Paul C. Warnke, Arms Control Negotiator, Dies at 81

Paul C. Warnke, a leading advocate of arms control and a longtime director of the Arms Control Association, died of a pulmonary embolism October 31 at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 81. Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., former ACA president, said, “With his passing, arms control lost one of its great voices.”

Warnke’s most notable contribution to arms control was his service as chief U.S. negotiator to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union. Nominated in 1976 to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) by President-elect Jimmy Carter, Warnke led the U.S. delegation to the SALT II negotiations, which aimed to replace the SALT I Interim Agreement with a more permanent treaty to cap the number of U.S. and Soviet strategic weapons and lay the groundwork for eventual reductions. President Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed SALT II in 1979.

Although Warnke played a key role in bringing the treaty into being, he resigned as head of ACDA in October 1978, before SALT II was signed, under pressure from defense conservatives who claimed he was too soft on the Soviets. His detractors cited a 1975 article that Warnke had published in Foreign Policy titled “Apes on a Treadmill,” which criticized the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. In the article, Warnke argued that both sides should cease building new nuclear weaponry and reduce stockpiles, and he proposed that Washington negotiate with Moscow to encourage “reciprocal restraint.” “We can be the first off the treadmill,” he wrote. “That’s the only victory the arms race has to offer.”

The United States never ratified SALT II, but the United States and the Soviet Union both committed to observing its limits anyway. James F. Leonard, a career U.S. diplomat who was a colleague of Warnke’s, called the treaty a “major step forward” and said that “to get it as far as he did and have it observed…was a major achievement.”

Warnke was born January 31, 1920, in Webster, Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale University in 1941, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he spent five years. After being discharged, he entered law school at Columbia University and in 1948 joined the Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling, becoming a partner in 1957.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson named Warnke assistant secretary of defense for international affairs. In that capacity, Warnke worked under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and then Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. While at the Pentagon, Warnke distinguished himself as one of the only high-level administration officials to question the wisdom of the war in Vietnam. In 1969, after Richard M. Nixon became president, Warnke left the Pentagon and, with Clifford, founded the law firm Clifford, Warnke, Glass, McIlwain & Finney.

After leaving the Carter administration, Warnke returned to private practice in Washington but actively continued to promote his views on arms reductions and support a comprehensive test ban treaty. Warnke served as an ACA board member from 1980 to 1999, when he became a director emeritus. Ralph Earle, who served with Warnke on the SALT negotiations, said, “Arms control will be forever on the agenda due in large part to Paul and his articulation of the importance of the issues.”