A Reporter Looks Back: Remembering George Schultz

A commentary by Dan Southerland
2021-02-22
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A Reporter Looks Back: Remembering George Schultz Former US Secretary of State George Schultz testifies before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a Feb. 29, 2000 file photo.
AFP

Reporters who covered Secretary of State George P. Shultz liked to refer to him as “Buddha” because of his calm demeanor in the face of world crises.

Shultz, who died on Feb. 6 at the age of 100, was perhaps best known for working with President Ronald Reagan to help end the Cold War.

It’s not easy to sum up the career of a statesman who served for six and a half years as Secretary of State during a time of turmoil overseas. His was the longest tenure since that served by Dean Rusk.

Rusk served for eight years, from early 1961 until January 20, 1969.

Shultz held four different cabinet positions under Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Paul Wolfowitz, who served as an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1982 until 1986 does one of the best jobs of  briefly describing Shultz’s career and impact.

In a commentary written for The Wall Street Journal on February 9 under the headline “Statesman of the Century,” Wolfowitz said that Shultz “was perhaps the 20th century’s most consequential secretary of state, a group that includes George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Henry Kissinger.”

Upon his appointment as Secretary of State, Shultz and President Ronald Reagan immediately agreed on continuing arms sales to Taiwan. This was in line with Reagan’s lifelong support for Taiwan.

In 1982, Shultz also pushed for President Reagan to establish relations with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This led to a thaw in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Then between 1985 and 1989, with Shultz’s help, Reagan forged a relationship with Gorbachev that brought a peaceful end to the Cold War.

Reagan held his first meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva on Nov. 19, 1985. They discussed the Cold War arms race and the possibility of reducing the number of nuclear weapons that their countries possessed.

As noted by John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of military history at Yale University, foreign policy experts at the time worried that Reagan, whose roots lay in movies, television, and advertising, “viewed the world through dangerous simplicities.”

But Gaddis argues that, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan was “an instinctive grand strategist, fully capable of operating without policy planners.”

“He saw more clearly than his advisors the sequences of actions, together with the conditions of constituencies necessary to get him where he wanted to go, said Gaddis in his book about the diplomat George F. Kennan.

Reagan, Gaddis said, “refused to let complications obscure destinations, or to make conventional wisdom a compass.”

George Shultz was able to help Reagan find ways to deal with such complications

What people might best remember about Reagan, of course, was his challenge to Gorbachev during a visit to Berlin on June 12, 1987 when he urged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

But Shultz and Reagan’s success in dealing with Gorbachev was based in part on Shultz’s early recognition that Gorbachev was a new type of Russian leader.

 Reagan and Shultz used the issue of freedom for Soviet Jewry to test for Soviet intentions on nuclear disarmament.

Eventually, as Gorbachev allowed more freedoms in Russia, the communist system dissolved without a shot being fired.

'The world will not wait'

My small claim to fame in Shultz’s history as Secretary of State involved something that I wrote about him as he assumed that role.

I was working as the diplomatic correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor at the time. 

Shultz drew on my comments in his autobiography, where he noted that I wrote in The Christian Science Monitor of July 15, 1982, that “George Shultz faces a world in turmoil, and the world will not wait.”

“Rarely,” I wrote, “has a new secretary of state had to deal with so many upheavals occurring in so many places around the world.”

“He was right,” said Shultz. 

“As I headed for my confirmation hearings”, he said, “the world was in turmoil, and creative engagement from the United States of America was desperately needed.”

Al Haig and the China Card

Albert M. Haig Jr., Shultz’s predecessor as secretary of state, appeared to be eager to sell weapons to China as a signal to the Soviet Union that a Chinese-American alliance was moving a step closer.

On June 18, 1981, I was among a group of reporters covering a trip by Haig to Asia a decade after the historic visit to China by President Richard Nixon. After a stop in Beijing, Haig spoke enthusiastically about a Reagan administration decision to allow the sale of arms to China.

It was later revealed that in the summer of 1973 Michael Pillsbury of the RAND Corporation had already been conducting secret talks with Chinese military officers stationed under diplomatic cover at China’s United Nations mission in New York. This was the genesis of the idea of a “China Card” that the United States might use to gain a Cold War advantage over the Soviet Union.

In 1986, President Reagan decided to arm the Afghan resistance to the Soviets with Stinger missiles, according to the Undersecretary-General who negotiated the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But unlike his predecessor Al Haig, who was heavily focused on forming an alliance with China against the Soviet Union, George Shultz was looking for ways to talk with the Soviets.

Haig was still fighting the Cold War. Shultz was about to help bring it to an end by arranging a meeting for President Reagan with the Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Reagan and Shultz used the issue of freedom for Soviet Jewry to test for Soviet intentions on nuclear disarmament.

They came close to reaching an agreement with Gorbachev under which nuclear arms on both sides would be dismantled.

We now know based on newly released documents obtained by The Washington Post that that a “nuclear scare” occurred in 1983 when the Soviet Union put fighter-bombers loaded with nuclear bombs on 24-hour alert in East Germany.

It was during this period that President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and launched a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to build a space-based missile defense. He believed that  the SDI would render nuclear weapons obsolete.

Resolving the issue of Soviet Jewry

In many of Reagan’s meetings with Gorbachev he would at the outset pull out a list of the names of Soviet Jews who had been refused visas or had been sent to prison because of their activities.

According to a National Public Radio report summarizing these meetings, Reagan would say, “Well if you want to talk, first we have to discuss these names.”

Gorbachev complied, easing immigration restraints so that Soviet Jews could leave Russia in large numbers.   

Eventually, as Gorbachev allowed more freedoms in Russia, the communist system collapsed without a shot being fired.

Shultz and Reagan’s success in dealing Gorbachev was based on Shultz’s early recognition that Gorbachev was a new type of Russian leader.

From early on Reagan himself recognized that he needed to reach out to the Soviets either to pressure them on various issues or to achieve agreements.

Meanwhile, Shultz and Reagan, also early on, agreed to continue arms sales to Taiwan. This was in line with Reagan’s lifelong support for Taiwan.

Shultz’s Style as Secretary of State

Given his experience as an executive at the Bechtel Corporation, Shultz knew how to run a big organization, such as the State Department.

He began by working to restore morale at the State, which had declined under Henry Kissinger’s leadership.

As David Brown, a former State Department official who served both in Washington, D.C. after Shultz had departed, and in Asia, said, “there was a consensus in the Department when I served there (1990-96) that of all  the secretaries in memory, none cared more about the building and tending State as an institution than Shultz did.”

“As compared, for example, with Kissinger, who built himself a replica of the National Security Council on the 7th Floor and pretty much ignored all the work going on below decks,” said Brown in an email exchange with this commentator.

Shultz’s approach was to walk around the State Department building and drop in unannounced on working-level officials—and not those at the highest level—to ask, “How’s it going?”

Phyllis Oakley, a now retired foreign-service official who served as spokesperson for the State Department when Shultz was there, recalls that the officials in one office asked Shultz, “Where are your people?”

They wanted to know why Shultz wasn’t being trailed by the high-level officials who usually accompanied a Secretary of State when he moved around the building.

Shultz responded, “You are my people.”

After leaving the government, Shultz maintained an office at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in California and continued to speak up on a variety of issues, including national security, the economy, and environmental issues.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding Executive Editor

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