In the 1960s, George Shultz chaired a task force on unemployment for the Johnson administration. The group presented what Shultz thought were good ideas, but the ideas didn’t gain traction. Johnson drew him aside and explained why. “George, if you have a good idea, and it’s your idea, it’s not going to go very far. But if it becomes my idea, it just might go somewhere. Do I make myself clear?”
Shultz never forgot the lesson. As secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, he opposed the Strategic Defense Initiative as technically infeasible and strategically destabilizing. So did Richard Burt, one of Shultz’s aides. Burt grew annoyed that Shultz didn’t protest more loudly when Reagan pressed forward on SDI. “Rick, I’ve got to remind you of something you know,” Shultz responded. “We work for the president of the United States. The president of the United States wants to do this. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to work for the president of the United States. But as long as you are working for the president of the United States, you are going to support this policy. Is that clear?”
Philip Taubman was a reporter specializing in national security affairs when Shultz was secretary of state; later they were colleagues at Stanford University. Taubman’s new book is a life-and-times, per the subtitle, yet it focuses on the six-and-a-half years Shultz spent as head of Reagan’s State Department. And even within that narrow window, Taubman prioritizes the evolving relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Shultz wasn’t Reagan’s first choice for secretary of state. Shultz had ample experience in government, having been secretary of labor and secretary of the Treasury for Richard Nixon. Under Nixon, Shultz picked up some other tips on the workings of Washington. “You haven’t been in this town very long, have you, Mr. Secretary,” Senator Russell Long of Louisiana remarked. “Well, I ought to tell you, there’s two types of people in Washington: the fuckers and the fuckees. And I don’t presume to be the latter.”
Shultz developed a reputation for reliability. While others—Henry Kissinger, most conspicuously—basked in the auras of their own brilliance, Shultz eschewed the spotlight. “He was a problem solver, not a zealous ideologue,” Taubman writes. “He combined policy expertise with an instinctively inclusive and effective feel for managing large organizations; he was unflappable; and he worked with a quiet competence and steadiness.”
In other words, he was just what Reagan was looking for when Alexander Haig imploded as secretary of state in 1982. Reagan had won the presidency by assailing détente with the Soviet Union and promising to take the offensive in the Cold War. His first appointees to national security posts were mostly hardliners. This approach suited Reagan’s purpose: to regain the initiative in the Cold War and put pressure on Moscow. But Reagan’s longer game was to find a way out from under the cloud of nuclear war that had hung over humanity since the 1940s.
Reagan hadn’t shared this vision with the hardliners in his administration, at least not so as to catch their attention. The appointment of the pragmatic Shultz was a shot across the hardliners’ bow. And they interpreted it as such.
Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, and William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, caused trouble for Shultz from the start. Weinberger had worked for Shultz at the Bechtel Group, an international engineering firm, in the 1970s; Shultz thought Weinberger bore resentments from that time. “I know Cap well. He spends half an hour talking to refute arguments that haven’t been made,” he observed. “The hardest thing is that I used to be his boss, and at the conclusion of any discussion, I would say, ‘Cap, this is the way it is going to be done.’” Weinberger had hated that, and at every opportunity he let Shultz know he couldn’t do it any more.
Casey was a law unto himself, running covert wars in Central America and Central Asia out of his hip pocket. One reason no one could tell what Casey was up to was that no one could understand what he was saying. In Washington’s world of orators, Casey mumbled, by design. After a while it was simply too much trouble for his interlocutors to keep asking him to repeat himself, and they gave up. “I was almost afraid to have him come for lunch because he would say things and I wouldn’t understand what he was saying and maybe he’d think I agreed with him,” Shultz recalled. “People said he was the one guy in Washington who didn’t need a secure phone.”
Shultz stuck to his task despite the obstruction. He believed in a personal approach to foreign policy. He called it his “diplomatic gardening,” and it centered on developing relationships with his counterparts in other countries. “If you plant a garden and ignore it for six months, it’s taken over by weeds,” he said. “But if you keep at it, month after month, then it grows. In diplomacy, the same thing is true.”
His most important counterpart was Eduard Shevardnadze, the last—as it turned out—foreign minister of the Soviet Union. Unlike Soviet diplomats before him, Shevardnadze “came across as a real human being,” Shultz said. “Ronald Reagan started telling jokes to Eduard Shevardnadze—jokes about Communists—and Shevardnadze laughed. What a change!”
The most significant relationship of that era was the one between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The timing couldn’t have been better. Reagan had just been reelected when Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Reagan was hoping to pivot from the arms buildup of his first term to a build-down in his second. In Reagan’s mind, SDI, which threatened to take the arms race into outer space, had the ultimate purpose of rendering nuclear weapons obsolete.
Gorbachev was distrustful of SDI, but he had his own reasons for wanting to discuss arms control, namely the need to reorganize and reinvigorate the Soviet economy. Eventually Reagan and Gorbachev found their way to Iceland where they spoke sincerely—and emotionally—about the possibility of eliminating all nuclear weapons. They came close to an agreement, but Gorbachev wouldn’t countenance America’s SDI and Reagan wouldn’t give it up. At the critical moment, Reagan slipped a note to Shultz: “Am I wrong?” Shultz leaned close and whispered, “No, you are right.”
In fact, Shultz didn’t think Reagan was right. He still thought SDI a boondoggle. Afterwards, he wondered if he might have contributed more to the negotiation, which had foundered on whether SDI research would be allowed beyond the laboratory. “What exactly do you mean by laboratory?” he mused. “Is space a laboratory? When you say the word ‘laboratory,’ you think of a little room and people in white coats. But maybe we could have found out how to define laboratory in a way that would have been acceptable, but I didn’t think of that and we didn’t do that.”
Taubman admired Shultz, who died in 2021 at the age of 100. But he takes issue with some of Shultz’s decisions. Taubman faults Shultz for not doing more to stop secret sales of American weapons to Iran, the transactions at the heart of what became the Iran-contra scandal. And in the brief epilogue to the book, Taubman relates how Shultz, among many others, fell for Elizabeth Holmes and the snake oil she was selling under the Theranos blood-testing label. “I’m over 90 years old,” Shultz told his grandson, whom he had helped get a job at Theranos and who was beginning to have doubts about Holmes. “I’ve seen a lot in my time. I’ve been right almost every time, and I know I’m right about this.”
On the whole, though, Taubman makes a persuasive case that Shultz was one of the most distinguished American officials of the last half century. He agrees with Henry Kissinger, who had thought Shultz out of his depth when he took the job of secretary of state in 1982, but who changed his mind. “If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis,” Kissinger said, “it would be George Shultz.”
In the Nation’s Service: The Life and Times of George P. Shultz
by Philip Taubman
Stanford University Press, 456 pp., $35
H.W. Brands is the author of Reagan: The Life and other books on American history and foreign policy.
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