In the Nation’s Service: The Life and Times of George P. Shultz, Philip Taubman, Stanford University Press, 504 pp., $35, January 2023
At first glance, it’s tempting to see former U.S. President Ronald Reagan as the big ideas president. He drew clear moral lines between democracy and authoritarian communism, prompting the downfall of the Soviet Union, while his successor, George H.W. Bush, was a manager—hands-on and detail-oriented as he oversaw the transition from the bipolar world of the Cold War to the unipolar, American-dominated 1990s.
The career of George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state for most of his presidency starting in 1982, is a counterpoint to that narrative. Shultz pushed Reagan to a more open dialogue with the Soviets and helped ensure that the two superpowers avoided armed conflict. Shultz, for his part, was happy to credit his boss, and he wrote in his 1993 memoir that “Ronald Reagan knew far more about the matters of salient importance than most people—perhaps especially some of his immediate staff—give him credit for or appreciated. … He believed in being strong enough to defend one’s interests, but he viewed that strength as a means, not an end in itself.”
As capably captured by Philip Taubman in his official biography of the 60th secretary of state, In the Nation’s Service, Shultz had a front-row view of both the Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War. Indeed, he was an active player in it, instrumental in directing Reagan’s more cooperative approach to the Soviet Union and helped along by a willing partner in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In December 1988, as Reagan prepared to hand power over to George H.W. Bush, Gorbachev said over lunch with Reagan, Bush, and George W. Bush that “there’s a revolution taking place in my country.” Earlier that day, speaking to the United Nations, he had thanked the Reagan administration for its cooperation in bringing about an irreversible change: “We acknowledge and value the contribution of President Ronald Reagan and the members of his administration, above all George Shultz.” The cooling down in U.S.-Soviet relations—and the coming end of the Soviet Union—was the culmination of years of hard diplomatic work on the part of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Shultz. This work is often overlooked by both friends and foes of Reagan and Bush.
The struggle within the Reagan administration on how to treat the Soviet Union was between Nancy Reagan, deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, and Shultz on one hand, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, CIA Director William Casey, and national security advisor William Clark on the other. As Taubman skillfully demonstrates, members of the former group—favoring a more cooperative approach to dealing with the Soviet Union—struggled to make their voices heard over the hawkish views on the Soviet Union held by the latter. Nancy Reagan, Taubman writes, worked to build up the personal bond between Shultz and her husband. In early 1983, the first lady arranged for Shultz and his wife to have a private dinner at the White House with her and her husband. “The melding of minds was precisely the outcome that Nancy Reagan wanted,” Taubman writes. “The idea of putting the Reagans and Shultzes together in a cozy setting squared perfectly with Nancy Reagan and Mike Deaver’s growing sense that the bristling relations between Washington and Moscow, including deadlocked arms control talks, threatened to undermine the president’s record and his legacy.”