Opening photo: President Ronald Reagan (far left) meets with Senior Advisors George Shultz (far right), Kenneth Duberstein (third from left), Colin Powell (second from left), Rozanne Ridgway (second from right), and Jack Matlock (third from right) in Helsinki, May 27, 1988. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Catalog

By Elizabeth C. Charles and James Graham Wilson

“George Shultz was a towering figure in the history of the State Department,” according to the statement issued by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Feb. 7, the day after his passing. As secretary of state, from July 16, 1982, until Jan. 20, 1989, Shultz led the crafting of U.S. policies toward the Soviet Union that contributed to the peaceful end of the Cold War, perhaps his greatest legacy. His four-part agenda, which he proposed to President Ronald Reagan in January 1983, covered human rights, arms control, bilateral issues, and regional issues. It “delinked” outstanding points of contention between Moscow and Washington from other Cold War hotspots and empowered Shultz to engage with Soviet counterparts, sometimes under incredibly difficult circumstances. Entering office amidst a resumption of Cold War tensions, Shultz left office a few months after the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—the first agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. He appropriately titled his thousand-page memoir “Turmoil and Triumph.”

From left: Rozanne Ridgway, Colin Powell, President Ronald Reagan, and George Shultz at the First Plenary session with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the cabinet room, Dec. 8, 1987. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Catalog
From left: Rozanne Ridgway, Colin Powell, President Ronald Reagan, and George Shultz at the First Plenary session with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the cabinet room, Dec. 8, 1987. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Catalog

Recently published “Foreign Relations of the United States” volumes include records of Shultz’s interactions with Soviet counterparts. Three meetings stand out. On Sept. 8, 1983, Shultz met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Madrid, Spain. The encounter came just days after a Soviet fighter jet shot down the civilian Korean Airliner KAL-007, killing all 269 civilians and crew on board. Shultz rebuffed calls from cabinet members, senators, and other outraged Americans to cancel the previously scheduled meeting. He would not let Gromyko duck a confrontation. 

“[I]t was not nuclear arms that were the number one issue today, nor the destruction of the Korean airliner,” Shultz told the Soviet foreign minister. “The number one issue today was human life and it was because of this that nuclear weapons with their holocaustical nature were so threatening and it was also this that triggered the indignation throughout the world over the shoot-down of the Korean airliner.” 

No one was more dedicated to the preservation of peace than Reagan, Shultz assured Gromyko. That was why he had sent Shultz to Madrid and arms negotiators back to meet Soviet counterparts in Geneva and Vienna, the shoot-down of KAL 007 notwithstanding. That did not mean that any nation could ignore violations of international norms. The point was that diplomacy mattered the most in moments of crisis. 

“You don’t get anywhere by not meeting with people,” Shultz later said of this period. “The question is what you tell them.” 

In Madrid and everywhere else, Shultz told others what he believed. 

On Nov. 4, 1985, with the industrial age nearing its end, Shultz spoke candidly with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who replaced Gromyko a few months prior. 

President Ronald Reagan (far right) meets with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (front, second from left) along with George Shultz (front, far left), Robert McFarlane (standing, second from left), Anatoly Dobrynin (standing far left) and Eduard Shevardnadze (leaning over Gorbachev) at Maison de Saussure during the Geneva Summit, Nov. 20, 1985. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Catalog
President Ronald Reagan (far right) meets with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (front, second from left) along with George Shultz (front, far left), Robert McFarlane (standing, second from left), Anatoly Dobrynin (standing far left) and Eduard Shevardnadze (leaning over Gorbachev) at Maison de Saussure during the Geneva Summit, Nov. 20, 1985. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Catalog

“I know that you want to increase the economic progress of your country,” Shultz told Shevardnadze. “So do we. An economy can only go so far if it does not offer the individual wide opportunity for advancing his own well-being and that of his family.”

“The economy of the future is going to be based upon information technologies. And information flows require freedom—freedom of thought and communication.” The reality, Shultz told Shevardnadze, was that “the more open societies are going to be the successes in this coming ‘information age.’ Closed societies are going to fall behind. Ideology has nothing to do with this; it’s just a fact of life.”

The Soviet Union had incentives to pursue reforms, according to Shultz. Shevardnadze’s stated conception of human rights may “consist mainly of jobs, housing health care, and other economic benefits,” but the best way to fulfill those rights was to permit a greater degree of the U.S. conception of human rights, which included “freedom of speech, of religion, of movement, of personal choices in [citizens’] everyday lives.” A more open approach to a subject such as Jewish emigration might mean that “a great many Soviet Jews would want to leave,” Shultz acknowledged. However, if it included “greater measures of freedom of thought, religion, expression, and personal choice, then over time fewer and fewer Soviet citizens would want to leave.”

Few, if any, secretaries of state spoke to their Soviet counterparts this way. Shultz’s delivery was not meant to blindside Shevardnadze or humiliate him. He stated what he believed; he said the same things in small meetings with Shevardnadze and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev as he did with Reagan or in public.  

In a subsequent encounter with Shevardnadze in February 1988, the Soviet foreign minister queried Shultz on the disproportionately low representation of Black Americans in state and national office and on the wage discrimination that American working women faced. Shultz deferred to two other members of the U.S. delegation, National Security Advisor Colin Powell and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Rozanne Ridgway. Ridgway corrected Shevardnadze on his use of statistics. She pointed out that laws prohibited different pay for the same work while acknowledging that “Americans were grappling with the different problem of equivalent work” and that she spoke for herself. “The point was that we welcomed criticism,” as Powell put it. “It was through criticism that we improved.” Powell, who would later serve as secretary of state, also said: “that what was beautiful about U.S. society was that it criticized itself more fiercely than the Soviets did.” Here and elsewhere, Shultz—who championed Ridgway and Powell throughout his tenure—deflected charges of “whataboutism” by his own actions. 

Shultz’s legacy is greater than his Soviet policies, of course. As secretary, he dealt with a rapidly changing world filled with threats and opportunities, as documented in the Reagan-era volumes in the “Foreign Relations” series. With acts of terror on the rise, Shultz declared in his Park Avenue Synagogue speech in October 1984 that the United States could not become the “Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond” to terrorism. Having previously served as secretary of labor, secretary of the treasury, and director of the office of management and budget (while also, as a private citizen, helping stand up the Group of 7, or G7), Shultz made economic statecraft a priority. He reiterated the previous Carter administration’s commitment to human rights and reinvigorated the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. At home, he stood up for the women and men of the U.S. Foreign and Civil Services. In December 1985, when White House officials proposed issuing polygraphs to Department of State employees, falsely suspecting them of leaking classified information, Shultz declared he would be the first to do so and then resign. Yet, through it all, Shultz never forgot the centrality of U.S. interests. 

“This is your country,” he reminded the newly confirmed ambassadors, moving his index finger to the United States on the globe in his office.  

President Ronald Reagan (right) presents a medal to George Shultz (left) during the Medal of Freedom Luncheon in The East Room, Jan. 19, 1989. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Catalog
President Ronald Reagan (right) presents a medal to George Shultz (left) during the Medal of Freedom Luncheon in The East Room, Jan. 19, 1989. Photo courtesy of the National Archives Catalog

However, during his time as secretary, nothing was more important than reducing Cold War tensions while preserving U.S. values and interests. Shultz harmonized the Reagan administration’s policies toward the Soviet Union even before the arrival of the change-seeking Gorbachev in March 1985. He nurtured delicate efforts with the Soviets to reach an intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement, a commitment that the Soviet forces would leave Afghanistan, and a deal that provided for the withdrawal of Cuban and South African troops to establish an independent Namibia. He pressed toward an agreement on reductions in strategic offensive arms. While he could not have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rapid collapse of Soviet power in the fall of 1989, Shultz’s actions accelerated the peaceful end of the Cold War. His commitment to power and principle is a legacy that will outlast his hundred years on this earth.

Elizabeth C. Charles and James Graham Wilson are historians in the Office of the Historian, where they compiled four recently-released volumes on U.S.-Soviet relations during the Reagan administration.

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