At Gorbachev's Table
A new biography reveals how George Schultz’ clear-eyed realism helped shape two presidencies and thaw the Cold War.
by Philip Taubman (Stanford University Press, 504 pp., $28.63)
What are we to make of George Shultz, who passed away one year ago at age 100? Shultz is one of only two Americans in our history to have held four cabinet posts—the most consequential being his seven years as Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. In appraising the man, we are fortunate to have a new biography by Philip Taubman, a long-time New York Times national security correspondent and now a lecturer at Stanford. It was Shultz who approached Taubman for the biographical project, granting him numerous lengthy interviews and access to his voluminous papers, along with complete authorial independence. The result is In the Nation’s Service, a thorough recounting of Shultz’s life that showcases his merits as a public servant without hiding any warts.
Shultz was educated at Princeton University, arriving on campus in 1938 as the world stood on the brink of war. In 1942, days after graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines where he saw combat in the Pacific. Returning to the states in 1945, Shultz enrolled in MIT where he studied economics, focusing on labor relations. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower tapped him to serve on the White House Council of Economic Advisers, his first venture into national affairs. By 1962, Shultz was dean of the University of Chicago school of business, selected for his extraordinary gift at bringing people together to solve practical problems.
Service on a labor relations task force during Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential bid landed him the post of Nixon’s labor secretary. Before long, Shultz was given the inaugural post of director of the new Office of Management and Budget, and from there he became secretary of the treasury, where he hung on as Watergate unfolded, leaving only in May 1974, three months before Nixon resigned.
A career in the private sector followed, as Shultz assumed the presidency of the privately held construction and engineering firm Bechtel, and got rich. It was only in 1982, following the implosion of General Alexander Haig’s tenure as secretary of state, that Reagan invited Shultz to fill the slot.
Terrorism, Central America, and war-torn Lebanon were major foci of Shultz’s attention, but it was Soviet-American relations that were the key challenge. This was largely because, in Taubman’s telling, Reagan had abandoned the decades long policy of containment of the USSR in favor of “rolling back Soviet gains abroad and actively maneuvering to undermine the Soviet Union itself.” The Reagan administration was populated by “hardliners” like defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and his deputy Richard Perle; CIA Director William Casey; National Security Advisor William Clark and Russia expert Richard Pipes; and not to mention Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the United Nations. In entering this mix, Shultz "was joining a team driven by ideological fervor and a commitment to upend decades of American foreign and domestic policy.” Such an approach stood in contrast, writes Taubman, to Shultz’s “natural impulse to seek common ground [and] to rely on patient negotiations to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts.” Instead of defeating the USSR, Shultz’s primary goal “was nothing short of curtailing the Cold War. He hoped to stabilize and then improve relations with the Soviet Union and diminish the threat of nuclear war.”
Years of internecine strife commenced within the administration, which Taubman rehearses in intricate detail. Shultz was compelled to engage in endless battles over access to Reagan’s ear. At first, Shultz was consistently outmaneuvered by the administration hawks, who were discouraging any and all diplomatic overtures to the Soviet Union. Reagan himself, though driven by “hard-edged anti-Communist impulses,” had his moments of ambivalence. At the beginning of his first term, as he was recovering from the March 1981 assassination attempt, Reagan shocked his national security team by insisting on sending a “sappy and simplistic” letter (Taubman’s characterization) to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, expressing hope for better relations.
Taubman skillfully traces the ups and downs of the Soviet-American relationship, which as often as not coincided with Shultz’s fortunes in the administration. Brezhnev’s death in 1982 was followed in quick succession by the rise of Yuri Andropov and, following his death in 1984, Konstantin Chernenko, who also died in office. A major low point in relations was triggered by the 1983 shootdown by the Soviet military of KAL007, the Korean-operated Boeing 747 that had strayed into Soviet airspace, which killed 269 people, including a U.S. congressman. Taubman retells the story while emphasizing Shultz’s efforts to keep Soviet-American relations from spiraling downward: Weinberger and others favored suspending all contacts with the Kremlin, but Shultz’s more modulated approach—dismissed as “timid” by the hardliners—won Reagan’s favor. Among other ideas, a proposal (opposed by Shultz) to expel 269 Soviet KGB agents was shelved.
It was only the appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev at the Soviet helm in 1985 that opened up the possibilities for serious diplomacy. A succession of high-level meetings ensued, with Shultz engaging with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko (soon to be replaced by the Georgian, Eduard Shevardnadze), and Gorbachev himself. On the table were arms control, both at the strategic and European theater levels, regional issues, and human rights. In every meeting, the Soviets were intent on derailing Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the plan—dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics—to erect a shield against incoming nuclear weapons.
Taubman traces Reagan’s diplomacy, and Shultz’s key role within it, through the momentous summits with Gorbachev at Geneva and then at Reykjavik. One of the more fascinating aspects of Taubman’s biography is its collection of warnings by high-level Americans, including from top-ranking intelligence officials, that Gorbachev was a new face but still the same old homo sovieticus. In the words of one national security council memo, Gorbachev was “a quintessential Communist Party man, whose ability to exercise his own individual political predilections is severely constrained by the control mechanism built into the Soviet system.” It was a mistaken assumption, the memo continued, to believe that it was “within Gorbachev’s power to change radically the character of Soviet policy toward the West.” That itself was a mistaken assumption: Events—not the least the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which exposed the bankruptcy of the entire Soviet experiment—spurred Gorbachev into the role of an impassioned reformer. Through his tinkering with the rigid system, the entire structure soon came crashing down.
Taubman has written an outstanding biography of George Shultz, both comprehensive and consistently engaging. But it is not free of flaws. There is a faint version of Cold War revisionism that sometimes intrudes, as when Taubman writes that “Reagan’s anti-Soviet outlook made no allowance for America’s role in initiating and sustaining the Cold War, including the tragically misguided Vietnam War,” (emphasis added). America initiated the Cold War? Another not unrelated problem is Taubman’s own dismissive attitude toward SDI, which, like many liberal critics of Reagan, he mocks at various junctures as “the stuff of science fiction,” “Reagan’s fantasy,” and “a chimerical defense plan.”
Shultz’s own view of SDI was more complicated. When Reagan unveiled his SDI plan internally in 1983, Shultz fought fiercely against it, believing it to be technologically infeasible and contrary to America’s longstanding defense posture of mutually assured destruction. But once the decision to proceed was taken, he unswervingly lined up behind it. SDI proved to be an invaluable negotiating chit, and much more. By Taubman’s own account, Moscow took with great seriousness the shield that Taubman brushes off as “imagined.” Indeed, the Soviets made halting SDI’s development the centerpiece of their arms-control agenda. Missile defense was a technological arena in which they could not compete. It thus had an enormous psychological effect on the self-image of the Soviet leadership, Gorbachev very much included.
But such deficiencies aside, Taubman’s biography excels at conveying Shultz’s human characteristics—trustworthiness, solidity, fortitude, plain-spoken directness, quick intelligence, ambition—which brought him to the summit of the American political system and made him such an invaluable player in it. Shultz’s fierce loyalty to the two presidents he served made him an indispensable man, but it also had its downsides.
Sticking to Nixon well past the point when his criminality was apparent, Shultz took a small part in the abuse of the Internal Revenue Service for political ends, a scandal that Taubman recounts in sordid detail. Taubman renders a harsh but fair judgment:
[Shultz’s] unwillingness to quit a corrupt president and White House staff, even as the conduct bore directly down on the Treasury Department. . .seemed to reflect a misplaced sense of loyalty to Nixon and an affinity for high office and the status and privileges that come with it.
Such character traits surfaced unhelpfully more than once. In Reagan’s Iran-Contra fiasco, Shultz saw glimmers of the plot to trade arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages, but trusting in the good faith of the national security council staff, he stood aside, deliberately keeping himself ignorant of the details. But he knew enough to know something was wrong, and was nearly indicted by the special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, for obstruction of justice. In his later years, Shultz once again proved too trusting—this time, of health technology disruptor Elizabeth Holmes. He became caught in the coils of the Theranos medical testing fraud with agonizing consequences for his family, as Taubman records.
Though Taubman writes about Shultz’s conflict with “hardliners” in the Reagan administration, he does not fall into the trap of drawing it as one between hawks and doves. The influence on the thinking of the administration’s “hardliners” of Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s seminal 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” is part of the equation. The history of the 20th century, Kirkpatrick wrote, “provides no grounds for expecting that radical totalitarian regimes will transform themselves.” This supposed immutability of the USSR was taken by some to be an axiom of world politics. Shultz took a different view, believing that through diplomatic engagement, and owing to the competitive nature of the Cold War relationship, the USSR might be prodded into change. By the close of the 1980s, change was coming in spades. Shultz turned out to be right.
If Shultz was a dove, he had very strange feathers. Even before joining the Reagan administration, he was a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization not exactly known for its soft line toward Moscow. Shultz could have resigned when Reagan decided to initiate SDI; he did not, choosing to stay on and champion the program. Shultz supported placing Pershing 2 missiles in Europe, a decision he regarded as a turning point in the Cold War. He relentlessly criticized the USSR for its violations of human rights and never shrank from confronting Soviet officials on that score. Far from being a “dove,” Shultz was a realist with an agenda that turned out to be realistic, one that contributed mightily to the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War.
Of course, that conclusion was anything but preordained. On the American side, it required clear-eyed and creative diplomacy backed by military strength, which Reagan and Shultz together delivered. Gorbachev himself generously summed up Shultz’s role: “Without Reagan the Cold War would not have ended, but without Shultz, Reagan would not have ended the Cold War.”
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose,is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
Image: A working session during the Reykjavik Summit of 1986. From left: General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, an interpreter, USSR Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
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