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Max Kampelman

(Photo credit: Foreign Policy)

By George Weigel

Some twenty-three years ago, Ambassador Max Kampelman—former nuclear arms reduction negotiator with the Soviet Union and Counselor to the Department of State—decided that I needed a bit of diplomatic experience and invited me to be a public member of the U.S. delegation he would lead to the Copenhagen meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, in the summer of 1990.

It was an interesting gathering, being the first review of the “Helsinki Accords” since the Berlin Wall had come down. The head of the Romanian delegation had a noticeable and somewhat ominous bulge beneath the armpit of his jacket. The head of delegation of another country, which had best remain unnamed, wore a three-piece suit that seemed to have been dry-cleaned in clam chowder. The intellectual leading lights of the just-completed Revolution of 1989—the Czechs and the Poles—were fully up to speed in their approach to our topic, which was establishing the rule of law in a post-communist Europe; others, it seemed, would take longer to acclimate themselves to the New (democratic) Order.

My job was to be the ambassador’s speechwriter and liaison to the Holy See delegation (which was, in fact, one person). Max and I worked out several sharp, substantive statements that were not typical State Department pablum—on the meaning of pluralism (differences engaged civilly, not differences ignored); on the priority of religious freedom in any meaningful scheme of human rights; on the moral (not merely pragmatic) superiority of the rule of law to sheer coercion.

I also learned how to sit placidly, feigning interest, to remarkably long-winded speeches from professional gabblers, in the days before you could plug your iPod into your simultaneous translation earphones and thus enjoy some serious music while the diplomatese, like “Ol’ Man River,” just kept rollin’ along.

On the last day, Max gave me lunch and asked me what I had learned. “A great reverence for my great-grandfather’s widowed mother,” I replied. The ambassador’s puzzlement invited further explanation: “. . . who had the sense to get out of this patchwork of quarreling tribes and come to America.” Max’s own parents being émigré Romanian Jews, he was not inclined to contest my point.

Prior to his death at ninety-two this past January 25, Max Kampelman could look back on a lifetime of high adventure and great achievement. He was a World War II conscientious objector who nevertheless contributed to the nation’s war effort by volunteering for a starvation experiment at the University of Minnesota that dropped him to 100 pounds but taught medical lessons that saved the lives of former POWs and death-camp survivors. He took advanced degrees in both law and political science and became a consigliere to Hubert Humphrey, whom he might well have served as White House counsel had the 1968 election gone differently.

He was a major figure in forcing human rights issues onto the U.S. foreign policy agenda, made an invaluable contribution to the moral delegitimation of the Soviet Union as ambassador for Presidents Carter and Reagan to the Madrid Review Conference on the Helsinki Accords in the early 1980s, and then worked himself into a heart attack negotiating a nuclear arms reduction pact with the USSR. In his last years, Max joined forces with other foreign policy heavyweights like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Sam Nunn in urging that the elimination of nuclear weapons become a national policy goal.

Throughout his public life, Max, who was not an especially pious man, worked out of the Jewish moral heritage he cherished: there was good in men and women, and it should be encouraged; there was evil in people and in the world, and it must be fought; true political authority had to serve the cause of justice.

When Max helped engineer my 1983-84 fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and thus my re-location to Washington, D.C., neither one of us thought he was incubating a papal biographer. But as his life had taken surprising turns, so did mine, not without his help. The point, he would insist, was to live vocationally.

This blog post originally appeared as an article on the First Things website.