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John Warner: A Final Tribute

By David F. Winkler, Ph.D.

Yesterday was a glorious Summer day with blue skies framing the majestic towers of the National Cathedral as national and Virginia state leaders as well as family and friends gathered to pay final respects to the second longest serving Senator in Virginia’s history. President Joseph Biden, Admiral Michael Mullen, and Virginia’s two current Senators all gave moving tributes to Senator John W. Warner, to quote the president “as a man of conscience, character and honor, with a deep commitment to God and Country.” A common theme in the eulogies was Warner’s larger than life personality and his reputation as a skilled storyteller: “Some of the stories were even true” kidded Admiral Mullen who gave those in attendance an overview of Warner’s military service noting “Oh did he love his Navy, and oh did he love to build ships—especially in his home state of Virginia.” All of the speakers pointed out Warner’s genuine interest in people and their families. Mullen noted that it would not be unusual that a random Sailor assigned to the USS John W. Warner might get a phone call from the attack submarine’s namesake to hear a deck plate perspective on serving in today’s Navy.

Of course, having written about the Incidents at Sea Agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States, John W. Warner’s legacy from my perspective was that of a diplomat who negotiated the agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union on the “Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas” otherwise known as the “Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement.” By poetic coincidence, the senator passing on May 25th coincided with the 49th anniversary of his signing the accord in Moscow with Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov as part of the May 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev summit.

INCSEA addressed a growing concern dating back before the Cuban Missile Crisis that the ocean commons were becoming a potential arena for unanticipated military confrontation as a growing Soviet Navy challenged American supremacy through interfering with naval maneuvers and aggressively gathering intelligence. Nor were American commanders shy in reminding the Soviet interlopers who was boss. “Cowboy and Cossack” behavior on the high seas came to a head with collisions between American and Soviet warships in the Sea of Japan in May 1967, leading to the U.S. to call for Safety at Sea talks. The Soviets finally acceded to the talk proposal in November 1970 when one of their destroyers suffered loss of life during a collision with a British aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. At the time John W. Warner, serving as the Undersecretary of the Navy, was chosen to lead the delegation, aided by veteran diplomat Herbert Okun from the State Department. Ironically one of Warner’s greatest obstacles was opposition within his own senior navy hierarchy that felt that such an accord would bestow undeserved recognition to the Soviets. In contrast, the Soviets proved most open to instilling regimens that would provide guidance to their young ship commanders. However, successful negotiating rounds in Moscow in October 1971 and in Washington in early May 1971 could have proved to be futile when Warner, hosting a dinner party for the Soviet delegation, turned on the television to allow the attendees to watch President Nixon deliver a speech announcing the mining of North Vietnam’s Haiphong Harbor. All eyes in the room turned to the head of the Soviet delegation Fleet Admiral Vladimir A. Kasatonov who responded, “It’s perfectly clear. This is a serious matter. Let the politicians decide.” Signaling that the Soviets placed a high priority in achieving this accord, Okun would observe: “We were highball to highball and they were first to clink.”

Besides implementing guidance to their respective fleet commanders, the accord set up annual reviews between representatives of the two navies that continue as the agreement remains in effect through the present. Over the years Senator Warner kept close interest in the annual reviews, meeting with the two delegations here in Washington as recently as 2019. More significantly, because of the accord’s demonstrated success in deconflicting the American and Soviet-now Russian naval forces, a number of similar accords were reached with America’s NATO allies and Japan with the then Soviet Union and mechanisms adopted from INCSEA govern the behavior of American and Chinese ship commanders as they come in contact in regions such as the South China Sea.

John W. Warner achieved much in his remarkable 94-year lifespan. Over time, his role in negotiating INCSEA may have the greatest lasting impact for limiting the scourge of war.

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