Michael KreponGeorge Shultz

Quote of the week:

“The Strategic Defense Initiative in fact proved to be the ultimate bargaining ship. And we played it for all it was worth.” – George Shultz

A great human being, George Shultz, has died after a long life extraordinarily well lived. Arms controllers owe him a significant debt of gratitude.

The 1987 treaty abolishing intermediate- and lesser-range ground-launched missiles was a capstone accomplishment. This treaty ended the Cold War nuclear competition and inaugurated on-site inspections at sensitive nuclear sites, facilitating deep cuts in strategic forces.

The two marquee figures of this monumental accomplishment were, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. But there was a crucial third party, as well. Without George Shultz, I doubt seriously that there would have been an INF Treaty during the Reagan administration.

Ronald Reagan was a true believer in matters that most experts in this field knew with certainty to be incompatible. He was, for example, a staunch anti-Communist who hated nuclear weapons. Prior to Reagan, this combination of beliefs was a null set. Reagan also dreamed of abolition and an astrodome defense against missile attacks. Most who are deeply versed in nuclear and arms control policy believed in neither.

Reagan was blessed with extraordinary powers of strategic communication, but he was not adept at making things actually happen. For this he needed skilled help, as he was more hands off than hands on. When Reagan was surrounded by masterful help, he floated above the fray and accomplished great things. When he was surrounded by advisers with poor judgement, Reagan got enmeshed and embarrassed—to wit, the Iran-Contra affair.

Reagan’s Cabinet fought fiercely, appealing to one or the other of the President’s incompatible beliefs. The State Department sought negotiated outcomes while the Pentagon sought to block them. The dealers won, thanks to George Shultz. Aided by the archbishop of nuclear theology Paul Nitze, Shultz helped steer Reagan to accomplish what his predecessors couldn’t or wouldn’t do: to trade in U.S. nuclear modernization programs for deep cuts in deployed Soviet forces.

The mechanism for doing so was a proposal advanced by staunch opponents of arms control—the “Zero Option”—which was conceived upon the confident belief that such a trade was inconceivable, thereby facilitating U.S. and NATO missile deployments. Ironies abound in the history of nuclear arms control. They were on full display during Reagan’s second term when Shultz, empowered by the abolitionist instincts of Reagan and Gorbachev, turned the Zero Option into reality.

Reagan’s first pick to be Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, didn’t work out. (Ever since George Marshall, Generals have not fared well as Cabinet officers.) Haig wore out his welcome after a year and a half, after which Reagan struck gold by reaching out to Shultz, a bedrock Conservative who maintained his dignity and integrity as a Cabinet officer in the Nixon administration. Shultz succeeded in academia and business as well as government by being smart and methodical but not showy. He was a shrewd negotiator who employed savvy and endurance to achieve his objectives.

Shultz would need all of this and more in getting Reagan to ‘yes’ on the INF Treaty against the tenacious opposition of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and the wiles of Richard Perle, a mere Assistant Secretary of Defense in title, but far more influential than his title suggested. Perle honed his blocking skills working for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Weinberger was a tenacious man who had a previous history of jousting with Shultz when they both worked at Bechtel.

Shultz’s great advantage in his epic contest with Weinberger and other staunch opponents of arms control in the Reagan administration was that he knew Reagan’s “gut.” He told me in an interview for my forthcoming book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace, that he first learned of Reagan’s commitment to abolition on a snowy evening in February 1983 when the Reagans, unable to leave the White House for Camp David, invited the Shultzes to dine. He also knew that Reagan would take heroic action to avoid Armageddon, if the situation presented itself.

Shultz bided his time. Reagan was foursquare behind a defense buildup–it was the anti-Communist in him. But he also viewed nuclear modernization programs as a means to heroic achievement and not as steps along the way of an unending arms competition.

As fate would have it, the rancher who loved spending time in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara met his soulmate in the Party apparatchik from Stavropol. Gorbachev was in a hurry and Shultz, far before the Kremlinologists in the Intelligence Community, figured out why. The man with the great poker face reeled in one concession after another until the Zero Option was achievable.

Shultz then wanted to move quickly to achieve deep cuts in strategic arms reductions, but Vice President George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and others called for a time out. They were concerned that Reagan was doing too much damage to deterrence theology and that Gorbachev couldn’t be trusted. Shultz, the pragmatic idealist, desisted. After a brief “strategic pause” following the 1988 election, Bush 41 with the help of Scowcroft and James Baker, picked up where Shultz left off.

In retirement, Shultz, like Reagan, never wavered about seeking abolition. I wish I had asked him whether he was Reagan’s convert, or whether he came to this belief on his own. Either way, George Shultz deserves our enduring appreciation.


  1. Eve Webster (History)

    I’m also impressed that Shultz got along so well with his Soviet counterpart, Edvard Shevardnadze, who called him a “soul-mate” or some such.

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