George Shultz, counsel and Cabinet member for two Republican presidents, dies at 100

Former secretary of state George Shultz, and his wife, Charlotte, arrive at the Alfalfa Club dinner in 2002. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Robert A. Reeder

On Sunday, Oct. 12, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had reached a climactic moment in their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Gorbachev proposed sweeping reductions in nuclear weapons if Reagan would constrain his missile defense plan, but Reagan balked.

During a break in the meeting, Secretary of State George Shultz hastily crafted new language to keep alive some hope for agreement.

When talks resumed, Reagan took everything further than arms control had ever gone before. He proposed to Gorbachev to eliminate “all explosive nuclear devices,” including “bombs, battlefield systems, cruise missiles, submarine weapons, intermediate-range systems, and so on.”

“We could say that, list all those weapons,” replied Gorbachev.

“Then let’s do it,” said Shultz, giving birth to one of the most audacious attempts of the Cold War to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. The deal unraveled by nightfall but helped pave the way in the years that followed to wholesale reductions in nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War.

Shultz, one of two people to hold four Cabinet positions in the U.S. government and as secretary of state was an essential participant in Reagan’s negotiations with the Soviet Union, died Feb. 6 at his home in Stanford, Calif. He was 100. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where Shultz was the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow, confirmed the death but did not provide details.

Shultz was a policy maven, conservative and curious, patient and determined. He ranged widely over domestic and foreign affairs. “He was a doer, and not a talker,” former secretary of state James Baker said Sunday. “He was plodding and calm, thoughtful and rational. He was not at all flamboyant.”

Shultz served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, labor secretary, treasury secretary and secretary of state. Only Elliot Richardson had held more Cabinet posts. Shultz taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago and Stanford, where at his death he was emeritus professor at the graduate business school. He also was president of Bechtel, the multinational construction and engineering firm, for eight years.

When selected to replace retired Gen. Alexander Haig as Reagan’s secretary of state in 1982, Shultz saw that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had sunk into deep cold after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a Soviet-backed crackdown in Poland. Reagan promised in his 1980 campaign for president to confront the Soviet Union more directly, and in his first two years had embarked on a more aggressive posture, including a military buildup. “Relations between the two superpowers were not simply bad; they were virtually nonexistent,” Shultz recalled in his memoirs.

Over the next year or so, Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, a research effort to build a shield against ballistic missiles carrying nuclear weapons.

The United States, countering the Soviets, deployed ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Antinuclear protests flooded the streets; an ABC television film about nuclear holocaust, “The Day After” (1983), got huge ratings. The Soviets shot down a civilian passenger airliner, Korean Air Lines Flight 007. A NATO nuclear command post exercise, Able Archer, may have been misinterpreted by the Soviets as a prelude to an attack.

Shultz brooded over the worsening situation and what to do about it. When he met the president for an informal dinner at the White House, talkative and relaxed, Reagan told Shultz of his abhorrence of mutually assured destruction, the cocked-pistols approach that defined the superpower nuclear standoff. This insight into Reagan’s thinking helped guide Shultz toward change, which was also aided by the ascension of Gorbachev as the Soviet leader in March 1985.

Hard-liners in the U.S. government continued to cast a critical eye on Moscow, but Shultz saw Gorbachev as someone, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said, whom “we can do business with.” Shultz had to constantly do battle with others in the administration. “No one in the arms control community shared Reagan’s view” about eliminating nuclear weapons, Shultz later recalled. He told aides, “This is his instinct and his belief. The president has noticed that no one pays any attention to him.”

Shultz’s efforts to change course brought him into conflict with CIA Director William Casey and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, among others. “The hardliners were always attacking both of us,” recalled Baker, who described Shultz as a mentor. “He had my back, and I had his.”

Shultz’s efforts on the Soviet Union were aided by first lady Nancy Reagan, who also urged her husband to make what became known as “the turn” in policy toward Moscow. Shultz encouraged Reagan’s more hopeful side. Reagan often expressed a desire that he could make progress if he could only face Soviet leaders in person.

In February 1983, against the advice of the national security adviser, William Clark, Shultz arranged for a secret White House meeting between Reagan and the veteran Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Reagan pressed Dobrynin on human rights but also expressed a willingness to be constructive. It was the first time Reagan engaged in personal diplomacy with a Soviet official.

Three Soviet leaders – Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko – died in Reagan’s first years in office. Reagan met Gorbachev face-to-face at the summit in Geneva in 1985, which concluded with a joint statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

In January 1986, Gorbachev went public with a plan to liquidate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Shultz, informed of the plan and knowing of Reagan’s views, went to the Oval Office that afternoon to discover that the president already had read the headlines. Reagan asked Shultz, “Why wait until the end of the century for a world without nuclear weapons?”

By October, the two leaders were discussing just that in Reykjavik. In the end, the astonishing deal collapsed over Reagan’s refusal to limit his missile defense plan. But the summit set in motion what in 1987 became the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first arms control agreement of the nuclear age to eliminate an entire class of weapons, and follow-up treaties in later years to significantly reduce the long-range strategic weapons stockpiles.

On the way to a Moscow summit in 1988, Shultz suggested privately to Reagan that he ask Gorbachev to see Red Square, which the secretary of state thought was “one of the great sights of the world.”

Shultz had the request typed for Reagan on a small card as a reminder. Although the White House image-makers were opposed, Shultz recalled, the stroll on Red Square became a reality, the most memorable scenes of the visit. Asked whether he still considered the Soviet Union to be an evil empire, Reagan replied, “No.”

Surprised, reporters asked why. Reagan said, “You are talking about another time, another era.”

It was also a testament to Shultz’s efforts over the years.

“As a former labor mediator and domestic affairs cabinet member accustomed to temporary ups and downs, Shultz was undeterred by the many obstacles, disappointments and setbacks along the way,” Don Oberdorfer, The Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent, wrote in “The Turn,” his account of the change in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Like the tortoise in the race with the hare, he just kept coming, moving slowly but relentlessly toward his goal.”

A decade after Reykjavik, Shultz and physicist Sidney Drell convened a conference at Hoover on the lessons of the summit, which led in 2007 to an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” signed by Shultz, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former defense secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga.

The group continued for years to seek reductions in nuclear arsenals. Nunn said Shultz “had a profound impact on reducing nuclear dangers and prepared the groundwork for the end of the Cold War.”

President Joe Biden said in a statement of Shultz: “He focused on the possibilities of what could be, unhindered by the impasses or deadlocks of the past. That was the vision and dedication that helped guide our nation through some of its most dangerous periods and ultimately helped create the opening that led to the end of the Cold War.”

George Pratt Shultz was born in Manhattan on Dec. 13, 1920. An only child, he was raised in Englewood, N.J., and attended the private Loomis School in Windsor, Conn. His father, Birl, was dean of the educational institute of the New York Stock Exchange, a training school for employees of the exchange.

He graduated from Princeton University in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and played on the varsity basketball and football teams. After service in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, he received a doctorate in industrial economics in 1949 from MIT. (He reportedly had a tattoo of a tiger, the Princeton mascot, on his bottom, though he steadfastly refused to confirm it.)

In 1946, he married Helena O’Brien, and they had three daughters and two sons. In 1997, two years after the death of his first wife, he married Charlotte Mailliard Swig, the longtime chief of protocol for the city of San Francisco. In addition to his wife, survivors include five children; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Shultz specialized at first in labor relations and employment. He held a succession of academic posts at MIT and the University of Chicago, where he became dean of the graduate business school in 1962.

He interrupted his university career in 1955 for the first of many government posts, working for President Dwight Eisenhower as a senior staff economist on the Council of Economic Advisers.

Shultz was named labor secretary in 1968 by the newly elected Richard Nixon, and his experience as a mediator came in handy as he was called upon to deal with several high-profile strikes. He also helped establish one of the federal government’s first affirmative action programs, the Philadelphia Plan, which set goals for minority employment at federally subsidized construction sites.

After 18 months, Nixon appointed Shultz as the first director of a new Office of Management and Budget, which made him the president’s right-hand man on economic matters. He changed posts again in May 1972, when Nixon named him treasury secretary, and he became the administration’s point person on international efforts to eliminate fixed exchange rates for currencies.

Shultz emerged unscathed from the Watergate scandal that enveloped the administration near the end of his tenure. He refused to allow the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Nixon’s political enemies, and Nixon referred to him as a “candy-a–” in one of his taped White House conversations. Shultz resigned from the Treasury post in 1974 to become president of San Francisco-based Bechtel.

Shultz’s 6 1/2 years as secretary of state put him at center stage in the tumult of the Reagan years. In the 1985 political crisis in the Philippines, opposition leader Corazon Aquino appeared to have defeated 20-year President Ferdinand Marcos, a longtime ally of the United States, in an election marked by widespread fraud on the government side.

Marcos tried to declare victory. Shultz argued that it was time for the United States to break with Marcos. Reagan grudgingly followed Shultz’s advice that he threaten Marcos with the loss of military aid and urge him to give up power, according to an account by historian James Mann.

Marcos eventually agreed to step down, and Aquino became president. Mann wrote in “Rise of the Vulcans” that Shultz showed “remarkable tenacity” that helped the Philippines make the transformation from dictatorship to democracy.

Shultz was an early and outspoken advocate of aggressive anti-terrorism measures. With his support, Reagan took action against terrorists and the states that sponsored them, including the bombing of Libya in 1986 after it was found complicit in the bombing of a Berlin disco in which two American servicemen died.

In Middle East diplomacy, Shultz expended considerable energy trying to persuade Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to abandon terrorism against Israel.

Near the end of the Reagan administration, Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. The next day, Reagan ended a 13-year ban on U.S. talks with the PLO, though it would be five more years before secret negotiations between Israel and the PLO led to the Oslo accords.

In the early part of Reagan’s second term, the administration launched a clandestine program to sell weapons to Iran and divert proceeds to rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, a violation of congressional restrictions on such aid. By Shultz’s account, he argued vigorously in private against the arms sales to Tehran, which were designed to gain Iran’s help in freeing U.S. hostages in Lebanon. But he was criticized afterward for not taking on the matter more directly.

“Secretary Shultz and Secretary Weinberger in particular distanced themselves from the march of events,” concluded the board chaired by former senator John Tower, R-Texas, that reviewed the Reagan administration’s handling of the matter. “Secretary Shultz specifically requested to be informed only as necessary to perform his job.”

Once the matter became public, however, Shultz, reflecting the lessons of what he had seen during Watergate, urged others in the administration to come clean. Historian Malcolm Byrne, in his book “Iran-Contra,” wrote that “Shultz alone proposed to engage the U.S. public rather than keep a tight hold on information.”

After Reagan gave an error-laden news conference on Nov. 19, 1986, Shultz went to the White House the next day to tell the president that his remarks were full of mistakes.

“He had accepted as accurate information provided him by the CIA and NSC staff that was in fact laden with error,” Shultz recalled in his 1993 memoir, “Turmoil and Triumph.” “For nearly an hour I went at it with the president. We argued back and forth, hot and heavy. I never thought I would talk to a president of the United States in such a direct and challenging way.”

In 1989, Reagan awarded Shultz the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

At the Hoover Institution, Shultz played a behind-the-scenes role in national Republican politics. In April 1998, he arranged for a number of conservative intellectuals to meet with Texas Gov. George W. Bush as he prepared to run for the White House. He was also a prominent supporter of and adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Shultz had a reputation for integrity and honesty. He was enmeshed, however, in a controversy over Theranos, a Silicon Valley-based medical device firm run by Elizabeth Holmes, a charismatic entrepreneur now awaiting trial on fraud charges.

Shultz was on the board, and, through Shultz’s connections, Holmes drafted other prominent figures. Shultz’s grandson Tyler, a Stanford graduate who worked at Theranos, was a key whistleblower against Holmes and her company. But according to Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s account in his book “Bad Blood,” the elder Shultz remained committed to the firm in the face of mounting evidence of fraud and tried to pressure his grandson into silence.

His continued support of Holmes fractured the relationship, though Shultz later issued a statement to the ABC News program “Nightline” in 2019, a year after the company was dissolved amid legal scrutiny. He wrote that his grandson “did not shrink from what he saw as his responsibility to the truth and patient safety, even when he felt personally threatened and believed that I had placed allegiance to the company over allegiance to higher values and our family.”

He added: “I have learned – from my experiences beginning in World War II, in private industry, and in the various public service positions I have been privileged to fill – that the people in the field are closest to the issues and are the best sources of wisdom whenever a problem arises.”

Shultz, writing in The Washington Post on the occasion of his 100th birthday in December, said of his eventful life, “I’ve learned much over that time, but looking back, I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, whatever room that was – the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room – good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”

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