In His Lifetime in Public Service, George Shultz Strove for Freedom and Achieved Victory

February 8, 2021 | Elliott Abrams
About the author: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the chairman of the Tikvah Fund.

George Shultz, who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and played an outsized role in achieving America’s victory in the cold war, died on Saturday at the age of one hundred. His long career of service to his country included storming the island of Palau with U.S. Marines in 1944, holding four cabinet positions, and advising three presidents. A model of statesmanlike integrity and diplomatic skill, Shultz—as Elliott Abrams, who served under him, recounts—put human rights at the center of the State Department’s agenda:

Shultz . . . genuinely cared about human rights and saw it as a central element in the American system and in our foreign policy. In the mid-1980s, during the fierce debates about U.S. policy in Central America, the question arose of why the tiny Nicaraguan Jewish community had fled after the Sandinista victory [in the country’s civil war]—and after harassment that included a 1978 fire-bombing of the Managua synagogue while Friday-night services were underway. The U.S. embassy looked into it all and concluded there was no problem here.

I wrote a memo to Shultz saying that I had never understood how the State Department could in the 1930s have coldly turned away Jews seeking to flee from Hitler—until now. If throwing Molotov cocktails at a synagogue during services was going to be dismissed as a complex phenomenon, not obvious anti-Semitism, anything was possible. His reaction: at our next senior staff meeting, he asked me to read my memo aloud. The department’s top officer’s message was clear: this kind of thing would not happen on his watch.

We saw how deeply Shultz felt about these issues during his April 1987 visit to Moscow for arms talks with the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. It was Passover, but Shultz was an Episcopalian. No matter: he invited dozens of refuseniks to a seder at Spaso House, the elegant residence of the U.S. ambassador. He brought kosher wine and food with him on his official plane and greeted the guests wearing a white kippah. In his remarks to the beleaguered dissidents, he said this: “We never stop, we think about you, we pray for you, and we are with you. We never give up; we never stop trying. Never give up, never give up.” Without making unduly invidious distinctions, can one envision such an act of grace and solidarity by Shultz’s predecessors or successors from John Foster Dulles to James Baker?

Shultz was an excellent manager and a skilled negotiator, but these were tools of the trade rather than objectives. The objective was freedom.

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