The passing of George Schultz marks the loss of yet another part of the Cold War’s declining memory. Only in December did the world lose two other important participants of it—the espionage author John le Carré and the double agent George Blake. Unlike these two figures however—who epitomised the enigmatic side of the Cold War and the struggle and disillusion of its ideologies—Schultz represented the public diplomacy of hope and pragmatism that appeared during the waning of the conflict.
Schultz served as Secretary of State throughout the majority of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and had previously served as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Labor. Contrary to most American statesmen of his generation such as Henry Kissinger, Schultz lacked the background of an in-depth education in international relations—having only studied it as a minor alongside his major in economics at Princeton University. Despite only graduating cum laude, he proceeded to study a PhD in industrial economics at MIT after serving in the US Marine Corps at the Pacific theatre of World War II, during which he participated in the Battle of Peleliu—one of the conflict’s most infamous battles. What experience Schultz lacked in diplomacy at the time was compensated by his industriousness and acumen for the economics that also determined the world’s course.
Because of these traits, Schultz’s most prominent role would come to fruition through Reagan personally requesting him to be his Secretary of State. Despite this position being usually reserved for those with a lifetime of experience and knowledge in international relations, Schultz left his mark of prestige for future secretaries to follow. Unencumbered by the need for publicity, he continued to display his characteristic diligence the role required. As Paul Wolfowitz notes in his own tribute of the statesman, ‘Shultz was happy to credit Reagan for their joint achievements’ whilst maintaining enough independence to decide when Reagan was wrong on certain affairs—the most famous being the Iran-Contra affair. The blending of Reagan’s strong, yet somewhat irrational, ideological vision with Shultz’s pragmatic and more realistic considerations allowed the development of a careful and inspirational update of American foreign policy towards the Soviet Union to occur.
This valuable amalgamation resulted in several dividends for American prestige across the world whilst establishing successful cooperation with the Gorbachev premiership. Despite their disagreements, Schultz encouraged Reagan to open secret channels with the Soviets by introducing him to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin—who also played a pivotal role in ceasing the tensions between Kennedy and Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And despite the ultimate failure to ban all nuclear weapons at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, the coordination between Reagan and Gorbachev overseen by Schultz as a mediator sowed the seeds of further negotiations on the matter—which, a year later, led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty’s ban of an entire class of nuclear weapons. Like Kissinger’s role in the opening of relations between the US and China a decade earlier, Schultz’s activities had proved that diplomacy between two rivals is not always a futile affair.
One does not have to look far to see the unanimous appreciation of Schultz’s contributions to both diplomacy and the Cold War’s end. A variety of remembrances by former presidents, historians, diplomats, news outlets and think tanks—George W. Bush, The Guardian, the Henry Jackson Society, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies to name a few—are testament to his significance not just for assisting the conflict’s end, but for remembering its lessons. Like Walter LaFeber’s review of Schultz’s 1993 memoir as ‘the most detailed, vivid, outspoken, and reliable record we probably shall have of the 1980s until the documents are opened’, Schultz’s death signifies an opportunity to inculcate ourselves with the sagacity and wider outlook required for ameliorating current world affairs.
President Ronald Reagan Meeting with New Secretary Designate of State George Shultz at Camp David on 26 June 1982. Public domain.
Alex Johnson is a Co-editor of The Jackdaw.