There are not many of the giants of the late Cold War still among us, and today saw the passing of one of the greatest among them, Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz, at the age of 100. Only Henry Kissinger and Lech Walesa come to mind as remaining peers of Shultz.
I only got to meet Shultz on a couple of occasions at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, long after the end of the Cold War. The last time was about three years ago when I was invited to a small meeting he hosted on energy policy—a late interest of his—although during lunch he mostly wanted to talk about nuclear weapons proliferation, which he regarded as still a serious threat to world peace and order.
I’ll leave readers to look into any of the complete obituaries going up this afternoon, and mention only what I regard as Shultz’s finest hour. We never knew until many years after he left office that the first thing he did every time he met a Soviet official was bring up a political prisoner, and demand that the Soviets release him. The Soviets always complained that such prisoners were purely internal matters and none of our business, but Shultz had none of it, pointing out that as the Soviets had signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, they had pledged to respect human rights, so we had all the standing we needed to hold them accountable. They didn’t like it.
But the best instance of Shultz standing up to the Soviets came the week after the USSR shot down Korean Air Line flight 007 in early September, 1983.
Shultz had a previously scheduled meeting with foreign minister Andrei Gromyko in Madrid on September 7, which he decided to keep. It ended up provoking the first tiny crack in Soviet diplomatic intransigence. By prior agreement Shultz was to host Gromyko at the American ambassador’s residence, but when Gromyko’s limousine pulled up to the house in front of a gallery of several hundred reporters and photographers, there was only a low-level State Department aide to greet Gromyko at the door. Shultz was pointedly absent. The meeting table was left spare, with not even a glass of water for Gromyko. Shultz opened, as he deliberately did in every meeting with Gromyko, with a particular case of Soviet human rights abuse (in this instance, jailed dissident Anatoly Sharansky) as well as KAL 007. Gromyko insisted that he would not discuss either subject, and rose from the table as if to walk out. Shultz rose from the table, but made no effort to persuade Gromyko to stay; to the contrary, he called Gromyko’s bluff: “Fine—go,” Shultz said sharply.
Gromyko remained standing and kept talking; he didn’t want the blame for having ended the meeting abruptly. At length he backed down and sat down, relenting on his refusal to allow Shultz to bring up his points about human rights and KAL 007. No real progress was made on the substance in the two hours of acrimonious back and forth that followed, and after the meeting ended Shultz went before the media outside and said, practically before Gromyko’s limousine was out the driveway, that Gromyko’s responses were “totally unacceptable.” Shultz’s veteran State Department interpreter told him that in nearly two decades of participating in high-level meetings with Soviet officials, he had never seen such a blunt encounter.
I have heard—but do not know if it is true—that Shultz’s secret service code name was “Mr. Potato Head.” I doubt it, but it fits in a way.