Michael KreponPaul Warnke

Definition of the week:

depraved indifference (legal definition): when a person has an utter disregard for the value of human life – not because he or she means to cause grievous harm, but because he or she simply does not care.

Lyrics of the week:

Sister brother do you understand?
It’s hard seeing farther than the time at hand
But can you see tomorrow in this land?…
There will come a day not too long away when it’ll be fine…
We all wish for peace and happy times
But how do you do it to make it rhyme?
Just one time I’d like to see everyone smile
I guess it won’t happen, not for a while
–F.J. McMahon, “Sister, Brother,” in Spirit of the Golden Juice (1969)

“You can’t stop us on the road to freedom
You can’t keep us keep ‘cause our eyes can see”
–Van Morrison, “Tupelo Honey”

Note to readers: I’m putting the finishing touches on a book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise and Revival of Nuclear Arms Control to be published by Stanford University Press. It’s about early failures, followed by extraordinary successes, followed by tear downs. It’s about the ideas and people that shaped the politics and substance of arms control. One person I’d like younger wonks to know more about is Paul Warnke.
One definition of heroism is laying the basis for others to succeed after your bruising encounters with Washington’s school of hard knocks. Paul Warnke was a hero of arms control. Even though he fought battles and lost, he laid the groundwork for others to win them later.

Warnke was no stranger to hard knocks; he needed to fight resentful kids whose fathers worked for his dad, the manager of a shoe manufacturing business that flourished back then in mostly blue-collar towns in the Northeast, like Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Warnke’s dad had a sixth-grade education, but he was tenacious and talented, like his son. Paul Warnke was a voracious reader and a good student in a weak public school system. Warnke was first generation college-bound, headed for Holy Cross until one of his father’s business acquaintances in New York suggested that this bright young man aim higher. He got into Yale and struggled in classes until he learned how to study and found his footing.

Like so many others in his generation, he went to war. With enlistment choices limited by a heart murmur, Warnke joined the Coast Guard, serving in combat in the Pacific. After the war, with help from the G.I. Bill, he headed to Columbia University and its Journalism School. The school’s enrollment was full, but there was a vacancy across the street in the Law School. Everything clicked there and the Law Review followed.

Warnke landed at Covington & Burling, a Washington, D.C. white shoe firm that provided a pipeline into public service. He was a natural litigator and became a partner in 1956. But the law was not nearly as interesting as national security, foreign policy, and the world of politics. He took a leave of absence from Covington & Burling to work for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, spending six weeks in Ohio. He then served on JFK’s defense transition team but declined the two jobs he was offered at the Pentagon as lacking sufficient heft. His opening finally came when Robert McNamara offered him the General Counsel’s job in 1967, a position that McNamara used not only for the Department’s legal matters, but also to audition talent for policy slots.

When Cyrus Vance, then McNamara’s deputy, recruited Warnke to be the Pentagon’s General Counsel, Warnke warned his friend that he was strongly anti-war. Don’t worry, Vance responded, most of the civilians working on Vietnam were, too, and McNamara wouldn’t hold it against him. Only later did it become clear that McNamara privately held a similar view.

Warnke excelled as General Counsel and soon moved up to become the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, where his primary preoccupation was the war he opposed. His most intriguing outlet was preparing for the strategic arms limitation talks that Johnson and McNamara were prodding the Kremlin to begin. He worked alongside Paul Nitze who had moved from being Secretary of the Navy to Deputy Secretary of Defense. The two Pauls got along well in the Pentagon. They opposed the Vietnam War for different reasons: Warnke thought it was a tragic mistake, while Nitze thought it an unwise diversion of resources and military power.

Vietnam profoundly influenced Warnke’s thinking about arms control. The lessons Warnke learned from Vietnam were to make hard choices early, to take the political heat, to cut losses, and to avoid entrapment. The same tactics to prevent tens of thousands of dead American soldiers could also apply to preventing a futile strategic arms race.

To Warnke, numbers mattered less than finding the right approach to stabilize the nuclear competition. Avoiding an arms race required making sound decisions even if the Kremlin made foolish ones. Otherwise, both superpowers would become “apes on the treadmill.” Warnke used these words in an essay in Foreign Policy magazine, which he helped launch. He was prone to sharp argument — it was the litigator in him. His combative nature got him into hot water, but when faced with reasoning he thought foolish, he reacted with unvarnished rebuttals.

Initially, his biggest foil was Albert Wohlstetter, a brilliant mind with eclectic intellectual interests who worked at RAND and then taught at the University of Chicago. Unlike Warnke, Wohlstetter drew strength and certainty from numbers — they were remorseless, offering no respite from the nuclear competition. Nitze felt the same way.  He wrote that a nuclear war could be won or lost “decisively,” depending on the post-war position of the adversaries.

To Nitze, the numbers suggested a Soviet quest for strategic superiority. Wohlstetter’s numbers pointed in the same direction, to a “delicate balance of terror.” Warnke thought this was folly. Wohlstetter and Warnke dueled on the pages of Foreign Policy magazine. For Wohlstetter, numbers were sacrosanct. For Warnke, “the numbers game” was a losing proposition, leading to dangerous, excessive behaviors. Their debate was ostensibly over the meaning of numbers, but it was really over world views and the military utility of nuclear weapons.

Wohlstetter’s jousting with Warnke was polite compared to Paul Nitze’s. Neither Warnke nor Nitze suffered fools gladly, and they thought each other’s views on the Soviet Union and arms control to be foolish. When Carter appointed Warnke to be the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the lead negotiator for SALT II, Nitze seethed with resentment, feeling he was better suited for these jobs. He was frustrated by Nixon and Kissinger’s behavior in the SALT I negotiations and expected more of the same from Carter and Warnke.

Warnke gave Nitze and his other critics an opening by wanting to be dual hatted as Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as the lead U.S. negotiator of SALT, just like Gerard Smith. Unlike Smith, he wanted to be confirmed for both jobs. After ugly confirmation hearings, with Nitze leading the take down, Warnke was confirmed for the job of ACDA Director with more votes than the two-thirds necessary for the Senate’s consent to ratify a treaty. But he got fewer than two-thirds of the Senate to vote to confirm him as Carter’s SALT negotiator. This vote was a shot across the bow for SALT II and a preview of what was to come during ratification hearings.

With one exception, Carter, Warnke, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and William Perry, then the Pentagon’s head of research, development and engineering, believed that weapon systems should be judged on their merits, not on their political ramifications. (The exception was a new land-based missile, then called the M-X, later the Peacekeeper, for which a survivable basing mode defied rational analysis.) The decisions they endorsed, such as cancelling the B-1 bomber and opting instead for stealth and cruise missiles, and nixing deployments in West Germany of a tactical nuclear weapon called the “neutron” bomb – upset deterrence strategists. Warnke & Co. were right on the merits but these decisions reinforced opposition to SALT II.

The numbers that Warnke wanted so badly to reduce were beyond his reach, as was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Only Republican Presidents with sterling national security credentials could secure deep cuts, and only then with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and a weakened Soviet economy. President Bill Clinton finally achieved the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but he, too, found the Senate’s consent to be beyond his reach.

Paul Warnke’s enduring legacy isn’t about treaties; it’s about a way of thinking. Warnke viewed analytics as less important than the human factor. (Kevin Cash, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, disagrees, along with deterrence strategists.) He believed that nuclear war-fighting calculations of deterrence strategists were totally unsound, and that what mattered most was not crossing the nuclear threshold. He argued that building up to negotiate from strength without trading away was unwise.

These ideas remain deeply contested. But Warnke’s belief system, no less than deterrence orthodoxy, has taken root. This contest will be continued after November 3rd.


  1. John Hallam (History)

    Warnke’s views on the one hand and Nitze’s and Wohlstetters on the other, seem to typify the divide within the ways of loking at nuclear weapons – one side (mistakenly in mine and obviously Warnke’s view) thinks nuclear war can be meaningfully fought and won. Madness. The other believes that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

    The same divide can be seen in a little dispute over the utility of NFU that erupted here in Australia.

Pin It on Pinterest