George Ball--New Deal ""dogsbody,"" Lend-Lease policy-shaper, strategic-bombing investigator (#1 source: Albert Speer), ""ardent advocate of liberal trade,"" international lawyer (#1 client: the French government), full-time Stevenson supporter, Under Secretary of State (1960-66)--was often told by his friend Jean (European unity) Mennet, he recounts, that he spread himself too thin. But that very absence of driving ambition or a fixed commitment, whatever the cost to a public career, is a godsend in a memoirist: with the events, we get the afterthoughts, the open questions; with the certitudes, the doubts. A less inquiring, less skeptical man would also not have been the only top official to challenge, from day one, American intervention in Vietnam. But then, too--apropos of family dinner-table wrangles: ""no Ball ever had an unexpressed thought."" After a snug Iowa boyhood and a ""less tranquil"" Evanston adolescence, Ball went to Northwestern and passed into the hands--manna for a shaky ego--of upstart instructor ""Benny"" De Voto and 18th-century specialist Garrett Mattingly. Voltaire attracted: ""Since I then believed--and still do--that the only acceptable working hypothesis for a self-respecting man is optimism, it seemed sensible to regard the human condition as fundamentally comic."" On a first, 1929 trip to Europe, Ball met--in Paris, Nice, Rome, London-his future wife. (""I found""--she wrote later of their honeymoon--""that my husband was no fritterer of time or opportunity."") New Deal Washington was for him, as for others, a moment when ""nothing was impossible."" Chicago law practice began a 35-year friendship with Stevenson. Lend-Lease planted the idea of ""a postwar economic environment"" free of the constraints and conflicts of the inter-war period. On the strategic-bombing survey, in a still-armed Reich: ""Speer met us in the Great Hall, friendly and self-consciously affable... 'I'm glad you've come,' he said. 'I was afraid I'd been forgotten."" (What made liking Speer ""so inexcusable""--and frightening--was the very fact that he was ""like us."" What would we have done in his place?) There then follows (the Speer episode concludes on p. 68!): reducing Jean Monnet's visionary ideas of a unified Europe ""to coherent expression"" (""and, in the process, helping him think""); the first exhilarating Stevenson campaign, the ""dismal"" 1956 anticlimax (""Adlai was exceptionally vulnerable to uncritical praise and encouragement. He suffered from not having a wife [the institutionalized candid friend]""); the multifarious foreign-policy embroilments of the Kennedy and early Johnson years--the Congo, the Cuban missile crisis, Cyprus, de Gaulle and NATO, the Dominican intervention; LBJ himself (""under his inurbane exterior a compelling idealism""); and, in Ball's words: ""The Vietnam Aberration""-which may be the finest exposition extant of the refusal to ask ""why?"" and the reluctance to turn back. (When Ball finally left, in late '66, he left quietly--so as not to use his ""privileged information"" to undercut the US; but that question, too, he throws open to discussion.) It's one of the great, examined public lives of our time.