Last October 5, the papers ran a big story reporting that the United States and the Soviet Union were on the verge of reaching a final agreement on the second phase of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, known as SALT II. SALT II has been in negotiation since 1972, and when Henry Kissinger left office he said it was 95-percent completed; but early in the Carter administration the Soviets publicly rejected a set of American proposals, and the talks had seemed stalled. Now, a year and a half after that, substantial progress had been made, and only a few minor matters remained to be resolved before SALT II would be signed and brought before the Senate for approval.

It was also announced that day that the chief American SALT negotiator and director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul C. Warnke, would be stepping down and returning to private law practice. It was no secret, Warnke said, that he could stay in the job only a limited time, due to “personal commitments.”

Immediately Warnke’s many critics—mostly senators who are hard-liners on defense matters—began to speculate that he was resigning not for personal reasons, but because President Carter was forcing him to. Carter, they said, realized that more than a third of the Senate (that is, enough to vote down SALT II) had voted against Warnke’s appointment, considering him too soft. So, the theory went, Carter felt that with Warnke as its chief salesman the completed treaty couldn’t pass, and Warnke had to go. When Carter appointed as the new head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency George M. Seigneous II, a retired general, president of a military college in South Carolina, and a man with impeccable hard-line credentials, it seemed to bear out the view that he was looking for someone who could do a better job than Warnke of persuading the Senate hawks.

This theory was plausible on its surface, but inconsistent with the nature of Jimmy Carter, a man extremely loath to fire anyone. Responsible voices quickly came to Warnke’s defense. Joseph Kraft, in a column entitled “Warnke: Pulled, Not Pushed,” wrote: “He is leaving the government for family reasons and because his law firm has an immediate and imperative need for his services.” Kraft continued: “I have known Warnke for more than 25 years. I have admired him at all times as a person of high intellectual acumen and passionate integrity…. Warnke has three sons in college and a daughter in graduate school. Annual tuition costs come to more than $25,000. As a senior partner in the small law firm headed by Clark Clifford, he was able to meet that obligation and maintain two homes. But doing it on the $58,000 salary of the disarmament negotiator was something else.” A few days later the editorial column of The Washington Post chimed in with more praise. “The SALT talks are reported to be on the verge of producing an agreement….” the Post said. “These are substantial achievements…. As part of the personal harassment to which he had been regularly subjected, it is being said of Mr. Warnke’s departure that he was pushed…. As it happens that is false… he is leaving by prearrangement for reasons of his own.”

The argument about Warnke’s departure was taking a curious form, with his critics making him out to be a martyr to his beliefs and his friends saying no, it was money that made him leave. The logic seemed to be that if Paul Warnke had left government because of his views on arm control, that would reflect badly on him, but if he had left because he wanted to continue to maintain two homes (one of them is in Northwest Washington, the other on Martha’s Vineyard), that would reflect well on him. Neither side suggested that Warnke was doing an excellent job and should have stayed on, which appears to be the case. The reason nobody suggested it is that Warnke was ordering his life according to standards completely unremarkable in the world of people who live in Washington and move in and out of government—a world where a $58,000-a-year job is a sacrifice and hardly any job is important enough to demand of its holder a consuming passion.

Balancing the Two

Paul Warnke was born in 1920 and grew up in a small town outside Boston. He graduated from Yale in 1941 and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. As it did for so many young men of his generation, the war got him interested in politics—because, he says, “I felt things needed changing.” He considered a career in the foreign service, but instead went to Columbia Law School, where he did extremely well; in his last year, he was editor-in-chief of the law review. The natural next step after that would have been to join a Wall Street law firm, but because of his interest in politics Warnke veered slightly away from that and in 1948 came to Washington to work at the capital’s largest and most prestigious firm, Covington and Burling, where he stayed for the next 18 years.

Covington and Burling has for 50 years been a place from which people go into the high reaches of government. It was the first major law firm in Washington, and the home of one of the first men to make a career of going back and forth between a Washington law firm and the government, Dean Acheson. In his own writings, Acheson delineated probably better than anyone else the mindset of the in-and-outer.

Acheson clearly felt that being a lawyer at Covington and Burling was somehow more public-spirited and self-sacrificing than working in a firm on Wall Street. In New York, he wrote in his memoirs, “our friends were rumored to be amassing wealth, while we, in our quiet backwater, went on learning our trade.” Acheson by no means wore sackcloth throughout his career; he had two homes too. But in matters monetary everything is relative, and compared to his law school classmates he was living a modest, comfortable life. It is doubtful that Acheson would have wanted to live in a railroad flat, but his willingness to take government jobs, for which the salaries were then quite low, was an indication of the value he placed on public service. He was prepared to make financial sacrifices, and so, although he certainly must have been in the top one per cent of the country in income, he was more selfless than most of the people he knew.

Of course, it wasn’t all sacrifice. Acheson never concealed very well his boredom with the day-to-day practice of law. He wanted to deal with the major public issues of his time, and serving in the government was the way for him to do that. So two goals were built into the careers of Acheson and people like him: the goal of being a successful, secure, financially comfortable lawyer, and the goal of making some larger public contribution. To give up either goal entirely was out of the question; an important part of life was balancing the two. When, for instance, Roswell Gilpatrick resigned as deputy secretary of Defense in 1964, in the middle of the escalation of the Vietnam war, it was said that he did so because he didn’t want to be only a deputy secretary of Defense, didn’t want that to be his sole great achievement in life. He returned to his law firm, Cravath, Swaine, & Moore in New York, because he was at an age when he could still rise to the leadership of the firm, while if he had stayed at the Pentagon much longer he would have had to give that up.

The balancing act worked because the government valued these lawyers. People from outside the government had to be brought in to run the departments, and lawyers and investment bankers were thought to be the best at this. They were conversant with public affairs, used to sizing up new situations. Washington lawyers, Acheson wrote, “seemed peculiarly able to understand at once the uniqueness of unprecedented situations and immediately to set about devising new and practical ways of dealing with them… they have learned to remain detached from the emotional involvement of their clients in their purposes or troubles. They must see all around situations on which they are to advise.”

For these reasons, the government got as its top officials people who would be staying only a limited time and then returning to private ,life, who would do an expert job, and who in office would become emotionally involved only in the most extreme situations. They were pros—honest, cool, intelligent, hard-working people who could fill almost any administrative job without any special training—and Washington came to value them highly. They were never zealots or ideologues; in fact, through the fifties and sixties zealots and ideologues were the people the pros most disdained they were people like Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. Even the liberals who had a zealous side, like Hubert Humphrey or Sargent Shriver, were seen only as valuable spokesmen, not people who should be given the really crucial jobs. Today it’s common to see Michael Pertschuk, the chairman of the FTC, criticized for having a messiah complex because he obviously cares so much about his job and is so sure that he’s the best person to do it that he’ll stay on as long as he possibly can. To the pros, it seemed immodest to feel that one had to stay on a long time because only then would things be done right—and on the other hand there was every temptation (family, money, frustration with the bureaucracy) not to stay very long.

Also, in truth, a lack of zeal while in government was good for business later on. Here is Acheson again, on returning to Covington and Burling after a brief stint at the Treasury in the thirties: “My short venture from private practice into government service did not hurt; on the contrary, it improved my practice. I had become known, and known throughout the business community, as a ‘sound’ man. It was very different later on when I disappeared from this desirable practice for more than a decade of a man’s most fruitful years, and returned to the bar known not as a lawyer but as a Cabinet officer upon whom politicians and sections of the press .had been trying out novel forms of mayhem. A ‘sound’ man is a more desirable lawyer than a ‘controversial’ one.” So even when in government there was a temptation to be sound, to be resisted only in circumstances like Acheson’s, an extraordinary job in extraordinary times.

This was the world Warnke lived in through the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years. He did well at the firm and was made a partner in 1957. He married and had five children. He got involved in local civic affairs, especially in the area of civil rights. He met the other bright young men of his generation. In 1966, on the strength of his good reputation rather than any particular expertise, he was appointed general counsel of the Department of Defense; in 1967 he became assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and stayed on until the end of the Johnson administration. At the Pentagon he worked most closely with Clark Clifford, the venerable Washington lawyer, fixer, and adviser to presidents, who was at that time turning against the Vietnam war and becoming its main opponent within the administration. Warnke turned with him, and that made him slightly different from the run of Washington lawyers interested in public affairs. When he went to the Pentagon, he says, “my principal qualification for the job was a subscription to Foreign Affairs“; in other words, he was a pro. When he left, he apparently took with him something pros rarely bring out of government, namely a passionate conviction about the matters he had worked on.

To be sure, Warnke returned to law practice when Nixon took office, though with Clifford and not Covington and Burling. But he behaved a little differently—only a little, but differently—from the other prominent lawyers interested in further government service, the Vances and Califanos. He wrote articles (for this magazine among others), gave speeches, and testified on Capitol Hill, flat-out opposing the B-1 bomber, the Trident submarine, the level of tactical nuclear warheads in Europe, and escalation of the arms race generally. He became chairman of the Democratic Policy Council’s committee on arms control and defense policy, and in that position opposed the anti-ballistic missile and attacked Nixon’s Vietnam policy. He almost certainly would have been George McGovern’s Defense Secretary; he was co-chairman of McGovern’s Policy Panel on National Security, and was the main spokesman for McGovern’s plan to spend $30 billion less on defense than Nixon would in his second term. Warnke’s friends say that took courage—in his world, people very rarely come out for specific cuts in the defense budget. When the Nixon enemies list was published, Warnke was on it.

What was especially attractive about Warnke was that he was a liberal who had more than just a vague sense that the defense budget was too high; he knew as much as the conservatives did about specific weapons systems, how much they would cost and what they would do. He had been in the Pentagon and knew what he was talking about, but hadn’t been snookered by the experts in the services. He could talk about peace the way McGovern could, but he could also talk about MIRVing ICBMs, which McGovern could not do convincingly. He was a technician who also had beliefs and scope and a sense of humor. Very few people in his position would dare to say flatly, as he did in Foreign Policy in 1975, “I think we are spending too much on military arms and manpower, and that to continue to do so worsens our economic position and jeopardizes our true national security.”

In 1976 Warnke was one of the people frequently mentioned as a possibility for Secretary of State or Defense in a Democratic administration. Unfortunately, what probably kept him from getting those jobs was precisely what was best about him, his evident passion for arms control. But on Warnke’s part, those jobs were apparently the only ones he was passionately interested in, although the less-known job that he got put him in charge of exactly those matters he had spoken up about most eloquently. Late in 1976 Carter twice offered him the directorship of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the position of chief SALT negotiator, and Warnke twice turned Carter down. Finally Carter called him into the Oval Office one Saturday and asked him a third time; as Warnke tells it, he relented on the condition that he would stay on the job only for a short time, just long enough to get the negotiations with the Russians over the hump.

Warnke quickly became Carter’s most controversial appointment. A conservative group called Coalition for a Democratic Majority anonymously circulated a memorandum throughout the Senate that accused Warnke of being a confirmed appeaser of the Soviets. This prompted the hawkish Senate Armed Services Committee to call Warnke before it for questioning, even though it was the dovish Foreign Relations Committee that had official jurisdiction over his nomination. Here Warnke paid the price for his slight deviations from sound, discreet lawyerdom over the past eight years. He had to put up with Red-baiting questions (Senator Byrd: “Do you know Daniel Ellsberg?”), patronizing questions (Senator Helms: “Just as a matter of personal interest, sir, would you tell me, if you were a ‘fluttery dove’ by self-characterization in January 1976, how would you characterize yourself today?”), questions implying he was too soft for the job (Senator Scott: “And I just wonder, in view of the past positions you have taken regarding American weaponry, if you could not better serve your government as head of the Peace Corps, or something of that nature?”). He had to watch his former Pentagon colleague, Paul Nitze, breaking the entente cordiale that usually exists between even those government alumni who violently disagree and saying things like this:

Senator McIntyre: “Are you saying that you impugn his character as an American citizen?”

Mr. Nitze: “If you force me to, I do.”

Warnke stayed cool and self-contained in the face of all this. He kept his temper. But even his friends say he came perilously close to the line of the truth in the effort to get past the committee. For a Warnke fan, it was a little disillusioning to hear him saying things like, “I cannot today support each and every recommendation that I have made in the past eight years, and 1 would not propose to do so.” But perhaps this had to be done to get the job, and didn’t indicate any true backing down. After all, even with all the toning down of his views, didn’t he just barely win confirmation, by a vote of 58 to 40? And didn’t he tell the committee, “I am interested in the job because I believe that arms control is a desirable objective…. I am an enthusiast for making the effort”?

Good Reasons and Bad

But he left after a year and a half. His reasons were persuasive ones, of course—he had made progress, the treaty was almost finished, there were the kids in school. What he didn’t say, but his friends did, was that one of the name partners and mainstays of the Clifford firm, Thomas Finney, had died unexpectedly, and Clifford himself was said to be slowing down. Perhaps Warnke was getting tired and wanted to spend more time with his family, and he pledged that even out of office he would devote himself to speaking and testifying on behalf of SALT II. “If I had been 49,” Warnke says, “it would have been different. If I were in my mid-forties, I’d have a good 25 years ahead of me. But I’m 59. After eight years in that job, I would have been 65, the law practice would be gone, and I’d be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. My feeling is, you go in, you give it the best shot you can, and you leave.”

All very sensible. But SALT II is, at this writing, still not quite signed; and even when it is, there is SALT IIIconsidered more important; and Warnke was not just a negotiator, he was head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and thus the possessor of the best platform there is for pushing the goal of arms control. It’s also difficult not to suspect that if Warnke had been in the Cabinet those good reasons for leaving would have been pushed aside. “He had developed a standard of living that was not opulent, but was comfortable, and he couldn’t have put aside enough to tide him over,” says a friend of Warnke’s. “He was scared of going into debt at his age. But I think if he were Secretary of State, somehow he would have gotten a second mortgage.” And of course if he were Secretary of State his potential for future earnings—through a book contract or a statesmanlike name partnership in any law firm he wanted—would be limitless, no matter how old he was when he left.

In fairness, the one reason of Warnke’s that is genuinely difficult to dismiss is the one about paying for his children’s education. It’s callous to urge government officials to cut off the kids without a penny in order to keep on saving the world. But it strains credulity that only on an income like Warnke’s—which is certainly well into the six figures—can one buy one’s children a decent education. His government salary was more than what 99 per cent of Americans make; is it really impossible to lead a comfortable life on that? And it should be remembered that Warnke’s year and a half in the top one per cent was preceded by eight years in the top tenth of a per cent, during which he might have salted away enough to cover exigencies like tuition.

More than that, a parent’s duty to a child extends beyond the material gifts of food, shelter, and education to the more important gift of setting an example. To an extent that’s difficult to overestimate, people’s ideas about honesty and love and kindness and honor come from their parents. Warnke, by all accounts, has done an admirable job of teaching his children these things. But in leaving the government, he has also told them, in effect: hedge your bets. The jobs that are important enough to close off your options for, and the causes vital enough to warrant a second mortgage, are precious few, and the directorship of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency is not one of them.

In the month Warnke left government, his agency published a brochure about SALT for public consumption. “In SALT,” the brochure said, “the stakes are enormous. The fact that nuclear weapons have not been employed for 30 years should not cause us to ignore the awesome consequences of nuclear war…. SALT may well be the most important negotiation the United States has ever undertaken.” Warnke says, with appealing modesty, that he certainly isn’t the only person who could competently handle such an important matter; that’s true, but he’s probably better able to handle it than anyone else. The real message of his leaving was not so much one of modesty and family obligation as that being the point man in the prevention of nuclear war is not a job worth going into debt to keep.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.