One finishes reading this book thinking, ''What a pity George Ball never had the chance to be US secretary of state.'' Not that he makes such a graceless suggestion. But, as his superb memoirs remind us, he easily could have been, in terms of the breadth of his knowledge and experience, his lawyerly skills, and his devotion to public service.
Mr. Ball has been involved in world affairs for almost half a century, and he has much to tell us, especially about the decades after World War II. This was a time when a shattered Europe was putting itself together again, when the colonial powers were shedding overseas empires, when new nations were springing into being, when the Soviet Union was emerging as a nuclear power, and when the United States had to confront a new global order.
As a lawyer, economist, diplomat, and investment banker, Mr. Ball was often at the center of these stormy developments. He worked as general counsel to Jean Monnet in the building of European unity. He was part of President Kennedy's task force that guided the US through the Cuban missile crisis. He fought in and out of government to liberalize world trade and bring about monetary stability. He acted as trouble-shooter in such far-flung places as the Congo, Cyprus, Laos. He was briefly US ambassador to the United Nations.
What can the public and diplomats of today learn from ''The Past Has Another Pattern''? Above all, what constitutes good foreign-policy making. Many mistakes were made during these eventful years - Britain's early rejection of the Common Market, for example - and Mr. Ball does not spare his own or others' misjudgments. But to the extent that European or US diplomacy was successful, it was marked not by the religious-like crusading of a John Foster Dulles but by restraint; patience; common sense; a global outlook; and above all, an appreciation of history.
Mr. Ball, as US undersecretary of state, was one of the few public figures who opposed US involvement in the Vietnam war from the outset (a stance which did not, however, prevent his wholehearted disdain of the American antiwar movement). His association with de Gaulle and the French experience had given him a perspective others did not have, and he repeatedly warned President Kennedy and then-President Johnson of the dangers of ignoring the historical parallel.
The Vietnam war, he comments, ''marked the end of an uncritical globalism that reflected our postwar preeminence. We felt - and for a time with justice - that we commanded the resources and responsibility to serve as policemen to the world. But by the sixties we had, it seemed to me, reached the point where we could not forever maintain such an expansive interpretation of our commitments.''
Looking at the present day, Mr. Ball voices some of the fears and misgivings he has written about so forcefully since his return to private life. He thinks it essential that the US give up its present ''Cold War stereotypes'' of the Soviet Union and restore a more balanced policy that takes account of Soviet failures as well as threats. He criticizes America's ''politically warped policy'' in the Middle East which fails to deal with the urgent question of the Palestinians. He rues the alienation of Europe; the neglect of the third world; and, not least of all, the failure to halt the spread of the nuclear bomb - ''mankind's gravest danger.''
Closer to home, Mr. Ball touches briefly on problems that in the end could affect America's standing in the world. The rise of illegal immigration, for instance, and the implications of the growing political influence of Hispanic-Americans for the integrity of American society. ''The world has provided countless examples of the political fissions and irreconcilable conflicts suffered by bilingual societies''; he writes, ''the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel should be required reading for all statesmen.''
In conclusion Mr. Ball muses on why America has losts its ebullience, self-confidence, and direction. He attributes this in part to the change in social mores, the lowering of educational standards, and the weakening of the family. Professing to be an agnostic, he points also to the loss of religious faith, asking: ''Can a nation bemused by the glitter and mystery of modern technology maintain its inner strength without some form of belief in a benign external force or presence?''
Forthright, tough-minded, articulate, Mr. Ball has written a compelling account of his professional life. He clearly is one of today's most astute students of US foreign policy, and his observations deserve to be heeded.