Ridding the World of Nukes

During World War II, Max Kampelman was a pacifist and a conscientious objector, not easy positions to hold at a time when young men his age were tripping over each other to get into uniform and go off and fight. He was anything but a shirker. He volunteered to become a live guinea pig for government scientists experimenting with the effects of starvation on human beings. After six months Kampelman had lost a third of his body weight and shrunk to less than a hundred pounds.

Kampelman, 87, is no longer a pacifist. But over the years he has found ways to work for peace. After World War II he went to Washington as an aide to Sen. Hubert Humphrey; by the early 1980s Kampelman, by then a conservative Democrat, was Ronald Reagan's chief arms control negotiator. He was revered by the younger men in the White House. "You're the only one around here who can talk to us about yesterday," he was told by Gen. Colin Powell, Reagan's last national security adviser. But Kampelman was always thinking about tomorrow.

He had been at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, when Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev discussed eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. "Let's do it!" declared Secretary of State George Shultz. But the radical idea was stillborn, the victim of Soviet fears about Reagan's Star Wars project and the doubts of Reagan's defense advisers about the practicality of such a drastic step.

Still, the idea stuck with Kampelman. He began talking to old cold warriors like Paul Nitze, who shared his desire to free the world from nuclear weapons. Before long, former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski (Carter) and Tony Lake (Clinton) had endorsed the idea, and even Henry Kissinger climbed aboard. Kampelman addressed the British House of Commons last year. At the end of February he, Schultz and former senator Sam Nunn will go to a conference in Norway to drum up international support. In the meantime Kampelman has been quietly lobbying the White House to call for a United Nations declaration demanding that all nations renounce and eliminate nuclear weapons, with an enforcement provision that would isolate offenders from the world community.

In his soft, amiable voice Kampelman accepts the arguments about why ridding the world of nukes is, in all likelihood, mission impossible. He doesn't recommend that the United States reduce any of its nuclear arsenal until it is sure that such weapons can be effectively eliminated elsewhere around the world. He concedes that the technology does not now exist to catch cheaters. But he says that we need to believe in the "power of the ought," not just in what is. It is important, he says, for the United States to get on the moral high ground. He has a commitment from Sen. Barack Obama to support his idea and says, "I'm working on John McCain." (While Kampelman's allies say they are not aware of Hillary Clinton's position, they say several key members of her husband's national security team have signed on.) Kampelman believes the United States has no choice but to try to put the genie back in the bottle. "I saw what happened on 9/11, and it scared the hell out of me," says Kampelman, a man who does not scare easily.

Join the Discussion