Pass the SALT: An Interview with Paul Warnke

Paul Warnke was Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency until he resigned last autumn. He was the chief negotiator of the SALT II treaty for the Carter administration. The following talk with Walter Pincus took place early in May.

WALTER PINCUS: What do you make of the criticism of the SALT agreement from liberal senators such as McGovern and Hatfield?

PAUL WARNKE: I think there are probably two threads that run through their opposition. One is the quite legitimate concern that you may be paying too high a price for too little. But you always have that sort of risk when you’re trying to develop a consensus. In order to placate the opponents of arms control you may adopt particular weapons systems that might otherwise be left on the drawing board.

The second problem is that you can’t ever get a wholly comprehensive arms control agreement. As a consequence, in order to get a specific arms control agreement accepted, you may feel that you have to do all of those things or most of those things that under its terms are not prohibited. Take, for example, the partial test ban treaty of 1963 prohibiting atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. As a consequence of accepting only a limited test ban rather than a comprehensive one, the US had to adopt a program that meant greatly accelerated underground testing. The fact that SALT I dealt only with launchers of ballistic missiles probably gave the US some incentive to go ahead with cruise missiles. The risk that critics like Senator McGovern, Senator Hatfield, Senator Proxmire see is that in order to buy off the opponents you may go ahead with something like a mobile MX system1 or with more civil defense, and I think they question whether or not that’s too high a price.

WP: Now that they have made their point and tried to acquire some kind of political leverage, do you think when it finally comes to voting they’ll vote against the treaty?

PW: No, I don’t think that they would because I think that they will find that the SALT II treaty is a much more significant step, perhaps, than they now realize—a much more effective agreement, in fact, than we had any reason to hope.

WP: You don’t think they will join with the disarmament groups that want the treaty defeated?

PW: No, the senators shouldn’t be confused with those zealots for arms control who feel that nothing short of very substantial nuclear disarmament is worthwhile. Some peace groups, for example, which say: this permits some continuation of the nuclear arms race, therefore it’s evil. I think that’s a classic example of the best being the enemy of the good. You just can’t, in arms control matters, get to where they want to go in a single step. Or even in two, three, or four steps. You have to take a significant step when it becomes available to you.

WP: How about really powerful…

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