compared within the covers of one book, this is the book. Freedman's reading is prodigious. His presentation of the concepts is sharply focused and demystifying -- yet at the same time subtle.

His comprehensiveness is such that he demonstrates our vast ignorance about what a nuclear war would be like, and also the cyclical nature of nuclear debates. ''Much of what is offered today as a profound and new insight was said yesterday; and usually in a more concise and literate manner.''

This book will surely be the definitive study of postwar nuclear strategy for many years to come. And yet it disappointed at least this admirer of Freedman's writing. His periodical articles and essays are so trenchant and thought provoking that one misses the same intensity in this book. I would have welcomed many more than five pages of Freedman's own conclusions.

I would have welcomed, as well, a much more specific exposition of questions for the rest of this century inherent in ongoing technological and political changes. Among the things Freedman doesn't deal with are: the problems in verifying numbers and targets of the new miniaturized missiles; the political instability that could arise as more nations develop the capability for a nuclear first strike; and the impact of a likely shift in the theoretical ''window of vulnerability'' from the United States to the Soviet Union in the late '80s. He no more than touches on current American-European strains over deploying new NATO continental-range nuclear weapons in Europe, nor what happens when arms control can no longer serve as the keystone of what was called detente.

But then perhaps all I'm saying is that I hope Freedman writes another book -- soon.

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