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Remembering Max Kampelman

Remembering Max Kampelman

Last week, Ambassador Max M. Kampelman died in Washington. He was 92. In a city that honors bipartisanship but rarely achieves it, Ambassador Kampelman lived it. He was also able to bridge superficially contradictory ideas: pacifism and fighting the Nazis; labor rights and anti-communism; a willingness to negotiate with Moscow and a clear-eyed view of the Soviet threat. He happily worked for both Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan. Most importantly, he did so while stubbornly adhering to important principles.

Amb. Kampelman served as the chief negotiator for the Nuclear and Space Talks with the Soviet Union, from 1985 to 1989, but his public service began during World War II. A pacifist, he registered for the draft as a conscientious objector and undertook "work of national importance under civilian control." In his case, this meant volunteering to participate in experiments using controlled starvation to understand how best to help released prisoners of war and concentration camp victims to recuperate from their ordeals. During the six month experiment, he went from about 160 pounds to slightly more than 100 pounds.

After World War II, Amb. Kampelman, who had already earned a law degree and worked as a labor lawyer, completed a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He wrote his dissertation on "The Communist Party and the CIO: A Study in Power Politics." With equal strength, he advocated labor rights and opposed the attempted Communist take-over of American unions.

In Washington, after serving on Senator Humphrey’s staff, Amb. Kampelman practiced law privately for over two decades. In 1980, Vice President Walter Mondale, an old friend, called and asked him to lead the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  President Reagan, who knew Amb. Kampelman from their membership in the Committee on Present Danger, asked him to stay after the 1980 election. In closing the successful Madrid talks, Amb. Kampelman issued a wary statement, highlighting the importance of Soviet compliance, rather than the mere achievement of a paper agreement.

In 1985, President Reagan called Amb. Kampelman and asked him to serve as the chief negotiator at renewed negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms and missile defenses. Amb. Kampelman personally oversaw the latter, in which the Soviets sought to smother and the United States sought to protect President Reagan’s cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).  He succeeded in protecting SDI, while creating the space necessary to complete the 1987 INF Treaty, which banned all U.S. and Soviet missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers, a signal achievement.

Max M. Kampelman served Republicans and Democrats. By peaceful means, he fought the monstrous evils of his age — Nazism and Communism. He advanced the causes of freedom and peace. He stuck to his principles through trying times. His career is worth remembering and admiring.