At 100, we just lost George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s even-tempered, sober-minded, and far-seeing Secretary of State, who helped end the Cold War, steer passions to reason, bend swords to plowshares.
His influence continues and his example shines – not just for what he did, but how.
My longest exposure to Shultz was watching him explain to a room full of Senators his worldview. It was July 1982. Shultz stood to replace Al Haig, who abruptly resigned at State. I was a young man in Reagan’s first-term White House. Pressed hard, Shultz stayed cool.
Years prior, he argued “the Soviet system is incompetent and cannot survive.” In retrospect, his position – which mirrored Reagan’s – may seem non-controversial. At the time, it was. Words like détente, rapprochement, and convergence were in vogue. The Soviet bear was a fixture.
Shultz, formerly Nixon’s OMB Director, Secretary of Labor and Treasury, was a level head. Pressure that day was considerable. A Secretary of State must see the world as a whole, a network of overlapping relationships, pulls and pushes, layers of economic, security, cultural, and personal relations – but also individual countries. Shultz could do that, instinctively.
The Middle East was on edge, tensions with Soviets high, and partisanship – while not the beast it is today – stalked Senate halls. Democrat Senators Cranston, Boschwitz, and Glenn took shots at Shultz, who parried with poise and principle. A former Marine, he pushed back with respect.
If one can imagine, the US military was underfunded and stumbling, our economy weak and struggling, Soviets on the march in Afghanistan, Angola, Central and South America, North Africa, the Far East. Yet Shultz saw the opportunity Reagan saw – to restore US confidence, rebuild our military, and then negotiate with the Soviets from strength, capitalizing on their systemic weakness and moral illegitimacy.
In that hearing, Shultz said: “Diminished American strength and resolve are an open invitation for Soviet expansion into areas of critical interest to the West and provide no incentive for moderation in the Soviet military buildup.” Then, he hit his stride. “It is critical to the overall success of our foreign policy that we persevere in the restoration of our strength; but it is also true that the willingness to negotiate from that strength is a fundamental element of strength itself …”
As history is our witness and guide, Shultz and Reagan saw the world as it was, but also as it could be. They knew the power and courage of America’s people, moral compass, and resolve. Their job was to set the bearing, fortify the nation, and hold the rudder. That is what they did.
Shultz served at Secretary of State from July 1982 to January 1989. He was there as Reagan rebuilt the US military, restored US economic strength, delegitimized the Soviet Union, converted Gorbachev by force of tact, facts, and personality. Shultz helped make it happen.
Best were lessons Shultz taught at Secretary, not unlike those Reagan lived. He was quick to listen, slow to anger, motivated by other-regarding service, unhurried in pursuit of high goals, unwilling to indulge affronts, personable by habit, probably by instinct and practice.
In days of Senate grilling, Shultz was the consummate professional, respectful, principled, persuasive, talking details on economic sanctions, nuclear doctrine, force structure, diplomacy. Those were qualities he brought to State, where he corralled differences, pulling the best from all, perhaps on a smaller scale turning swords to plowshares – not easy to do.
His life – chronicled in “Turmoil and Triumph” – spanned a volatile and dangerous, daring and inspirational century. Helping Ronald Reagan end the Cold War, unravel the Soviet Union with diplomacy, patience, hope and constancy, no exchange of arms, saved millions of lives. How he and Reagan negotiated, empowering people to outgrow communism, holds lessons for today.
If the test of good citizen – of any man or women called to serve – is whether they rose to the occasion, put others first, imagined boldly, helped make real something otherwise out of reach, whether they were equal to their time, George Shultz did all that. He was more than equal to his time. For such a life – and example it offers forward – we can only be grateful. Semper fi!