Commentary Magazine

Shultz, Reagan, and the Revisionists

The surprising election of a Democratic President in 1992, after a campaign that stressed the “stagnation, drift, and gridlock” of the Reagan-Bush years, has, among many other things, created the political and psychological space within which the liberal opinion establishment can fully indulge its craving to do some serious revisionism on the history of U.S. foreign policy in the 1980’s.

Rewriting history is in vogue sub regno Billary, and no palimpsest is, one gathers, too absurd to contemplate. Thus, to take but one example, it was suggested on the front page of the May 9, 1993 New York Times that recent Republican administrations had no serious interest in human rights: a bizarre claim that would surely come as news to figures as diverse as Lech Walesa, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, Yuri Orlov, Vaclav Havel, Yelena Bonner, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and Augusto Pinochet (not to mention the ghosts of Andrei Gromyko and Ferdinand Marcos).

The lodestar of the new revisionism is a grim determination to deny Ronald Reagan and his policies any significant measure of credit for the West’s winning the cold war. Revisionists of a more moderate kidney suggest that Reagan’s Irish luck struck again, when he drew Mikhail Gorbachev as his partner for the second half of his dance card; the more radical argue that Gorbachev saved us all from the follies of Reaganism. But that the collapse of European Communism and the break-up of the Yalta imperial system had anything much to do with the policies pursued by the United States under Ronald Reagan is the judgment that dare not speak its name.

Indeed, out in the nether reaches of the fever swamps, the very notion of “winning” is regarded as unsavory. A recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education informed us that America had really lost the cold war, suffering as we now do from the “self-inflicted wounds” caused by a public willing “to compromise American principles and ideals . . . in the name of fighting Communism.”



Revisionist, anti-Reagan animus sharply affected the early reviews of Turmoil and Triumph, the memoirs of George P. Shultz,1 Reagan’s Secretary of State from July 1982 until both men left office in January 1989. In her comments on Shultz’s book, for example, the Times‘s chief diplomatic correspondent, Elaine Sciolino, continued to chew the bone of the Reagan administration’s “virulent anti-Communism.” Not to be outdone, Michiko Kakutani, the Times‘s daily reviewer, criticized Secretary Shultz for advancing an unholy trinity of “debatable” arguments:

that President Reagan’s hard-nosed dealings with the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, effectively ended the cold war, that President Reagan was somehow responsible for the spread of democracy in the Western Hemisphere, [and] that President Reagan left America “far better off than he found it.”

That these propositions are considered “debatable” (by which Kakutani really means “dubious”) illustrates one of the great paradoxes, perhaps even tragedies, of the 80’s: that Ronald Reagan, the most successful President since Eisenhower and the man who handily defeated the Left electorally, could not replicate those victories culturally and ideologically in the American opinion-elite and in the permanent political class. On the contrary, the 1980’s saw domestic turmoil over foreign policy—embodied in the nuclear-freeze and Central American agitations—of a sort the country had not experienced since the Vietnam era. The further paradox is that the Reagan years were the occasion for the revival in the teaching centers of our society (the academy, the religious community, the prestige press, the entertainment industry) of many of the key themes of gauchiste Vietnam-era politics: anti-anti-Communism, neoisolationism, functional pacifism, alienation from the American experiment.

These notions, dumbed down to the meta-theme that Ronald Reagan was a dangerous ignoramus who, left to his own devices, would embroil the United States in a host of third-world proxy wars and blunder into a nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union, were relentlessly pressed home through the editorial and op-ed pages, the nightly network news, the newsmagazines and opinion journals, the movies and TV, and not a few pulpits and classrooms, for eight long years.

Nor was this simply a lot of journalistic, academic, and ecclesiastical hot air: it shaped the politics of both parties, and it deeply divided the Congress. George Shultz himself got a horse-doctor’s dose of subtle (and not-so-subtle) anti-Reaganism (and anti-anti-Communism) less than a year into his service as Secretary of State. The scene was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the topic was U.S.-Soviet relations; and the time was June 1983, at the height of the fevered debate over the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe.

Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, the Republican committee chairman, fretted that Reagan had not held a summit, so that Americans and Soviets could “gauge each other to be sure there is no miscalculation or misunderstanding, and to try to better understand each other’s policies.” (That U.S.-Soviet conflict was largely the result of “misunderstanding”—meaning American misunderstanding—was a prominent theme in the freeze movement.) The Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts wondered aloud why, since “everybody else thought there was some value to face-to-face negotiations,” the Reagan administration had not leaped at the opportunity to chat up Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Gromyko. But it was another Democrat, Senator Alan Cranston of California, then contemplating a presidential run in 1984, who made certain that the “Blame America First” position was well represented, asking Shultz to “tell us what the United States, for its part, has done to contribute to the tension that exists between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

George Shultz’s one-word answer to Senator Cranston—“Nothing”—presumably took the California solon aback. But it was of a piece with one of the more admirable features of Shultz’s memoirs: his resistance to the notion of Reagan-the-boob-and-warmonger.

Shultz does not hesitate to criticize Reagan’s presidential management style, the most charitable description of which would be “detached.” Indeed, Shultz argues that it was Reagan’s inattention to detail, his naive faith in several of his less competent advisers, his inability to be a good butcher when heads had to roll, and his supreme confidence in his own rectitude (coupled with his decency and an excess of compassion) that led him into the tar pits of the Iran-contra affair, the episode that began the Left’s comeback and that nearly ruined the last two years of his presidency.

Nor does Shultz seem to have been entirely comfortable with Reagan’s more bracing anti-Communist rhetoric. Though he did not disagree with the content of the proposition that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” Shultz would not have put the indictment quite that way. But unlike others critical of the President’s personal and rhetorical style, Shultz also argues that Ronald Reagan was, at bottom, a first-class political leader who saw the future—and the collapse of Communism—more presciently than many, many others.

Including his own Secretary of State, a point Shultz gracefully and frankly concedes.



As both his book and his long record of public service make clear, George Shultz was (and is) a conservative. But he came to the highest position in the cabinet as a conservative who fit comfortably within the big tent of the foreign-policy establishment—an arena in which, by the early 1980’s, sentiments of appeasement were forgiven more readily than exercises in moral and ideological assertiveness. Shultz was, to be sure, an unapologetic anti-Communist, convinced of the superiority of the Western democratic system on both moral and practical grounds. But it is revealing that one of Shultz’s preferred images for foreign policy is “gardening”—a metaphor that he may have adopted from his great predecessor, Dean Acheson, who once said that “Statesmen are not architects but gardeners, dealing with such materials as only nature can provide.”

Consequently, in office, Shultz was determined to be a conservatively-oriented, pragmatic diplomat.2 He shared Reagan’s sense that American power had declined precipitously during the Carter presidency; he supported Reagan’s rearmament program; he stressed, from the beginning of his tenure as Secretary of State, that “strength and diplomacy worked in tandem.” But Shultz, a veteran labor negotiator who had spent the Carter years in international business, disagreed with those conservatives and neoconservatives who argued that any negotiation between an aggressive totalitarian regime and a democracy inevitably and ineluctably worked to the latter’s disadvantage. Rather, Shultz believed that good deals were possible when the Soviet Union understood that America had recovered its strength and its nerve; and he was prepared to deal, if from strength.

Ronald Reagan had, of course, a less conventional view of U.S.-Soviet relations: he was committed to change, indeed to political victory, rather than to the careful conservative management of the status quo. Thus, one of the fascinating tensions of Shultz’s book—a tension that helps compensate for the former Secretary’s rather stolid prose style—is the interplay between Reagan’s intuitive or architectural sense of America’s role in the world, and Shultz’s preference for prudent “gardening.”

Shultz makes clear, for example, that Reagan firmly believed everything he said about the Soviet Union and Marxism-Leninism being consigned to the scrap heap of history. This was not rhetorical red meat for the faithful; it was bedrock Reagan conviction. Moreover, according to Shultz, Reagan was indeed committed to the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons—a proposal that caused consternation among both his senior advisers and his liberal arms-controller critics. (Despite their freeze fervor, the latter, Shultz acidly and accurately remarks, had long ago decided to stop worrying and love the bomb.)

Shultz did not disagree with these provocative convictions of Reagan’s as long-term goals; but he does seem to have discounted their applicability as templates for the cutting and fitting of short-term policy. One might even suggest that Shultz was not unattracted to the notion that the mythical beast known as “hard-headed détente” could be an effective means for reaching Reagan’s goals.

The tension between the architects and the gardeners in the Reagan administration was highest (and, Shultz admits, most exciting) during the 1986 Reykjavik summit. There, Reagan and Gorbachev seriously discussed the elimination of both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But to the relief of many conventional realists and neoconservative anti-détentists, that extraordinary deal came unstuck at the eleventh hour when Gorbachev refused to permit testing of strategic-defense systems outside the laboratory.

In the aftermath of Reykjavik, Reagan was mercilessly pilloried by liberals for letting his “Star Wars” fantasies wreck arms control. Thus, Shultz’s defense of Reykjavik as a “great success” that cleared the ground for 50-percent cuts in strategic nuclear weapons and massive reductions in intermediate nuclear forces is a defense mounted largely against his (and Reagan’s) port-side critics. Nor does Shultz’s list of Reykjavik’s other achievements (the inclusion of defensive systems in future negotiations, and an agreement to keep human rights on the U.S.-Soviet agenda) quite meet the conservative charge that Reykjavik might have been a disaster, had Gorbachev just said yes.3

Shultz’s treatment of the Reykjavik summit is only one part of a larger argument: viz., that the dialectic between Reagan’s radicalism (Shultz’s telling term) and his own businesslike pragmatism made for a potent and ultimately effective diplomatic cocktail. Historians will be debating that claim for decades, even centuries, to come. And no small part of the debate will turn on the question of how crucial the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev was to the Reagan/Shultz accomplishment.



His instinctive preference for, and faith in, negotiations notwithstanding, Shultz does suggest that no significant progress could have been made with the Soviet Union so long as the Leninist gerontocrats of the Brezhnev/Andropov/Chernenko/Gromyko generation remained at the throttle in Moscow. Indeed, Shultz’s relief at being able to work with men like Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is almost palpable: and, given Gromyko’s personality, entirely understandable. (Someone once said that Gromyko, having been informed by Stalin that smiling was counterrevolutionary, was still waiting for the order to grimace to be rescinded.)

Yet Shultz’s quite plausible claim that Gorbachev and Shevardnadze did not suffer from the more acute character deformations of their predecessors, whose formative political experience had been the purge trials of the 1930’s, will not bear the full weight of argument he frequently assigns to it. For, of itself, the change in style at the Kremlin did not decisively fix the pattern of cause-and-effect in the end-game of the cold war.

Moreover, Shultz’s portrait of Gorbachev is strangely out of focus, and in ways that both muddle the analysis of events and give unnecessary running room to the Gorbophiles (who are not infrequently the Reaganphobes). On the one hand, Shultz argues that Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were men from a “distinctly different mold” who knew that “change” in the Soviet system was inevitable, and even desirable. On the other hand, Shultz describes Gorbachev as a man with a “deep commitment to Communism as an ideology,” whose approach was “to repair his system, not replace it.” On the other, other hand, Shultz seems critical of those who argued that real change—i.e., systemic change—was impossible in the Soviet system, given the social realities and structure of late-bureaucratic totalitarianism and the ideological pretensions of Marxism-Leninism.

As things turned out, this latter group—conservatives and neocon-servatives—had the theoretical argument right: Soviet Communism did not evolve and change, it collapsed. Indeed, it collapsed in part because it tried to change a bit, and could not. To revert to 80’s-speak, there could be no radical economic perestroika without radical cultural and political glasnost—and the latter was impossible in a Communist society.

Did Shultz believe that? His book provides no definitive answer. Nor does he seriously engage an alternative historical construction: namely, the anti-détentist claim that the efforts to restore America’s strategic position, bitterly opposed by Reagan’s critics and by an unremitting Soviet agitprop campaign (the full dimensions of which are only becoming apparent now that we have access to ex-Soviet archives), badly jarred the Brezhnevite Soviet gerontocracy to the point where it felt compelled to take a chance on a “reformer” like Gorbachev—who then proceeded to set in motion internal dynamics that led to Soviet Communism’s implosion.



It is also disappointing that, for someone personally and professionally committed to the cause of human rights, Shultz does not discuss the “software” side of what eventually became the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe and the New Russian Revolution of 1991 in the USSR—namely, the moral and spiritual awakening that took place throughout the Yalta imperial system in the 1980’s, and that did so much to buttress the nonviolent and democratic character of the revolutions that toppled Stalin’s imperium. A book on world politics—and especially East/West politics—in the 1980’s in which Lech Walesa gets one index entry and Vaclav Havel none is, to be gentle, a little odd: not least because of the effective support provided to the “dissidents” in Central and Eastern Europe by the National Endowment for Democracy (a crucial Reagan initiative whose impact on the transformation of the cold war is simply left undiscussed by Shultz).

These latter lacunae are explained in part by the fact that Turmoil and Triumph is very much the View from the Seventh Floor: from the offices of the Secretary of State and his closest departmental colleagues. “Policy,” in this book, is what the Secretary thinks and does. Accordingly, Shultz provides little insight into, or accounting of, the intellectual contributions that many other talented and dedicated people made to his successes vis-à-vis the Soviets, in the Philippine transition from Marcos to Corazon Aquino, and in the democratic transitions in Central and South America.



George Shultz was an honorable servant of his President and his country. His reverence for the office of the presidency, his steady temperament, his basic horse sense, and his great store of energy (one footnote simply listing Shultz’s engagements for a two-week period left this reader feeling exhausted) were all important assets in an administration that, on Shultz’s telling at least, was not notable for its orderly policy process. And it seems to me both appropriate and admirable that Shultz, who clearly had his differences with Ronald Reagan, nonetheless makes plain his conviction that Reagan’s visionary leadership was the sine qua non for some of the most successful foreign policy in U.S. history.

And yet—oddly enough for a book that weighs in at just under four pounds!—I came away from Turmoil and Triumph wanting more: specifically, more on the ideological struggles of the 1980’s here at home, and their relationship to the Reagan/Shultz foreign policy. At the very beginning of his book, Shultz writes that “the year was 1982, but the 1970’s were still with us.” In fact, it was the 60’s that were (and are) still with us.

Think, for a moment, about the worst of the Carter legacy—the pietistic nattering about our “inordinate fear of Communism”; the leftist distortion of human-rights policy (a disaster turned into a great national strength by one of Shultz’s ablest aides, Elliott Abrams); the naive misreading of the Brezhnev Doctrine and the Soviet weapons build-up; the deterioration of America’s strategic position and its conventional combat readiness. All of these things—“the 1970’s”—involved the playing-out of softened forms of New Left polemics during the Vietnam era.

Moreover, these neoisolationist and anti-anti-Communist theologoumena had deeply penetrated the national Democratic party, and subsequently the Congress of the United States. It was not just partisanship that motivated the endless congressional efforts to undercut the Reagan administration’s rearmament program, and it was not just partisanship that led to the Boland amendments proscribing U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan resistance: it was ideology. The nuclear-freeze movement (itself the political cause of the Strategic Defense Initiative), and the pro-Sandinista, pro-Salvadoran FMLN agitations that went on throughout Shultz’s tenure, were the children of the anti-America’s-war-in-Vietnam movement: the difference being, this time around, that “the movement” included people who held congressional hearings, voted (or withheld) appropriations, and wielded the power of the subpoena.

The failure of the Reagan administration to conduct ideological combat as successfully here in America as the Reaganites did abroad came home to roost during the Iran-contra affair—which was, among other things, an inquisition aimed at discrediting the Reagan Doctrine of active U.S. support for anti-Communist/pro-democracy forces in the third world. George Shultz, at least on the record of this book, seems strangely tone-deaf to this dimension of our public life: to the fact that the 60’s are still too much with us.

Recognizing that hard fact, however, and being prepared to counter it, is the key to revising the revisionists—and to defending the record of which George Pratt Shultz, a good man and an able Secretary of State, is justifiably proud.


1 Scribner's, 1,186 pp., $30.00.

2 This should not be taken to mean that Shultz was uninterested in the ideological dimension of foreign policy, especially as that expressed itself in the suffering of individual human beings. On the contrary, throughout his tenure, Shultz showed considerable interest in human-rights issues, especially vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and was supportive of many of us working outside the government on behalf of those then called “prisoners of conscience.”

3 A curiosity in Shultz's treatment of Reykjavik is his seeming agreement with Paul Nitze's laudatory appraisal of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev who was, evidently, a more intelligent and flexible negotiator than the civilian Victor Karpov. At a caucus of the senior American negotiators in the small hours of the morning, Nitze, according to Shultz, said that “Akhromeyev is a first-class negotiator. Communism is a flawed system and it will fail, but Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev is a man of great courage and character. If anyone can help the USSR toward its best aspirations, he can. But he is a good man in a bad system.” Five years later, it will be remembered, Marshal Akhromeyev committed suicide in the aftermath of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, leaving behind a note saying that the collapse of Communism meant the ruin of his life's work.

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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