In Memoriam: Max M. Kampelman (1920-2013)

Barry M. Blechman

Max M. Kampelman, an adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents, an accomplished attorney, and a shrewd, tough-minded, and effective negotiator, died January 25 at his home in Washington. He was 92.

Idealistic in some ways, Kampelman nonetheless understood the ins and outs of Washington politics and policymaking better than most and was able to take advantage of these pragmatic insights to promote the causes about which he was most passionate.

Born in New York of immigrant parents, he received a law degree from New York University in 1945 after World War II had interrupted his education. A conscientious objector, he registered for alternative service and participated in the war effort by taking part in a government study of starvation. The study was intended to help the United States prepare to treat survivors of the Axis powers’ prisoner-of-war and death camps; Kampelman’s weight reportedly fell from 160 to 100 pounds during the experiments.

After the war, he attended the University of Minnesota, where he received a doctorate in political science. He also began a long-term affiliation with Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis and later a U.S. senator from Minnesota. Kampelman served seven years as legislative counsel in Humphrey’s Senate office before joining the law firm now known as Fried Frank in 1955. Subsequently, he served as an unofficial adviser to Humphrey during his two presidential campaigns.

Despite his lifelong identification as a Democrat, Kampelman was able to serve presidents of each party. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to represent the United States in talks intended to put teeth into the 1975 Helsinki accords, a landmark agreement to protect the human rights of individuals on both sides of the Iron Curtain. President Ronald Reagan retained Kampelman as the lead negotiator in the talks until an agreement was completed in 1983.

Kampelman’s most important successes, however, concerned nuclear arms control and disarmament. In 1985, Reagan appointed him as the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Kampelman served in Geneva for four years, laying the foundation for the treaty, which was finally concluded in 1991.

He was a voice of reason and a skilled negotiator and bureaucratic operator during the Reagan years, blunting more-strident voices advising the president. He also was with Reagan at Reykjavik in 1986, when the Soviet Union and the United States came within a whisper of reaching an agreement in principle to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Kampelman often said that the failure to conclude this agreement was the greatest disappointment of his professional life.

Reykjavik left Kampelman determined to fan the flame of nuclear disarmament, and he devoted much of his later life to encouraging progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons—not the sort of incremental arms control he had negotiated in START, but a sweeping agreement that could rid the earth of these weapons in only a few years. Thus, his lasting legacy may well be the rebirth of the nuclear disarmament movement during the past decade. He worked behind the scenes to inspire the four statesmen—Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz—whose articles and meetings with world leaders made it legitimate in policy circles, for the first time, to advocate seriously the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Kampelman also was an early backer of Global Zero, a popular movement working for worldwide nuclear disarmament.

He was an old-style Washington hand. He believed firmly in the adage that one could accomplish much by remaining in the background and giving others the public credit. He believed just as strongly in bipartisanship. When an idea for advancing policy struck him, he was indefatigable in its pursuit, exploring every avenue for its implementation and every opportunity to bring it to the attention of policymakers, twisting and turning it to find the best means of making it attractive to those in power. It was this relentlessness that permitted him to persuade Soviet leaders to release hundreds of political and religious dissidents during the most difficult days of the renewed Cold War, and it was with this same determination and increasing impatience that he pursued nuclear disarmament during his final years. When I described a 10-year disarmament plan to him at one of our last meetings, he dismissed it. “I’m already over 90,” he said. “I don’t have that much time to see my grandchildren made safe from a nuclear catastrophe.”

Kampelman was little known in the country at large, but widely respected in Washington. In 1989 he received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George H.W. Bush and, in 1999, the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Bill Clinton. Could there be a better testament to his bipartisanship? He will be sorely missed.



Barry M. Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center.