George P. Shultz’s life gave meaning to the phrase “the greatest generation.” Upon graduation from Princeton in 1942, he enlisted in the Marines and stormed the beaches of Palau. A successful academic career led him from a professorship at MIT to becoming dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago. He served successfully as president of Bechtel, the global engineering firm. He held four cabinet-level positions in the U.S. government: Secretary of Labor, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Secretary of the Treasury, and finally Secretary of State for Ronald Reagan. And all that was after serving on the Council of Economic Advisers under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Henry Kissinger expressed the kind of confidence Shultz engendered: “If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis, it would be George Shultz.”
What was the magic that enabled Shultz to hold four cabinet posts successfully and to advise three presidents? It’s obvious that he was a man of great intelligence who knew how to manage both the individuals who worked directly with or for him and very large organizations. But there was more—much more. He infused each of those positions with the very old-fashioned virtue of good character and had the desire and the ability to see far beyond the problems of the day. He was a visionary whose feet were very firmly planted on the ground, indeed on the ground of his old discipline, economics.
A few stories will give a sense of this extraordinary man. Start with his landing in Palau in 1944, as he recounted it during a sentimental visit there as secretary of state in 1986. There was confusion on the beach as men and materiel landed, so Shultz appointed himself beach master: “There was a gigantic amount of stuff unloaded on the beach and while there was a plan for exactly what should go and where it should go and so on, as the battle erupted, it just came in and piled up and it was just sitting there. So I just took charge of it and started dispatching it, and so that was basically the Angaur landing.”
Professor Shultz and Secretary Shultz were among the many proud titles Shultz bore during his long life, but it is not an accident that his wife Charlotte’s note announcing his death on February 6 began this way: “I’m saddened to let you know that my dear, wonderful George, United States Marine, passed on yesterday evening at our Stanford home.”
Shultz’s reputation for character and integrity was well-deserved. Consider 1974, when Richard Nixon developed his “enemies list” and insisted that the IRS go after the people on it. John Dean gave this list of 200 names to the IRS commissioner, who thought about it for a few days and then went to see his boss: Treasury Secretary George P. Shultz. Shultz told him to lock the list in his safe and do nothing—despite the risk to Shultz’s own job. In one of the infamous White House tapes, Nixon calls Shultz a “candy ass” for refusing these orders, but Shultz would never be pushed around. When Reagan administration leaks led CIA Director William Casey to suggest that everyone at State, including Shultz, take a lie detector test, Shultz answered immediately: “The minute in this government I am told that I’m not trusted is the day that I leave.”
Shultz ran the State Department by relying on both career diplomats and political appointees. As a matter of principle, he favored political appointees for the top positions because they would better understand the president’s views and greater sympathy for his politics than the Foreign Service. And Shultz made it a point to go beyond reacting to events by carving out time to do what he had done as a professor: think. “Stuff is happening all the time and you are dealing with it,” he recounted after leaving office. “So I developed the idea that at least twice a week—in prime time, not the end of the day when you are tired—I take, say, three-quarters of an hour or so and tell my secretary: If my wife calls or the president calls, put them through; otherwise, no calls. I tell myself not to look at my inbox; instead, I go sit in a comfortable chair with a pad and a pencil, take a deep breath, and ask myself: ‘What am I doing here? What are our strategic objectives, and how are we doing?’ Reflecting on that has helped me quite a lot, I think.”
I met Shultz in 1982 when he became Ronald Reagan’s second secretary of state after the resignation of Alexander Haig. I was serving then as assistant secretary of state for human rights, a new position that was weak bureaucratically in the Department and occupied shabby quarters in a corner of the building. Meeting Shultz and discussing my position, I mentioned the latter problem and simply said, “Come and see it—visit me.” He did, very shortly thereafter, walking from his beautiful office down to mine. He toured our suite, shook hands with my staff—and immediately ordered a refurbishment that put us on the map. Far more important, he made it clear to the powerful regional bureaus that the human rights bureau was henceforth to have a role: we were to be consulted. And once they knew that was the secretary’s view, we had something new: bargaining power.
Shultz did this because he genuinely cared about human rights and saw it as a central element in the American system and in our foreign policy. In the mid-1980s, during the fierce debates about U.S. policy in Central America, the question arose of why the tiny Nicaraguan Jewish community had fled after the Sandinista victory—and after harassment that included a 1978 fire-bombing of the Managua synagogue while Friday night Shabbat services were underway. The U.S. embassy looked into it all and concluded there was no problem here. I wrote a memo to Shultz saying that I had never understood how the State Department could in the 1930s have coldly turned away Jews seeking to flee from Hitler—until now. If throwing Molotov cocktails at a synagogue during services was going to be dismissed as a complex phenomenon, not obvious anti-Semitism, anything was possible. His reaction: at our next senior staff meeting, he asked me to read my memo aloud. The Department’s top officers’ message was clear: this kind of thing would not happen on his watch.
We saw how deeply Shultz felt about these issues during his April 1987 visit to Moscow for arms talks with Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. It was Passover, but Shultz was an Episcopalian. No matter: he invited dozens of refuseniks to a seder at Spaso House, the elegant residence of the U.S. ambassador. He brought kosher wine and food with him on his official plane and greeted the guests wearing a white kippah. In his remarks to the beleaguered dissidents, he said this: “We never stop, we think about you, we pray for you, and we are with you. We never give up, we never stop trying. Never give up, never give up.” Without making unduly invidious distinctions, can one envision such an act of grace and solidarity by Shultz’s predecessors or successors from John Foster Dulles to James Baker?
That Passover story has a sequel. Months later, Shultz had a call from a guest at the Shultz seder whose name had been on a list of refuseniks Shultz had given the Soviets. “This is Ida Nudel. I’m in Jerusalem,” she said. Later, Shultz said that call was one of the most moving moments in his six and half years as secretary of state.
These stories speak to Shultz’s character, as does the very fact that he is not as celebrated as he should be. He was not a leaker, not a manipulator, not concerned about his own fame and glory or his reputation for power. It is typical of him that he did not try to establish a graduate school named after him (as opposed to the James A. Baker Institute at Rice University). There is just one institution named after Shultz today, and it is the campus of the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, where American diplomats are trained: the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia. Few people outside the State Department have heard of it. But to Shultz, it was a worthy namesake.
He was the most consequential secretary of state since Dean Acheson helped Truman design the global, U.S.-led system that would succeed the Second World War. Shultz was the bookend on that beginning: he helped Ronald Reagan design and execute an end to the Cold War. Critical here was Shultz’s constant understanding of his own role. Simply put, he was not the president. Shultz explained in 2015, “People would ask me what my foreign policy was, and I always said, ‘I do not have one; the president has one. My job is to help him formulate it and carry it out, but it is the president’s foreign policy.’ So I think you need to be clear about who is the guy who got elected.” That was not just hindsight from Shultz: I well recall a long discussion with him over a contentious European issue. One of the team members present objected vociferously to a position Reagan planned to take and that we were discussing. Shultz heard him out in full, as he always did in our discussions. And then he replied, “You know, you may be right. You might be. All you need to do now is get yourself elected president. But since Ronald Reagan got himself elected, we are going to do it his way.”
Shultz was an excellent manager and a skilled negotiator, but these were tools of the trade rather than objectives. The objective was freedom. He had many meetings over his years at State with Shevardnadze but did not lecture his counterpart about Soviet conduct in these sessions. More typical was his effort to persuade Shevardnadze that, as the world moved from the industrial to the information age, economies and military establishments would not be based on giant tank or bomber factories. They would be based on the flow of information, and the Soviet system was built around preventing exactly that. They could never win a competition with the United States while holding fast to the technologies of the 1930s and 1940s. That argument was far more persuasive—but of course, Shultz combined it with both rising defense spending the Russians could not match, and his persistent pressure on human rights issues.
On the last page of his memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, in which he shows his deep understanding and appreciation for Ronald Reagan, Shultz writes this: “Ronald Reagan presented me with the Medal of Freedom at his last official event, a farewell luncheon at the White House. I was proud to receive that honor from him, as we had fought together for the idea of freedom throughout his presidency. We knew that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and a willingness to act in its defense. We knew that on matters of principle we could not compromise.” Shultz understood what could be compromised and what could not. Interviewed in Israel at age 95, Shultz was asked about negotiating with Iran, and replied that everything—including missiles, terrorism, and internal repression—needed to be covered, not just nuclear issues: “So you don’t just negotiate on the nuclear weapons. You negotiate the whole thing. People would say, they wouldn’t do it. Well, then we won’t negotiate.” But if there were no negotiations, he was then asked, would not the ayatollahs move closer and closer to having nuclear weapons? Shultz replied: “Well, maybe. Or maybe we do something about it.” He fully understood the uses of American power.
On the left, Reagan still does not get the credit he deserves for winning the Cold War, nor does Shultz; revisionists want to credit “history” or Shevardnadze and especially Mikhail Gorbachev. But Margaret Thatcher was basically right when she said “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.” Reagan’s most striking achievement was spiritual and intellectual. He envisioned not “peaceful coexistence,” not endless accommodation, but victory. In 1988 Reagan explained to Richard V. Allen, his first National Security Adviser, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.”
But a strategy needs to be implemented. To get there, Reagan needed as his wingman someone who shared his confidence in America, and who could turn that strategy into the everyday reality of diplomatic life. Who could work with Reagan to see when compromise was right? Who could advise him about negotiating with reluctant Europeans, hostile Soviets, and Democrats who thought the whole policy a dangerous road to war? Whom could he trust every day to counsel wisely and never to undermine, never to place his own personal interests or reputation over that of the President? Reagan had the immense luck to find, and the great sense to choose, a statesman with not just the vision and character but also the bureaucratic and management skills to be his partner.
The frontispiece in Shultz’s memoir is a quote from Isaiah Berlin: “At crucial moments, at turning points, when factors appear more or less equally balanced, chance, individuals and their decisions and acts, themselves not necessarily predictable—indeed seldom so—can determine the course of history.”
This may have been Shultz’s tribute to Reagan, but it is a fair summary of Shultz’s place in contemporary history. Born just after the First World War, he risked his life as a Marine to see freedom prevail in the Second. Then he returned time after time to Washington to help keep the nation prosperous and free, and guide it through Cold War confrontations that required steely nerves and deep confidence in himself, his country, and the cause of freedom. He was blessed to live 100 years, but we were more blessed that at those “crucial moments and turning points,” George Shultz was there again and again.
Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration under Secretary of State George P. Shultz.