A Conversation with Paul C. Warnke
(Appeared in Bar Report, June/July 1998)
Paul Culliton Warnke, 78, was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs for President Lyndon B. Johnson. Later, he became director of the U.S. Arms Control & Disarmament Agency and chief negotiator in strategic arms talks with the Soviet Union during the Carter Administration. He currently is a retired partner at Howrey & Simon.
Bar Report: You graduated from Yale College in 1941, and then joined the U.S. Coast Guard where you served from 1942 to 1946 in the Atlantic and the Pacific. What was that experience like?
Paul C. Warnke: I did anti-submarine work in the Atlantic, and in the Pacific I was first on a small tanker carrying aviation gasoline and later on a landing ship, and LST, for the invasion of the Philippines and Borneo. The nice thing about being on a ship is that if you’re not dead you’re quite comfortable. It’s not like fighting in the jungles because you’ve got a bed and a pillow.
I had trouble getting into the service because I had high blood pressure. My mother, who was a widow, befriended a doctor in the U.S. Public Health Service, which did the examinations for the Coast Guard. Without taking my blood pressure, he wrote the necessary numbers on my exam so I could get in.
BR: After the war you went to Columbia Law School. Is it true that you were originally headed to journalism school?
PCW: Yes. After the war my family was living in New York so I took the subway to Columbia with the idea of joining the school of journalism, but it was full. I asked what other schools they had and they said the law school was across the street. So I crossed the street and became a lawyer. Careful planning, that’s the secret of my life. I thoroughly enjoyed law school. It was a very good class. Practically everybody was a war veteran and as a result we were older than most law school students prior to that time. It was a very good faculty, and I liked it very much.
BR: But you did manage to do some journalism as editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review?
PCW: Yes. I met my wife, Jean, at a party on the evening I got on the Law Review. And come September we will be married for 50 years.
BR: After law school you went to work with Covington & Burling where you became a partner in 1957. How did you get that position?
PCW: I looked around New York and wasn’t too enthusiastic about the Wall Street firms. One of my professors, Walter Gellhorn, said there was a fine law firm in Washington where he had a friend by the name of Dean Acheson. So I went down and interviewed. It was Covington, Burling, Rublee, Acheson & Shorb then. I liked the firm right away. It was the only Washington firm I looked at and it was the biggest firm in town. I was only the 49th lawyer.
BR: What are some of the cases you are most proud of?
PCW: I did a lot of antitrust work. When I first went to Covington & Burling, I worked with a partner by the name of H. Thomas Austern and he was primarily involved with antitrust and food and drug law. I worked with him for several years and got deeply involved with antitrust cases. He had a new client, the American Can Company, which was one of two big can companies. They had a lot of antitrust problems. The first case I worked on was a government case against American Can where we negotiated a settlement.
Then I represented the Continental Baking Company, the one that makes Wonder bread. They were busily involved in buying up other bread companies. I tried a couple of Federal Trade Commission cases that involved those acquisitions. Back in 1962 and 1963, I represented Procter & Gamble in connection with some criminal antitrust cases in California that involved shortening and edible oils. The contention was that they were involved in price fixing conspiracies. My co-counsel was Warren Christopher, who later became secretary of state. He’s a very highly regarded lawyer. Because the case was in California, we had to have local counsel. Warren was with the best firm I knew of out there and I had known him when he worked here in town. So he was a logical choice as co-counsel.
There were a number of cases I enjoyed where I was involved as a negotiator. Before I got into the arms control business, I represented the Congress of Micronesia. The Micronesians were involved in negotiations with the United States on terminating the trust relationship. In that part of the western Pacific a United Nations trust territory was established after World War II and the United States was appointed by the United Nations to be the trustee over the islands that include the Marshalls, the Marianas, Truk, Ponape, Palau and Yap. The Congress of Micronesia wanted an American negotiator to negotiate with the American Government team to help them work out a new relationship with the United States. We established what became known as "free-association." Micronesia became an independent country, with representation in the United Nations, but it is "freely associated" with the United States so that the U.S. handles its foreign affairs and defense. That was good fun.
Then in 1970 I represented the Iranian government in connection with the creation of a telecommunications system. One of my colleagues when I was in the Defense Department was Henry Kuss who had developed a good relationship with some of the Iranians and he brought me in to help negotiate this contract with the international consortium headed up by Siemens. That was interesting. It was at a time when the Shah was still in control.
BR: What was it like when you went over there?
PCW: At that point Iran and the United States were allies. But it was a little dismaying because it was obvious from talking to the Iranians that there was widespread corruption in the government.
BR: What led to your appointment as general counsel of the Defense Department?
PCW: After Kennedy was elected, I worked in the Democratic National Committee on staffing the Department of Defense, and got to know Robert S. McNamara. I was offered a couple of government jobs that I didn’t have any enthusiasm for and then eventually was offered the job of general counsel at defense.
BR: Less than a year later, you succeeded John McNaughton as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Tell me about that position?
PCW: It was known then as the "Defense Department’s State Department" and it worked closely with the State Department. Back then a lot of foreign policy was made at what was known as the "Tuesday lunch," when Lyndon Johnson would have lunch with the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of Central Intelligence, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and the national security advisor. Much of my job was getting McNamara ready for the Tuesday lunch. He’d be interested in certain topics that he would want to raise with the President, so we’d put together information on them. Then, of course, NATO, the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization, was very important to our security and Secretary McNamara developed what was known as the "nuclear planning group" which set NATO’s nuclear policy. We spent a lot of time on that. And then of course there was the Vietnam War.
BR: What was it like working with Robert McNamara?
PCW: It was great. He was a very good guy to work for, very accessible and as a consequence you had an advantage over your colleagues at State because Dean Rusk was not as accessible as McNamara.
BR: Many people back then questioned McNamara’s position on arms control. Did you ever discuss that with him?
PCW: He basically invented strategic nuclear arms control. There was the so-called Glassboro Conference in June 1967 with Aleksei Kosygin, who was the premier of the Soviet Union and who was in this country for a United Nations meeting. President Johnson arranged a summit meeting at Glassboro, New Jersey. McNamara went to that meeting and tried to talk the Soviets into getting serious about nuclear arms control. At that particular point, the big problem was the development of anti-ballistic missile defense system and McNamara recognized that by increasing the number of offensive missiles you could always overwhelm any available defensive technology. Therefore if both sides went ahead with extensive anti-ballistic missile defenses it would just fuel the offensive arms race, which is in fact what happened.
Then after the Glassboro Conference, McNamara asked me to meet on a regular basis with Yuli Vorontsov, the minister counselor of the Soviet Embassy and now the Russian ambassador to the United States. He said I should try to persuade Vorontsov that it was important to control the arms race.
BR: What influenced your strong views on arms control? How did they develop? Was it solely through your work at the Defense Department?
PCW: Yes. It was obvious to anyone who studied the subject that the one ultimate disaster would have been a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. So what we had to do was develop policies and reach agreements to eliminate the risk that one side or the other might start a nuclear war. The risk was that one side would panic. If one side figured that unless they struck first they would be attacked and annihilated that would provide a dangerous incentive for a first strike. What you had to have was what became known as "mutual assured destruction," which I always preferred to call mutual assured deterrence.
This was after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the Soviets tried to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. Florida is only 90 miles from Cuba, so that would have been a very serious threat to the security of the United States. Those were very, very critical negotiations that led to the Soviets removing the missiles.
Having had that experience we recognized in 1966 and 1967 that nuclear war was a genuine risk and that we had to work out some kind of arrangement with the Soviets that would eliminate any serious chance of nuclear war.
BR: When you were nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to be director of the Arms Control & Disarmament Agency, critics said you would be too soft on the Russians. How did you feel about that?
PCW: I wasn’t too worried about it. I thought I would get confirmed because I had some strong support and unlike a treaty I didn’t have to get two-thirds approval. All I needed was a majority and I figured I could get a majority. The real problem was that one of my major opponents was Sen. Scoop Jackson of Washington, who was a Democrat. If he’d been a Republican it would have been less of a problem. But because he was a Democrat he could carry a certain number of Democratic votes along with him.
BR: Was it personal?
PCW: No. The principal problem was that he was not a believer in arms control. He thought that I was, and he was right.
BR: Only two weeks after taking office you went to Moscow with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Who did you meet with then and did you feel ready for negotiations?
PCW: I had followed the subject very carefully and had been involved in arms control since 1967. Once you get the bug it never leaves you. I followed all of the SALT I talks closely so I didn’t feel unprepared. There had been an agreement reached at Vladivostok in 1974 when President Ford met with President Leonid I. Brezhnev. They agreed in principle as to what the totals would be in the SALT II agreement.
When President Carter took office, he wanted to move more rapidly. He wanted to leap frog SALT II and get lower nuclear weapon totals, which was a perfectly commendable thing to try to do but it turned out that the Soviet position was locked in.
At the March meeting in 1977 Secretary of State Cyrus Vance dealt principally with Andre Gromyko. At that point Brezhnev had had a series of strokes so he was no longer the alert guy he had been in 1974. Gromyko was a very experienced foreign minister. After that March 1977 meeting, Gromyko’s deputy, Georgi M. Kornienko asked if I would ride with him to the airport. During the ride he said, "I do not understand you Americans." He pointed out that "Comrade Brezhnev spilled a lot of political blood at Vladivostok" and therefore they could not consider anything else until a treaty was reached based on the Vladivostok agreement.
What we did in response was to put the Vladivostok totals in the draft treaty, but nonetheless provided for a subsequent reduction in the overall missile numbers and the subtotal for MIRV’s (multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles). The subtotal would apply not only to MIRVed missiles but also to strategic bombers with long range cruise missiles. So we managed to get an agreement with better, somewhat lower totals than the Vladivostok agreement.
BR: That must have been a challenging experience.
PCW: It was difficult but it was fascinating. I had no doubt that my Soviet counterparts were seriously interested in reaching an agreement. I came in at a fairly late stage. The SALT talks had been going on since 1969 and we had already reached a SALT I agreement. The chief Soviet negotiator, a fellow by the name of Vladimir Semenov, had been head of the Soviet delegation dealing with our first SALT negotiator, Ambassador Gerard Smith. I found Semenov to be a worthy foe and we became quite friendly.
What people frequently ignore is that arms control is not a zero sum game. It’s not one in which somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose. Either it’s good for both sides or it’s good for nobody. Any arms control agreement contains a clause that if either side concludes that continuing with the arms control regime is contrary to it’s supreme national interests it can opt out. So you’ve got to have an agreement that is satisfactory to both sides. It’s not like buying a used car.
BR: What were some of the problems you saw negotiating with the Soviet Union?
PCW: Part of the difficulty was that the Soviet Union didn’t have any friends. They had a Warsaw Pact just as we had NATO but it contained countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, that would have much preferred to have been part of NATO. I always thought it was much, much easier to be the American negotiator than the Soviet negotiator. There was more bargaining power on our side.
BR: Did you get the sense that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse?
PCW: I had the feeling that something had to change. Given modern communications you could not have a totalitarian government of a country that large over an indefinite period of time. As more and more Russians became more familiar with the outside world, I think they realized that their country was not operating under the optimum system. But did I predict that collapse? No. I thought it would take much longer than it did.
BR: Did you keep in touch with some of the Russian contacts you made?
PCW: At times. On a couple of occasions Mr. Kornienko, when he was in the United States, would come by and we would talk. I had gotten to know Anatoly Dobrynin, who was the long-time Soviet ambassador to the United States and I was in touch with him from time to time. We would meet occasionally at parties given by Averell Harriman, who had been the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Dobrynin and Harriman were good friends.
BR: How did your relationship with Clark Clifford begin?
PCW: He succeeded Robert McNamara as secretary of defense in March 1968. He was very close to Lyndon Johnson and Johnson had asked him to go to East Asia with Maxwell Taylor in August, 1967 to try to get further support for the Vietnam effort. I met him in McNamara’s office before they went on that mission. Our friendship grew from working together.
Clifford became absolutely persuaded that the Vietnam war was a big, big mistake. I think he began to feel that way because of his trip, where he found that those countries, the potential "dominos," were no where near as concerned about what was happening in Vietnam as we were. He felt that if the people in the region didn’t think it made that much difference, then why were we sending 500,000 American troops to Vietnam and suffering heavy casualties. A lot of people in the Defense Department felt the same way.
Many people criticized the recent book that Robert McNamara wrote about our mistakes in Vietnam, asking why he didn’t feel that way when he was Secretary of Defense. Well he did, but he was very loyal to President Johnson. He felt justifiably that Johnson had relied on the advice of the Kennedy foreign affairs team, which included him and some other very impressive people: Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor. McNamara figured that they were the ones who got Johnson so deeply committed. In the latter part of 1967, McNamara sent a memorandum to President Johnson explaining that he felt we were getting nowhere and that we ought to consider some solution other than trying to win a military victory. As a result, he was replaced as Secretary of Defense and made president of the World Bank.
BR: You spoke out very strongly against the Vietnam war. Were you ever afraid that your opinions would adversely affect your career?
PCW: The nice thing about being a lawyer is that you don’t have to worry about being fired from a government job. You automatically increase your income very substantially by going back to the practice of law. So it gives you a degree of independence. What was the point in being in government unless you could espouse the positions that you believed in?
BR: Looking back what are your thoughts now on the Vietnam war?
PCW: It was a tragic mistake. We went into it with perfectly commendable motives. We genuinely felt we had to contain China and we had successfully contained the Soviet Union at a period of time when they were trying to take over all of Europe. The trouble is that you always tend to set foreign policy by precedent and the precedents in many instances are not apposite. At that particular time we were saying no more Munichs, the idea being that at Munich Chamberlain caved in to Hitler, and as a result we had World War II. Then after Vietnam, we said no more Vietnams.
It’s interesting, if you look back you find that Franklin Roosevelt felt that Ho Chi Minh should win in Vietnam, that it was a fight for independence. The trouble was the State Department was concerned about France. After World War II there was a strong communist movement in France and if it had become a communist country it would have had an adverse effect on the United States. The feeling was that if France lost its Indochinese empire, that would create a greater chance that the communists would take over the French government. So our initial involvement in Vietnam was dictated by our concern about France more than by any concern about China. The interesting thing is that now we are perfectly willing to live with a Communist government in Hanoi. It hasn’t adversely affected us.
BR: You served on the presidential advisory board on arms proliferation policy, which was established in 1995. What was the purpose of the board and what were its findings?
PCW: The purpose was to consider what control there ought to be on sales of conventional weapons overseas. Our basic conclusion was that we should not sell weapons overseas for the purpose of keeping a production line going, that there are more important policy considerations. You should only sell weapons if it will improve national security.
BR: What are your thoughts on selling arms overseas?
PCW: I think the arms trade is much too excessive. There ought to be a priority on the international agenda for the big arms producers to get together and be much more restrained.
BR: Will that ever happen?
PCW: I think it will at some point because it’s contrary to international security to have all these arms floating around. At present one question we’ve faced is, Should we try to sell more sophisticated military equipment to South America? The South Americans don’t have any external threats. Their problems are internalthings like disparity between rich and poor, drugs, faltering national economies. They ought to be devoting their resources to things that make a difference, rather than buying sophisticated jet fighter aircraft. Who are they going to use them against? Unfortunately, we’re under strong pressure to make sales of expensive equipment overseas. It represents a lot of profit inside certain Congressional districts.
BR: In August of last year, the Clinton Administration ended a 20-year moratorium on the sale of high-tech arms to Latin America. What are your thoughts on that?
PCW: It’s a mistake. We should continue to have that moratorium. The theory is that if we don’t sell them the sophisticated weapons ourselves somebody else will. William Fulbright, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the same rationalization was used for the slave trade. Don’t do something bad just because someone else does. I think it would be useful if international agreements could be reached among major producers of sophisticated military equipment to exercise restraint. Even from an economic standpoint, the industrialized countries would be much better off. The developing countries could just as easily provide a better market for peaceful goods, like automobiles.
BR: What are your thoughts on the events now unfolding in Pakistan and India? Was this inevitable?
PCW: It was not inevitable. The problem is that the government of India is weak and as a matter of pride the Bharatiya Janata Party Platform kept saying that India should become a declared nuclear power, that they should institute a nuclear test program. And they have.
BR: We see Pakistan responding. Where do you see this going?
PCW: Well, being an optimist I like to think that it may end up all right. The reaction of the rest of the world will be so adverse to these nuclear tests that there is some chance that India and Pakistan will now sign some arms control agreements like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The thing we have got to do is get across the idea that having nuclear weapons doesn’t make you a big shot. Some of the most powerful countries in the world don’t have nuclear weapons. Japan and Germany don’t have them, and Japan and Germany are much more important economically and politically and than India or Pakistan.
BR: Will there be a day when we’ll get rid of nuclear arms?
PCW: It’s going to be very hard to get rid of all of them. The problem is that you can’t make the nuclear secret a secret again. Even if we got rid of all nuclear arms people would still know how to make them. The real risk is that in a time of crisis there might be a race to see who got nuclear arms back first and that would be very destabilizing because the one that gets them first may feel compelled to use them first. What can be done is substantially reduce the numbers and get them down to a point where they don’t represent that much of a threat. That’s the response we ought to have to India and Pakistan’s testing. One of the things they say is that the nuclear powers are hypocritical because they want to maintain their nuclear arsenals but prevent other countries from entering the nuclear club. So we have to start living up to our commitments and make substantial reductions, then make it clear that we regard nuclear weapons as not being useful military weapons. Oddly enough Ronald Reagan put it about as well as anybody when he said: "The only purpose for either side to have nuclear weapons is to see to it that they are never used."
There won’t be anything again like World War I or World War II. Circumstances have changed so dramatically and the countries that are capable of engaging in a world war are not possibly going to do it. The problems today are regional and internal conflicts. The break up of Yugoslavia and the consequence of ethnic cleansingthat sort of thing will continue to occur. It’s not a perfect world by any means, but the industrialized countries of the world are not going to wage World War III.
BR: How would you compare the mood of the world today regarding the threat of nuclear arms with the Cold War era?
PCW: We aren’t yet used to the fact that the Cold War is over. There are still thoughts of, "What if Russia becomes aggressive again?" But I think the chances of that are nonexistent. I mean, under what circumstances would Russia want to attack western Europe?
BR: If there was anything in the world you could change, what would it be?
PCW: The big thing you want to get rid of is intolerance. If you look at the bad situations in the world today it’s because people don’t recognize our common humanity. Look at the former Yugoslavia, ethnically they are all the same; they’re all Slavs. The difference is religion. Why should that religious difference breed violent intolerance? Then in Africa, some of the dreadful things that take place are due to historic tribal and ethnic disputes. People have got to learn to live with one another.
BR: That sounds simplistic.
PCW: What’s wrong with that? The recognition of our common humanity is the most important thing that needs to take place.