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Readers Continue the 1974 Wohlstetter-Warnke Debate

October 2019

Paul S. Warnke’s article “The Wohlstetter-Warnke Debate in Foreign Policy,” (ACT, July/August 2019) seriously misstates Albert Wohlstetter’s views in his two 1974 Foreign Policy articles (“Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” and “Is There a Strategic Arms Race? (II): Rivals but No ‘Race’”).

Warnke claims that Wohlstetter expressed concern that “spending on offensive forces [was] insufficient to meet the growing Soviet threat.” Wohlstetter’s articles did not say that strategic defense spending was insufficient, but instead said, “the implications [of the data presented in his articles] for our strategic budgets will by no means be simple.”

Warnke claims that Wohlstetter “questioned the wisdom of practicing restraint with an adversary that appeared bent on achieving strategic superiority” and that Wohlstetter wrote his two articles with the specific purpose of undermining “SALT I and Nixon’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union.” These statements are not true. Wohlstetter made clear that his purpose was to provide concrete information to “help thoughtful national choice or [help] agreement with adversaries.” He also said, “Agreements with adversaries can play a useful role,” and “I favor a U.S.-Soviet reduction to equal lower totals.” Wohlstetter added that the desirability of specific arms control agreements “is quite independent of the question as to whether the U.S. totals [of nuclear weapons] have increased exponentially or at all.”

The information provided by Wohlstetter included data on the accuracy of U.S. intelligence predictions, trends in the number and destructive power of U.S. nuclear forces, and trends in U.S defense spending. Wohlstetter’s objective was to enable what today might be called “evidence-based” foreign policy.

Even after Wohlstetter’s 1974 articles, Paul C. Warnke’s (Paul S. Warnke’s grandfather) preconceived notions were so entrenched that in his 1975 “Apes on a Treadmill” article in Foreign Policy, he wrote, “He [Wohlstetter] cannot, of course, mean that the United States is backing up while the Soviet Union presses on. Both continue to amass nuclear weapons in quantities and varieties inexplicable on any military basis.” However, Wohlstetter did mean exactly that and showed the decline in the total number of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons with the data presented in figure 2 of his second article. Though space did not permit it to be shown, the graph of the number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons also showed a decline. Given the many factors involved in maintaining secure nuclear forces, this decline was not necessarily a bad thing. However, Wohlstetter believed that foreign policy should be based on facts and not prejudices. Similarly, Warnke (the grandson) should base his analysis on Wohlstetter’s actual views and statements. Warnke’s current analysis falls far short of this mark.

Gregory S. Jones worked with Albert Wohlstetter for more than 20 years and provided many of the figures and tables used in Wohlstetter’s two articles. Jones currently publishes proliferationmatters.com.



Gregory S. Jones’s letter defending the conclusion and methodology of Wohlstetter’s 1974 Foreign Policy articles misfires on several accounts, mischaracterizing both the significance of Wohlstetter’s findings and argument of Paul C. Warnke’s “Apes on a Treadmill” article.

First, Jones asserts that Wohlstetter wrote his articles with the objective of providing concrete, neutral data to inform “evidence-based” foreign policy. Contrary to Jones’ appraisal, Wohlstetter was engaged in selective analysis, cherry-picking measures of Soviet missile numbers while overlooking other variables of comparable importance. For instance, Wohlstetter disregarded the fact that the Johnson and Nixon administrations regularly overestimated indicators of Soviet multiple-warhead systems and intercontinental ballistic missile accuracy—qualitative characteristics that, together with quantitative ones, form a fuller understanding of an adversary’s strategic capability. Wohlstetter also failed to capture that the United States significantly outpaced the Soviet Union in the total number of ballistic missile warheads, as it started to arm its long-range missiles with multiple warheads in the early 1970s. Wohlstetter thus lost the forest for the trees, providing a partial picture of what was a more complex, multivariate strategic competition.

Second, Jones misjudges the ultimate purpose of Wohlstetter’s articles: to compel the United States into an arms buildup at the expense of negotiated restraint. While Wohlstetter did not explicitly oppose the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) agreement in Foreign Policy, he opposed its limitations in other forums and writings. An outspoken supporter of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programs, he found fault with SALT I’s limitation on ABM technology. As for the agreement’s restrictions on offense strategic weaponry, he believed that future arms control agreements should impose equal numerical limits on U.S. and Soviet forces. This criticism of SALT I shone through Wohlstetter’s inflation of Soviet capabilities and corresponding depreciation of U.S. ones.

Finally, Jones misfires in contending that Warnke’s “preconceived notions” of the superpower’s strategic standoff had blinded him to Wohlstetter’s conclusions. The quotation on which his critique relies is a prime example of litotes: Warnke was saying one thing when he meant exactly the opposite, as a way of emphasizing the absurdity of Wohlstetter’s claim that the United States was losing the arms race. Exposing this absurdity not only inspired the article’s titular metaphor, it was its central premise. The two superpowers were both racing ahead, maybe not always stride for stride, but at never-ending paces that defied any real military or political logic.

Paul S. Warnke is a congressional nuclear security fellow for Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and the grandson of Paul C. Warnke.