Max Kampelman says he is "in many ways a pacifist," a "Hubert Humphrey Democrat," a "social liberal." In his youth, Kampelman was a friend of socialist leader Norman Thomas and during World War II he was a conscientious objector.

"The truth is," Kampelman has said, "I couldn't see myself killing anyone."

It's an odd background for the man Ronald Reagan has chosen to head the American negotiating team in future arms talks with the Soviet Union.

"I'm a Democrat and I've never separated myself from that," Kampelman said recently at his office at the Watergate. At 64, he is chief partner in the Washington branch of the New York law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Kampelman.

"And yet I don't know why being in favor of a strong national defense or highlighting a perception of the Soviet Union as a danger to democracy and our liberty should be called conservative. It was the hallmark of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Scoop Jackson and Hubert Humphrey. I think my position is consistent with the tradition of the Democratic Party and American liberalism."

Like U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, he exemplifies the rise to power of a number of Democrats who have been active in their own party but are more than comfortable with the president's foreign policy and defense objectives.

In a sense, Kampelman's nomination represents a victory for Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Irving Kristol and other intellectuals who broke ranks with the Democratic left over what they viewed as a dangerously naive view of the Soviet Union and American defense capabilities. The "neo-conservatives" supported not only leaders such as Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other Democrats who were deemed "tough on the Soviets," they also turned more and more to the Republican Party and the Reagan administration.

Eight years ago, Kampelman and a bipartisan group including AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland, Ronald Reagan and Paul Nitze formed the Committee on the Present Danger. In a recent speech Kampelman has called the Soviet Union a "lawless society" and warned against a return to a "false sense of euphoria or de'tente similar to what misled us and the West in the 1973-1975 period." His rhetoric is vintage neo-conservative.

"But," Kampelman said, "I don't really look at myself as part of a movement. If you look at my life, my career, you can see I was headed toward my present state of mind all along."

Max Kampelman grew up in the Bronx, the son of a hat salesman who revered Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt. He was educated at Jewish parochial schools.

"My father died right at the end of my high school career," Kampelman said. "Right around then I decided that since the rabbinate was not of interest to me at all, that I'd become a lawyer. I think my family always expected I would become a lawyer."

Throughout his college years at New York University, Kampelman worked as a bookstore clerk, Fuller brush saleman and coat checker at local dances. "I made a comfortable living out of all those things but the family's financial problems continued, and after I graduated I began night law school."

Kampelman also became an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union.

"I was not very far to the left even then," he said. "The ILGWU was not an ultraleftist union. One of the things we did continually was fight the communist movement from within. I was never, accidentally or not, a part of or sympathetic to the party or any of the fellow-traveler groups."

What sounds like a routine article of anticommunist faith today was a hot issue among students and activists in New York during the 1930s. While NYU was not the center of leftist debate and activity that City College was, the battles among political factions in classrooms and union halls all over New York are legend."I was an anticommunist from the start," Kampelman said. "They were antidemocratic. That's all I saw in the communists. I don't know why. It could have been my reading, my professors, it could have been my yeshiva training."

In October 1942 he applied on religious grounds for status as a conscientious objector. The government assigned Kampelman to a series of civilian jobs: as a worker on a soil conservation project in Big Flats, N.Y., as an attendant at a school for mentally handicapped children in Pownal, Maine, and, at Kampelman's request, as a human guinea pig for an experiment at the University of Minnesota on human starvation and rehabilitation.

"There were 36 of us and we were starved," he said. "For me it lasted for a year and a half. You ate minimal amounts. At one point I was down to about 100 pounds. I remember one guy cut off his finger so he could get out of it."

The project, directed by Dr. Ansel Keys, became the standard work on starvation, used by doctors in Europe in treating newly freed prisoners of war and concentration camp victims.

"I reacted quite well to the experiment," Kampelman said. "While it was going on, I studied and enrolled in courses. First, I finished my law studies and then I started courses in political science to get a doctorate. It helped me avoid thinking about food."

Kampelman wrote his doctoral dissertation on the communists' attempt to control the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). His faculty adviser was Evron Kirkpatrick, later the husband of Jeane Kirkpatrick. While teaching at Minnesota, Kampelman became friendly with Hubert Humphrey.

"Hubert was mayor [of Minneapolis] in '45 and an intimate part of the political science department," Kampelman said. "The Communist Party took over the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party in 1946. They had the CIO in the state. Humphrey and Kirkpatrick and some of the other people involved in this asked me to help fight them. We took the party away from [the communist groups] in 1947."

Humphrey invited Kampelman to join his Senate staff in Washington as legislative counsel in 1949. Kampelman stayed for six years until he went into private legal practice. Carl Solberg in his biography of Humphrey wrote that Kampelman "had a typical Washington political law practice that found Kampelman often doubling as a Humphrey fund raiser. He was sometimes referred to as the 'Jewish Tommy Corcoran.' "

Kampelman cannot say precisely when he changed his mind, but he began to feel that nonviolence, in the face of nuclear weapons, was an inadequate posture. He joined the Marine Corps Reserve at the age of 35 in 1955 and remained a reservist for seven years.

Critics charged that Kampelman joined the reserves as the Korean War was ending and left as Vietnam was beginning. When Lyndon Johnson nominated Kampelman in 1967 to become the first chairman of the new Washington City Council, the question of Kampelman's military service arose. Former representative Burt L. Talcott (R-Calif.) accused Kampelman of being a "draft dodger."

The nomination prompted further examination of Kampelman's career.

Opponents in Congress charged that Kampelman, in his role as a director and general counsel of the D.C. National Bank, helped Bobby Baker, a former Johnson aide who was eventually convicted of income tax evasion, larceny, fraud and conspiracy, obtain an unsecured $125,000 loan from the bank. On the Senate floor, Carl Curtis (R-Neb.) described Kampelman as a "former Bobby Baker crony."

Another charge involved Kampelman and one of his clients, Napco Industries, which received an Agency for International Development loan of $2.3 million in 1962 to finance the sale and transfer of a gear factory from Detroit to India. The Indian company closed in 1966 and Napco was charged with not fulfilling its responsibilities under the loan agreement. Republican critics attacked the "foreign-aid bungle" and Kampelman's role in securing the loan.

Said one longtime Washington liberal: "The irony here is that the Republicans, who are now nominating Kampelman, wanted to get him before congressional investigating committees."

Despite the allegations, Kampelman received wide support for the nomination, but he eventually withdrew, citing conflict of interest between the City Council chairmanship and his law practice. In a statement prepared for presentation before the Senate but never delivered, Kampelman denied having a social relationship with Bobby Baker and denied any wrongdoing regarding either Baker or the Napco deal.

Kampelman also defended his military background: "It is impossible for me to be precise as to when my thinking changed to the point where I was no longer a conscientious objector. The process of growth leads to change. The development of atomic and hydrogen bombs led me to doubt my earlier faith in the power of nonviolence to overcome evil in international relations."

In addition to his law practice at Fried, Frank, Max Kampelman was founding president of Friends of the National Zoo and chairman of WETA-TV. He was the originator and first moderator of the public affairs program "Washington Week in Review."

One of Kampelman's articles, "The Power of the Press: A Problem of Our Democracy" published six years ago by the Heritage Foundation, caused a stir when Frank Sinatra mailed out 2,000 copies of the article to business leaders and politicians. In a cover letter, Sinatra added that the press was guilty of "an irresponsibility that is almost beyond comprehension."

Kampelman is a balding, avuncular man. He and his wife Marjorie live in a rambling wooden house in Cleveland Park known as "the Munster house." They have five children, all in their twenties. Before he was officially appointed last Friday to head the delegation to Geneva, Kampelman said, "I think the children would like to see me get back into public life. When they see a report on television about me, they call, they get excited. I think, in fact I know, my wife would prefer I stay in private life, but she understands the reality of the situation."

Kampelman's last major venture into the public spotlight earned him high marks from both Democrats and Republicans.

Jimmy Carter appointed him head of the American delegation to "follow-up" talks regarding the agreements signed by Leonid Brezhnev and Gerald Ford in Helsinki in 1975. He arrived in Madrid for the opening session in November, 1980, was reappointed to the post by the Reagan administration and remained in the negotiations among 35 nations for nearly three years. During those meetings, Kampelman spent, by his own account, a total of nearly 400 hours in private sessions with Soviet representatives.

"No one in the government has spent as much informal time with these fellas," he said.

During negotiating sessions and in various addresses, Kampelman sharply criticized the Soviet Union for the invasion of Afghanistan, the control of Poland, human rights violations, anti-Semitism and the persecution of various dissident figures, including Andrei Sakharov.

Since his return from Madrid, Kampelman has divided his time between his law practice and work as a State Department adviser. Last year he made six trips abroad for the State Department including trips to El Salvador to observe the country's elections and then to observe the inauguration of President Jose Napoleon Duarte. If the Senate approves his nomination, Kampelman said he will probably resign from the law firm.

When he was nominated to head the American negotiating team with former senator John Tower and Maynard Glitman, Kampelman asked to have his name removed from a rather pessimistic article on arms control he helped write. Scheduled for publication in next Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the article doubts the possibility of achieving a breakthrough in arms control talks with the Soviet Union. Times editors told Kampelman that the magazine had already been printed and will appear with the three original bylines: Kampelman, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Dartmouth professor Robert Jastrow.

The authors contend that Soviet compliance with previous arms control agreements is "sufficiently troubling to warrant skepticism regarding the likelihood of implementing any such complex and far-reaching agreement.

"Finally, a comprehensive and genuinely verifiable agreement, limiting both qualitatively and quantitatively the respective strategic forces, on earth and in space, will require a much more felicitous political climate than currently exists."

Before his nominations, Kampelman also said that "I am not optimistic" but affirmed the need to negotiate with the Soviets. In doing so, he described in advance his techniques for bargaining with the Russians.

"If you want to negotiate with the Soviets, you have to be prepared to stay one day longer than they," he said. "If you are impatient to end it, you're at a disadvantage. They are not eager to end it. If you're impatient, the tendency is to say, 'The hell with it, it's not important, let's give it to them.

"If they come to feel you might give, they will not. When they reach the point either where they must come to a decision or they are convinced you have come to your point, you can succeed. It's the easiest thing in the world at that point.

"But the pattern the West tends to follow, which I think is disadvantageous, is to be reasonable. Not that we should ever be unreasonable. They are very serious people, capable, well-trained people. But if you give at the start, you are losing out. This is important: Don't look to show good will by making a concession, because it is interpreted not as good will but as a lack of will."

Kampelman says he has not been politically active since Hubert Humphrey's unsuccessful race against George McGovern for the Democratic nomination in 1972. Kampelman could not bring himself to support McGovern's foreign policy positions and was "deliberately not active" in the general election.

"I just didn't feel right," Kampelman said. "When Hubert considered running in 1976, it looked like I might get involved again. Later, of course, I was identified with Scoop Jackson, but I was less involved with his campaign."

Kampelman said his work in Madrid made it impossible for him to be very involved in either the 1980 or 1984 elections. Although he did accompany Walter Mondale at a national security briefing in Minnesota during the presidential campaign, Kampelman said, "I'd just as soon not get into the question of how I voted in November."

Kampelman's principal political work now is for the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, founded by Jackson and Humphrey.

"The Democrats have to appeal to the left for the nomination, and that's not the mainstream. Mondale found himself a victim of that," he said. "I do not yet see a successor to Scoop Jackson in the Democratic Party . . . Moynihan comes close, but I sense that he prefers not to be looked upon in that way, whatever his reasons."

Kampelman's position as a self-described "bipartisan figure" is hard to dispute. Not only did he accompany Mondale to the security briefing, but he was also a legal adviser to Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese III during last year's inquiry by a special prosecutor into Meese's finances.

Kampelman said he plans to remain a Democrat. But with a broad smile he added, "I suppose each of us reserves the right to change and make decisions as time goes on. Who knows how I might evolve in my thought process?"