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George Shultz became Secretary of State in 1982. We first met late that year. I was leaving Washington for assignment as Ambassador to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and it was routine that I call on the secretary before departing.
In 1985, as the first steps were being taken towards the initial Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Geneva, Secretary Shultz called to ask me to return to Washington from East Berlin to become Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Canada. I took on that post in June 1985. From then until the Secretary's last day in the Department in January 1989, we worked together closely on all matters involving the United States and Europe and Canada—including NATO, the European Community, our extensive and varied ties with Canada.
Foremost – at least according to many – we worked together on all the matters touching on all the meetings between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. These included issues of human rights, arms control, regional issues, and bilateral topics (e.g., the arrest of Nick Daniloff, the bugging of our new Moscow embassy, spies, etc.).
Obviously the single most important thing we worked on throughout the four years from 1985 to 1989 was the US/Soviet relationship—especially the Reagan/Gorbachev summits. Most people remember Reykjavik but Geneva, Washington, Moscow, and New York should not be forgotten.
Unlike some others, I believe the Soviet Union collapsed because, given the strength and determination of the NATO alliance and the passage of time, the fundamentally flawed nature of the Soviet system brought its downfall. Although they didn't express it quite this way, Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister, Edward Shevardnadze, found that when they finally made it to the top of their party and state structures, the cupboard was bare.
The Soviet collapse freed the captive Baltic nations, inspired the independence of Eurasian countries, returned the Warsaw Pact countries (Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, the now Czech Republic, Slovakia) to their historical place as truly independent countries, and paved the way for the unification of Germany. Those achievements have not washed away. They occurred after the Reagan and Shultz years, but their foundations – or better, their unfolding – began in the 1984-88 period. And they are firmly established. In short, our work endured.
I am, of course, a George Shultz fan. He brought a unique experience to State: a Marine captain in WWII, a Princeton graduate, an MIT Ph.D., a professor, an economist, seasoned Cabinet experience, business success at Bechtel, etc. I admire his capacity to stay true to his principles, to understand institutions and traditions, to lead and to teach. He persevered in the face of incredible bureaucratic forces aligned against him. He remained loyal to his President. He did not have a private agenda. He served his country and his President, tirelessly. Those of us who were a part of the team – who had never known him before – were proud to be part of the effort.
The press and media never fell in love with him the way they have with others who have held the office. I admire him for his biggest weakness: he is not a self-promoter. He let history be the judge. It took some time for Shultz to counter the efforts of those who thought President Reagan should not pursue his desired dialogue with the Soviet Union or to establish a relationship with President and Mrs. Reagan. But the capacity to persevere, the ability to stay on track, and his transparent commitment to the President and his policies won the day. No President has ever been better served by his Secretary of State.
Far be it from me to think I could have or would have done anything differently. George Shultz's personal role in establishing the working relationships with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, with creating an atmosphere in which problems could be defined and dealt with, with always seeing and understanding the wider global picture of economics and politics and inviting others to see and understand that future world—all of that simply made him special for those times.
There will be myriad historians, commentators, revisionists, analyses and report cards on this period in history, (specifically, 1984-1988 and not the whole of the post-war period known as the Cold War). But 1984-1988 could have gone differently—and disastrously—but did not. Steadily, and with precision, the period was one in which the US took the lead to bring an end to the Cold War and to free the nations of Europe from an enduring nightmare.
And surely you have noticed that the global agenda today includes, with more sponsors and activity than ever could have been imagined, a nuclear free world. This is the Reagan vision once scoffed at.
Ambassador Rosanne “Roz” Ridgway is a Foreign Service Officer whose 32-year career included assignments as Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries Affairs, Ambassador to Finland, Counselor of the Department of State, and Ambassador to the German Democratic Republic. She served as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs 1985-1989. Since her retirement in 1989, she has pursued a career in the private sector.