Even if his tenure as Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989 represented the entirety of George Shultz’s career in government, he would still rank among the greatest public servants of the 20th century.
As President Reagan’s top diplomat, Shultz did more than any U.S. official other than Reagan himself to end the Cold War on America’s terms. Many observers have praised his role in the peaceful conclusion of the superpower conflict. Perhaps the most meaningful praise came from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Without Reagan the Cold War would not have ended,” Gorbachev told Shultz biographer Philip Taubman a few years ago. “But without Shultz, Reagan would not have ended the Cold War.”
A remarkable tribute to a remarkable man.
Of course, Shultz’s government service did not start in 1982. During the Nixon administration, he served as U.S. Secretary of Labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Secretary of the Treasury. During the Eisenhower administration, he served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Before he did any of that, Shultz fought in World War II as a U.S. Marine.
“Shultz fondly points out that his government service began in 1942, when he reported for duty at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia,” the Hoover Institution noted on the occasion of Shultz’s 100th birthday in December 2020. “From August to October 1944, Shultz deployed with the 81st Infantry Division as a battalion liaison officer and participated in the seizure, defense, and occupation of Angaur Island, Palau Group, against Japanese forces.”
Prior to the war, Shultz received his undergraduate degree from Princeton, where he played football and published a senior thesis on the Tennessee Valley Authority. After the war, he earned a doctorate in economics from MIT and became a professor. He later taught at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, and then became dean of the school in the 1960s. It was there that Shultz befriended future Nobel-laureate economists Milton Friedman and George Stigler.
Shultz’s economic expertise made him a valuable member of the Nixon administration. While he unsuccessfully opposed the imposition of wage and price controls, he also helped persuade President Nixon to embrace floating rather than fixed exchange rates, thereby ending the Bretton Woods monetary system.
“That shift initially added to international economic instability. But over the longer term, it liberated capital flows that Bretton Woods had constrained, turbocharging the arrival of financial globalization,” writes foreign-policy scholar Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins. “It freed the U.S. from the burden of keeping its currency artificially overvalued and its exports overpriced. And because America had the world’s most attractive capital markets, it allowed the U.S. to pull in vast sums of foreign investment in subsequent decades, buoying the domestic economy while letting Washington live beyond its means by drawing on the savings of foreigners. Shultz, as much as anyone else, was the author of the move to a more open global economy—and to a system that sustained U.S. economic leadership through the end of the Cold War and beyond.”
Here’s what Henry Kissinger wrote about Shultz in his 1982 memoir Years of Upheaval:
“I met no one in public life for whom I developed greater respect and affection. Highly analytical, calm and unselfish, Shultz made up in integrity and judgment for his lack of the flamboyance by which some of his more insecure colleagues attempted to make their mark. He never sought personal advancement. By not threatening anyone’s prerogatives, and, above all, by his outstanding performance, he became the dominant member of every committee he joined. He usually wound up being asked to sum up a meeting—a role that gave him influence without his aiming for it. If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis, it would be George Shultz.”
After leaving the Nixon administration in 1974, Shultz became a senior executive at, and soon president of, Bechtel, the global engineering company. He returned to government following the resignation of Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig.
What Shultz did over the next six and a half years represented, in the words of career diplomat Nicholas Burns, “his crowning achievement in public life.” Together with Reagan, Shultz crafted a brilliant mix of pressure and diplomacy that yielded an eventual Soviet surrender in the Cold War.
“Reagan listened to Shultz and, at each critical juncture, decided issues relating to the USSR either in Shultz’s favor or at least tilted in his direction,” former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows. (Gates was a senior CIA official during the Reagan years, becoming its deputy director in 1986.) “Shultz supported the U.S. arms buildup and he supported CIA’s covert wars, but he also devised a strategy of engagement with the Soviet Union that the President endorsed and supported if, at times, with reservations.”
Gates affirmed that Shultz and Reagan formed “one of the most successful partnerships of a President and Secretary of State in modern times.” Diplomatic historian Will Inboden has called Shultz the “greatest secretary of state since Dean Acheson.” Elliott Abrams, who served as an assistant secretary of state from 1981 to 1989, has likewise hailed Shultz as “the most consequential secretary of state” since Acheson. Paul Wolfowitz, who during the 1980s served as both an assistant secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, goes a step further, arguing that Shultz might well have been the most consequential secretary of state of the entire 20th century.
By the time he exited Foggy Bottom in 1989, Shultz had secured his place in the history books. Yet he continued working on a wide range of public-policy issues for more than 30 years, while serving as a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Shultz was a founding member of both the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which advocates ending the war on drugs, and the Climate Leadership Council, which advocates a revenue-neutral carbon tax. He also joined with Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn to promote a more aggressive approach to nuclear-arms control, declaring that our ultimate goal should be “a world free of nuclear weapons.”
During the final decade of his life, Shultz served as a board member of the now-defunct Silicon Valley startup Theranos, which fraudulently claimed to have revolutionized blood-testing technology. The company’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, repeatedly deceived Shultz and other famous board members, such as Kissinger, Perry, Nunn, and future Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Shultz initially defended Holmes, including to his grandson Tyler, a Theranos employee who eventually blew the whistle on its duplicity. When it became clear that Holmes was a con artist, Shultz praised his grandson for showing “tremendous courage and integrity” amid a profoundly difficult ordeal.
“He did not shrink from what he saw as his responsibility to the truth and patient safety,” Shultz told ABC’s Nightline, “even when he felt personally threatened and believed that I had placed allegiance to the company over allegiance to higher values and our family. 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. That was certainly the case here. Tyler navigated a very complex situation in ways that made me proud. He has been an example for the entire family, for which all of us are grateful. I want to recognize and congratulate Tyler for his great moral character.”
The Theranos episode was a major embarrassment for Shultz—and for all the other bigwigs who had trusted and/or defended Elizabeth Holmes—but it hardly diminishes the rest of his extraordinary career.
When Shultz died earlier this month at age 100, he received tributes from many former colleagues and admirers, including Kissinger, Abrams, Wolfowitz, Inboden, Hoover economists Michael Boskin, John Taylor, and John Cogan, and our current secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
“George’s outstanding attribute was his combination of wisdom and humility,” Kissinger wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Solomon’s prayer was for ‘a discerning heart,’ and that blessing was extended to George. As a statesman, he would gain the whole world yet never forfeit his soul.”