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Paul Warnke, 81; Chief Arms Control Negotiator for Carter


WASHINGTON — Paul Warnke, a top Defense Department official in the 1960s and director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Jimmy Carter administration, died of a pulmonary embolism Wednesday at his home here. He was 81 and had been battling kidney disease.

A fixture for decades in the highest echelons of Washington's legal and government establishment, Warnke had a reputation for calm reserve and a gift for diplomacy. Between his stints in government he remained a respected voice, working as a consultant, writer and lecturer.

He was a partner at Covington & Burling, a leading Washington law firm, before joining the government in 1966 as general counsel to the Defense Department. Within the year, he was made assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, the third-ranking position in the department and one from which he would help alter U.S. policy on the Vietnam War.

He often did policy briefing work for the defense secretary, first under Robert McNamara and then Clark Clifford, who would become Warnke's law partner when both left the Pentagon in 1969.

Warnke was an ardent proponent of withdrawing troops from Vietnam and argued that U.S. policy on the war should be distinct from its policy toward the Soviet Union. He said publicly that the United States was overcommitted to the war and that neither side fighting in Vietnam could be entirely victorious.

In "Counsel to the President," Clifford's autobiography, he called Warnke "my closest advisor" and credited him with providing convincing arguments to end U.S. involvement in the war. Clifford, in turn, helped persuade President Lyndon Johnson to open peace talks.

"For his courage in 1968," Clifford wrote, "Warnke was to earn my deepest admiration--and the undying enmity of the American military services."

In the 1970s, Warnke advised Democrats on defense issues and nuclear disarmament. Carter, who regarded Warnke's appointment as "crucial" to the administration, nominated him as director of the arms control agency and chief arms negotiator at the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT II) with the Soviet Union.

Though never ratified by Congress, the SALT II treaty became the first nuclear agreement to limit the number of atomic warheads as opposed to the number of missile launchers.

In October 1978, after 20 months in office, Warnke resigned under attack by conservatives in both parties who accused him of making too many concessions to the Soviets.

"What people frequently ignore is that arms control is not a zero-sum game," he told an interviewer in 1998. "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 its 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."

Leslie Gelb, a colleague of Warnke in government and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Warnke made proposals "on what he believed to be the merits of an argument versus whether it was politically salable" and never bristled at political attacks.

A native of Webster, Mass., Paul Culliton Warnke graduated from Yale University before serving in the Navy in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II. After the war, he intended to enroll at Columbia University's journalism school on the GI Bill but turned to law when he found no spots left in journalism. He served as editor in chief of the Columbia Law Review.

After graduation in 1948, he joined Covington & Burling, where he specialized in trade regulations and antitrust law.

He was active with the Democratic National Committee in the early 1960s and did work on staffing at the Defense Department, where he became friendly with McNamara.

Warnke told an interviewer that living through the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and working at the Defense Department convinced him that nuclear war was "a genuine risk."

Warnke set forth his views in a controversial 1975 essay for the journal Foreign Policy, in which he proposed that U.S. and Soviet officials restrain from developing weapons programs for six months. "The Soviets," he argued, "are far more apt to emulate than to capitulate."

Warnke had faith in the long-held nuclear deterrence policy of mutual assured destruction. But he hoped that the strategy--meant to reduce the possibility of an attack by increasing the likelihood of annihilation of both sides--could be improved on.

Warnke said the answer to controlling arms was twofold: Stop building new weaponry and extensively reduce stockpiles. Otherwise, one side would always feel at a political and military disadvantage and foster a need for further arms development.

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