Commentary Magazine

Entering New Worlds, by Max M. Kampelman

Cold-War Liberal

Entering New Worlds.
by Max M. Kampelman.
HarperCollins. 402 pp. $25.00.

Max Kampelman had a front-row seat at many of the central political dramas of the post-World War II era: the rise of McCarthyism, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the McGovernization of the Democratic party, the defeat of world Communism by the resurgent democracies of the West. It is thus hardly to be wondered at that this veteran Democratic-party insider, who concluded his remarkable career as Ronald Reagan’s chief arms negotiator, should have written so engrossing a personal and political memoir.

For one who came to be regarded as a prototypical cold-war liberal (a term of derision in fashionable circles), Kampelman arrived at his views on the need for military preparedness by a rather unconventional route. Born to Jewish immigrants from Romania in 1920, Kampelman attended yeshiva schools in his Bronx neighborhood and then the uptown campus of New York University as an undergraduate and a law student. Under the tutelage both of a Reform rabbi at NYU and of Quakers at a college summer camp, he came to believe that democracy was the political expression of the Jewish religious ethic—and that the democratic cause was best served through pacifist commitment. He would go on to make a career based on the former proposition, which necessarily entailed abandoning the latter.

During World War II, and despite an awareness, however incomplete, of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, Kampelman served as a conscientious objector in Minnesota, volunteering to be a subject in U.S. government experiments on the effects of starvation in humans. But by the time the war ended, the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had convinced him that pacifism’s power to persuade counted as nothing against a nuclear-armed enemy.

Kampelman stayed on in Minnesota, joining a group of feisty liberal, pro-labor anti-Communists, including a young Hubert Humphrey, to found the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party and Americans for Democratic Action. His relationship with Humphrey would remain close until the latter’s death in 1978, and in many ways this book is as interesting for what it tells us about Hubert Humphrey as for what it tells us about Max Kampelman.

Thus, Kampelman evokes convincingly the appeal in the mid-1940’s of Humphrey’s reformist political program—he was then mayor of Minneapolis—with its emphasis on tough criminal sentences, equal opportunity, local government initiative, and small-business enterprise. Kampelman also reveals some tidbits for political historians, such as the confidential message Humphrey received from Lyndon Johnson the day after the 1964 election, in which Johnson told his Vice President that he would not run for reelection in 1968. He also describes how Humphrey used his influence behind the scenes with both Johnson and Richard Nixon to secure military aid for Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars. Finally, the book is full of personal reminiscences: for example, of then-Senator Humphrey doing the dishes and vacuuming the rugs after hosting a dinner party.



After working as a top aide in Humphrey’s Senate office for six years, Kampelman struck out on his own, combining law, business entrepreneurship, and public affairs. He founded a major Washington bank and—in a move of perhaps more questionable value—the first of the Washington talk shows, Washington Week in Review. At a time when other Democratic-party “wise men” were establishing themselves as back-room fixers and influence-peddlers, Kampelman rejected several lucrative lobbying assignments to avoid the appearance that he was trading on his political connections. He also turned down an offer to be Johnson’s White House counsel in 1963 because he believed his closeness to Humphrey, then angling for a spot on the 1964 ticket, could have presented a conflict. This scrupulousness, one suspects, had something to do with the fact that Kampelman, as distinct from so many of the confidantes and counselors who clog the corridors of official Washington, seems always to have been motivated more by ideas than by power.

One of those ideas was staunch anti-Communism. In fact, Kampelman’s association with Humphrey stemmed from a campaign to root out Communist influence in Minnesota’s liberal political movement and labor unions. In Washington in the early 1950’s, the two began a battle to recapture for the Democrats a cause that had been claimed and then disfigured by the McCarthyite Right. The Democratic party, however, continued its dismaying drift in the direction of anti-anti-Communism and neoisolationism. By the time of the 1968 national convention, Kampelman writes, the party had fallen under the influence of far-Left protesters who appeared to him “more fascist than liberal in their style and behavior.” The last straw was 1972, when the Democratic convention chairman tilted the nomination to the candidate of the counterculture, George McGovern. At this juncture Kampelman began to withdraw from the inner circle of the party and joined other dissident Democrats in forming the Coalition for a Democratic Majority.



That Kampelman and his fellow pro-defense, anti-Communist Democrats lost the battle for the soul of the Democratic party is by now a familiar story, though how they went on to play a crucial role in winning the cold war has not yet been fully appreciated. Kampelman writes that he was surprised when, in 1981, President Reagan renewed his appointment as chairman of the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe at Madrid, which was charged with reviewing the implementation of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Yet on the evidence of this memoir, the appointment of Kampelman and other leading neoconservative Democrats to foreign-policy positions in the new administration seems to have been perfectly natural. For like Reagan, and unlike most traditional Republicans, these people had an instinctive feel for the ideological dimension of the U.S.-Soviet contest. By and large, it was Democrats like Kampelman who raised their voices for more than two decades in behalf of Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and the refusenik community in the Soviet Union.

At Madrid, Kampelman spoke plain truths, unvarnished by diplomatic niceties. His activities there—which included the cataloguing and publicizing of specific abuses by the Soviet state, as well as efforts to get individual victims, particularly Jewish dissidents, released from Soviet jails—had the effect of convincing many in Western Europe that such Soviet abuses constituted a threat to their own peace and stability. In so doing, he helped lay the political groundwork for NATO’s deployment of intermediate-range Pershing and Cruise nuclear weapons. From Kampelman’s description of the elaborate Soviet efforts in Madrid to shift the focus of the meetings to disarmament, it seems fair to conclude that achieving this deployment was one of the most important foreign-policy undertakings of the first Reagan term, second only, perhaps, to the announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), in which, as it happened, Kampelman was also to play a pivotal role.



By 1985, Reagan’s hardline policies had succeeded in bringing the Soviets back to the arms-control bargaining table, and Reagan turned to Kampelman to head the negotiating team in Geneva. Kampelman was assigned overall responsibility for three sets of talks: on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF); on strategic arms; and on arms in space, which he personally conducted. In the 1987 INF treaty, requirements for verification—an issue dismissed for years by the foreign-policy establishment as a right-wing fixation—marked a milestone, a high standard that was probably not met in the fine print of the Bush administration’s subsequent START agreement.

As for SDI, Kampelman’s penchant for defying conventional wisdom once again served him well. In the chapters recounting his experiences in Geneva, Kampelman hones in on the central inconsistency of the anti-SDI argument—according to its opponents, SDI was scientifically impossible, and it threatened the nuclear balance—and politely suggests that Democratic opponents of SDI in Congress were doing the Soviets’ negotiating for them by legislating constraints on the program that the Soviets were not able to achieve in the Geneva talks.

Within the Reagan administration, which was divided as to a timetable for deploying missile defenses, Kampelman, who by this time also held the rank of counselor to Secretary of State George P. Shultz, seems to have sided with the go-slow school. From the point of view of producing useful defenses, this was probably a mistake; most of the foreign-policy establishment never understood (or perhaps it understood too well) that with SDI, the better was always the enemy of the good. On a grander scale, however, the debate turned out not to matter much, for the mere prospect of SDI was enough to unnerve the Soviets and cause them to surrender in the arms race.



It is somewhat disappointing that Kampelman’s thorough discussion of foreign and defense policy is not matched by a similarly full treatment of domestic policy. One wonders, for example, what he thinks about the corruption of the once-admirable Americans for Democratic Action to the point where it is now a leading agent in the campaign to defame judicial nominees who do not toe a left-wing line. Kampelman offers passing references to domestic-policy differences he has with both Democrats and Reaganites, but these raise more questions than answers. Still, the omission is understandable, given Kampelman’s almost exclusive preoccupation with foreign and defense policy in the last decade. For that preoccupation we have reason enough to be thankful.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.