Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State
George Shultz was something of an anomaly in the Reagan administration, and he liked to play it that way. He was a corporate mogul who had also been a university dean, a political moderate who could work with ideologues, a professional negotiator who believed passionately in the use of force, and an individualist who knew when to be a team player. He enjoyed a reputation for integrity and independence which could hardly be considered a hallmark of the cabinet in which he served. And when he got his hands dirty, he kept them out of sight.
For six-and-a-half years he served as Reagan’s secretary of state. During that time relations between the United States and the Soviet Union went through a virtual about-face: from the bitter enmity of what has been called the “second cold war” to a guarded American endorsement of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. In that period the administration also fought an illegal war against Nicaragua, invaded Grenada, bombed Libya, exchanged arms with Iran for hostages, secretly financed the contras, and conducted a series of proxy wars in the third world. The current fiasco in Somalia, like the massacres in Angola, is rooted in the cynical politics of the Reagan Doctrine, when foreign despots went on our payroll in the name of democracy.
It was Shultz’s job to carry out Reagan’s diplomacy in fetid backwaters as well as at high-level summits. Yet he has been able to avoid responsibility for the seamier side of Reagan’s foreign policy. Indeed, he has walked away from them with his reputation not only intact, but actually enhanced. In his four-pound account of his years as secretary of state, the phlegmatic but cunning Shultz demonstrates an impressive felicity for avoiding blame for policies he claims to have opposed, but nonetheless faithfully executed.
Shultz took over the State Department in July 1982 following Reagan’s sacking of the mercurial Alexander Haig. After the melodramatic former general, with his predilection for conspiracy and intrigue, a solid, predictable man seemed desirable. In contrast to many of Reagan’s cronies, Shultz bore impressive credentials: a dean at the University of Chicago; professor at Stanford; secretary of labor, director of management and budget, and secretary of the treasury under Nixon; and president of the global engineering and construction giant, the Bechtel Corporation. With his reputation for reliability, his service to the party, his academic and business connections, his stolid reasonableness and laconic and softspoken manner, his enthusiasm for free enterprise and market economies and his negotiating skills, he was exactly what Reagan needed to reassure Americans and calm foreigners.
In the Reagan administration, more than in most others, foreign policy seemed to be everyone’s business, and the President, if not always well-informed, had strong opinions and even stronger rationalizations for them. To carry out policies that reflected his views, Reagan had put an old California chum William Clark in the key post of national security adviser. (Eventually, through attrition, six people were to hold this position.) Although inexperienced in diplomacy, indeed an untrained novice, Clark emulated Henry Kissinger in trying to monopolize foreign policy decision-making in the White House.
At the Pentagon the President placed another loyalist from his Sacramento days: Caspar Weinberger. Also a former official at Bechtel, where he had been general counsel, Weinberger had worked under Shultz at the Office of Management and Budget. These two vain and ambitious men were fiercely competitive. Other challengers to Shultz’s authority as foreign policy czar were Jeane Kirk-patrick, the ambassador to the United Nations who had strong influence at the White House, and CIA director William Casey. A wily businessman, fervent anti-Communist, and a veteran of covert operations in the OSS during World War II, Casey was a passionate ideologue who enjoyed privileged access to Reagan.
Confronted with such colleagues, Shultz had first to stake out and protect his own territory. His skills were considerable, but not in foreign policy. His experience was as a businessman, an administrator, and a labor negotiator—making deals, massaging egos, and bringing contending sides to a consensus. Neither an ideological soul mate nor a Sacramento chum, he was simply a middle-of-the-road Republican brought up on the Nixon-Kissinger policies of détente and deal-making with the Soviets. In this vein he had favored Paul Nitze’s ill-fated 1982 “walk in the woods” with a Soviet diplomat to limit medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe—a plan defeated by Weinberger’s deputy, Richard Perle, and Perle’s hard-line allies.
Shultz, savoring the memoir writer’s revenge, devotes a good deal of space to disparaging his competitors, particularly William Clark. The NSC adviser was, he writes, “deeply uncomfortable and insecure in his role in foreign affairs and national security.” Describing “my fight with Clark and the NSC staff,” he states that Clark often tried to block him from seeing Reagan alone, and that he was forced to appeal to the White House image-maker Michael Deaver for a private audience with the President.
Much of the fight was over bureaucratic turf. But policy differences arose as well, compounded by Clark’s effort, in the Kissinger style, to initiate programs over the secretary of state’s head, Central America was a key area of contention. Clark, along with Casey and Reagan himself, was incensed by the expansion of Soviet and Cuban influence to Nicaragua. They were determined, one way or the other, to get rid of the Sandinistas, and saw the contras as the ideal instrument. While Shultz had little use for the revolutionaries in Managua, he was at least willing to explore a deal with them.
But Reagan loved the contras. This meant that Shultz had to love them too, even though he assures us that his heart was not in it. The incorrigible hard-liners, he tells us, were Casey, Clark, and the NSC staffers, who “wanted no part of a diplomatic effort to accompany the military effort to defeat the Communists in the region.” The problem with the contras, Shultz well understood, was the anathema they provoked in Congress and among US allies. He saw them as an instrument to put pressure on the Sandinistas; the hard-liners saw them as the alternative government.
While Shultz assures us that he expressed his views vigorously to Reagan and the cabinet, it is clear that he had little influence on Central American policy. The show was being run by the NSC and the CIA. One of their schemes, which he learned about somewhere along the way, was to blockade Nicaragua and mine its ports—an act of war that also posed a danger to freighters of friendly nations. Shultz waxes indignant. “The Washington bureaucracy was out of control,” he writes. “Power was simply being usurped by the NSC adviser’s staff.” He complained to Reagan of being kept out of the loop, and threatened to resign, as he was often to do in the future, at this challenge to his authority.
The scheme was put on hold, or so he thought. But a few months later, while Shultz was making the rounds in Europe, Reagan gave the CIA the goahead to mine the harbors. Shultz says he did not learn about it until long after the event. By this time he had presumably cooled off, for he seems to have forgotten about his threat to resign. Rather than make an issue over this lost battle, he draws a moral from it. “In the Reagan administration I could not expect to be given a mandate and expect others to respect it,” he writes. “I would have to struggle incessantly to do my job.”
Anyone else confronted with such a situation might conclude that the President was using him as a front man—or at least testing his mettle to see just how compliant he was. Shultz, understandably, does not see it that way. Instead he tells us that Casey and Clark had deceived or confused Reagan. They were not acting in his best interests. Their “machinations made the president look like a warmonger,” he frets. Having decided that he, rather than they, could carry out the President’s true intentions, he portrays himself as a guerrilla fighter struggling to “save the Reagan presidency.”
Unfortunately, however, he had to save it from Reagan himself. Knocking down the President with the same hand he had just held out to save him, Shultz confesses that Reagan had an unfortunate “tendency to rely on his staff and friends to the point of accepting uncritically—even wishfully—advice that was sometimes amateurish and even irresponsible.” The notion of Shultz single-handedly holding back the enemies of a president whom he has just described as being deficient in judgment, if not actually dim, is a heartening one. But it hardly accords with Reagan’s enthusiasm for such advice, and for the fact that Clark and Casey were far better attuned to that enthusiasm than was Shultz.
It is not Reagan whom Shultz is serving by presenting him as dimwitted; it is Shultz himself. To show Reagan as having enthusiastically backed the contras and the CIA schemes to help them because he deeply believed in their cause would be to undercut Shultz’s explanation that he stayed in office to save Reagan’s presidency. His presidency did not need saving, but Shultz’s reputation as a man of integrity did. If Reagan really knew what he was doing, why did Shultz stay on in office? Better to portray Reagan as a fool who needed to be saved by a man of principle than as a knave who knew how to use underlings to cover for him.
Battling from the fringes, unable to get Reagan’s ear or even to persuade him to take seriously his periodic threats to resign, Shultz fought back cunningly. As an experienced bureaucratic player, he worked to discredit his enemies, flatter his boss, and fortify his own credentials. In the fall of 1983 he took advantage of two opportunities. In September he led the administration’s assault on the Soviets for shooting down a Korean airliner over their air space, declaring—long before conflicting explanations were sorted out—that there was “no excuse whatsoever for this appalling act.” With Shultz in the lead the administration pulled off a major public relations victory.1
A few weeks later, in October, he joined Casey in urging Reagan to take advantage of a palace coup in Grenada by invading the Marxist-controlled island and deposing the Soviet-backed regime. Despite objections from Weinberger, Bush, and even Margaret Thatcher, Reagan approved the attack. Shultz’s job was to provide the justification. The ostensible threat to American medical students on the island was too remote, and the issue of democracy irrelevant where one Marxist faction had overthrown another. State Department lawyers found diplomatic cover in an obscure organization known as the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. The prime minister of the tiny island of Dominica, Eugenia Charles, who headed the group, was eager to help. Under instructions from Washington she appealed to the US to “restore order and democracy” in Grenada. Armed with this formal request, Reagan ordered US military forces into action. “If we said no to those people, we wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel,” Shultz writes in explanation of the orchestrated invasion.2 In his stirring words of self-congratulation, “Grenada, like the Falklands, was a shot heard round the world by usurpers and despots of every ideology.”
Interestingly, Casey, according to Joseph Persico in his fine biography Casey (Penguin 1990), wrote Nixon a few weeks after the incident that "our intelligence assessment was that the downing was an accident." (p. 356) Neither Reagan, who at the time declared "there was no way a pilot could mistake this for anything other than a civilian airliner," I nor Shultz have revised their view that the Soviets knowingly downed a civilian airliner, despite contrary findings by, inter alia, the House Intelligence Committee (see "Soviets May Have Erred on KAL Jet" by Sara Fritz, The Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1988, p. 1). Analysts still disagree over whether the Soviets thought they were shooting at a US reconnaissance plane that had earlier been in the area, or whether they were blindly following standard procedure for dealing with intruders in their air space. (The former theory is defended by Seymour Hersh in The Target is Destroyed, Random House 1986, the latter suggested by Murray Sayle in The New York Review, April 15, 1985.) Whatever the explanation, the Soviets angered world opinion by trying to blame the Koreans and the Americans for the tragedy, thereby presenting the Reagan administration with an immense propaganda coup.↩
According to Bob Woodward in his study of Casey's CIA (Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981–1987, Simon and Schuster, 1987; Pocket Books, 1988), the agency's records show that $100,000 had been passed to Charles's government for a secret support operation and that beginning in 1982 the US had begun supplying funds for a thirty-mile, $10 million road in Dominica and after the invasion $2 million for Dominican schools. Charles denied any knowledge of a direct payment to her, her party, or her government, and stated that her decision to request US intervention was based solely on her assessment of the threat.↩
Interestingly, Casey, according to Joseph Persico in his fine biography Casey (Penguin 1990), wrote Nixon a few weeks after the incident that “our intelligence assessment was that the downing was an accident.” (p. 356) Neither Reagan, who at the time declared “there was no way a pilot could mistake this for anything other than a civilian airliner,” I nor Shultz have revised their view that the Soviets knowingly downed a civilian airliner, despite contrary findings by, inter alia, the House Intelligence Committee (see “Soviets May Have Erred on KAL Jet” by Sara Fritz, The Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1988, p. 1). Analysts still disagree over whether the Soviets thought they were shooting at a US reconnaissance plane that had earlier been in the area, or whether they were blindly following standard procedure for dealing with intruders in their air space. (The former theory is defended by Seymour Hersh in The Target is Destroyed, Random House 1986, the latter suggested by Murray Sayle in The New York Review, April 15, 1985.) Whatever the explanation, the Soviets angered world opinion by trying to blame the Koreans and the Americans for the tragedy, thereby presenting the Reagan administration with an immense propaganda coup.↩
According to Bob Woodward in his study of Casey’s CIA (Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981–1987, Simon and Schuster, 1987; Pocket Books, 1988), the agency’s records show that $100,000 had been passed to Charles’s government for a secret support operation and that beginning in 1982 the US had begun supplying funds for a thirty-mile, $10 million road in Dominica and after the invasion $2 million for Dominican schools. Charles denied any knowledge of a direct payment to her, her party, or her government, and stated that her decision to request US intervention was based solely on her assessment of the threat.↩