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George Shultz Reflects on the Reagan White House

July 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jim Lehrer talks with former Secretary of State Shultz about a new documentary examining the Reagan White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a PBS documentary about the inner workings of President Ronald Reagan’s White House, as seen through the eyes of his secretary of state, GEORGE SHULTZ. Shultz’s six years in office included major diplomatic breakthroughs with the Soviet Union.

We begin with this excerpt about an unplanned, but pivotal dinner.

NARRATOR: During a gathering winter storm, George Shultz returns to Washington from a trip to China. He’s lucky to be able to land at Andrews Air Force Base before the snow becomes a major blizzard.

GEORGE SHULTZ, former U.S. secretary of state: So, we got home on a Friday, and it was snowing. It had been snowing. And it kept snowing. So, the Reagans were not able to take a chopper up to Camp David or a car, nothing. They were stuck in the White House for the evening.

So, our phone rings, and they said, “Why don’t you come over and have supper with us?”

So, my wife and I went over. The four of us had a very nice supper.

NARRATOR: After supper, Shultz and the president have coffee and talk about Chinese leaders the secretary has met on his trip. With more coffee, the topic begins to shift. Reagan presses Shultz for information about Soviet leaders.

GEORGE SHULTZ: I knew the Soviet leaders because, when I was secretary of the treasury earlier, I had met with them and done a lot of negotiation with the Soviet leaders.

And I began to see, this man is dying to interact with these people and to try to work them over in his way of thinking.

NARRATOR: Given Reagan’s stand on communism, no one on his team has ever recommended that he meet a Soviet leader. Shultz has other ideas.

GEORGE SHULTZ: So, I said to the president: “Ambassador Dobrynin is coming over next Tuesday, 5:00. What if I bring him over here and you talk to him?”

He said, “Oh, that would be great.” And he had said to me: “It will be a very short meeting. Just, all I want to say is that if his new boss, Andropov, wants to have a constructive dialogue, I’m ready.”

NARRATOR: Reagan and Shultz agree that the meeting must be kept secret. Over the next several days, Shultz develops a plan, and the meeting at last takes place.

GEORGE SHULTZ: So, we go over. And the meeting went on and on and on and on. We discuss every conceivable subject.

NARRATOR: Reagan quizzes Dobrynin on a number of issues, from arms control to the sensitive topic of human rights in the Soviet Union. The meeting is viewed as a success by both sides.

Shultz’s initiative has just provided Reagan with a lesson on the value of direct talks. It is a lesson others in the White House are not ready to accept.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Lehrer spoke with Secretary Shultz on Friday about that dinner and other key moments during his years working for President Reagan.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, welcome.


JIM LEHRER: Before that snowy dinner in 1983, what had been President Reagan’s view about talking directly to the Russians?

GEORGE SHULTZ: Well, there was an atmosphere around the White House that there should be a stiff-arm. And, of course, we inherited from President Carter the cutting off of all contacts. I thought that was a mistake.

And I remember my good friend the chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt, had come to me and said: “George, the situation is dangerous. There’s no human contact.”

So, I thought we should rebuild that.

JIM LEHRER: Nobody knew that Dobrynin was coming and going to talk to President Reagan, right, besides you and the president?

GEORGE SHULTZ: Well, his staff knew it. Some of them tried to stop it. But he — he was a strong-minded person. When he decided he wanted to do something, he was going to do it. So, it went through.

JIM LEHRER: Was there a serious attempt to keep that meeting from happening by the other members of the Cabinet and other people on the Reagan staff?

GEORGE SHULTZ: I don’t think other members of the Cabinet knew about it.

And I was told that some members of his immediate staff tried to stop it. You know, people had a funny feeling. They — they didn’t have confidence that he could hold his own in one of these conversations.

And I knew him very well. And I was confident that he could hold his own and then some. He was terrific.

JIM LEHRER: Now, on Iran-Contra, how serious were you when you offered to resign as secretary of state?

GEORGE SHULTZ: Well, I always felt, Jim, that, no matter how much you were privileged to have a job like secretary of state — because you could make a big difference — you shouldn’t want the job too much.

And there were these constant tensions between me and others in the administration. And I felt that he would be better off with an administration where people were pulling together more.

And so I said that to him. And, in his diary, he writes that: Cap Weinberger and Bill Casey want me to get rid of George, but — because of what he’s doing. But, actually, what George is doing is what I want him to do.

So, I was more in synch with him than they were.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, let me ask you this, back to 1986, the summit meeting in Iceland with Chairman Gorbachev and President Reagan. How close — looking back on it now, how close do you believe those two leaders were to deciding to eliminate nuclear weapons?

GEORGE SHULTZ: Well, first, there was a genuine agreement on positions that President Reagan had proposed early on, namely, to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons and to cut strategic weapons in half.

The idea of eliminating all nuclear weapons had not been on the table before, although President Reagan had spoken publicly about it many times. So, it wasn’t as though it was out of the blue as far as he’s concerned.

I think, if that had been agreed to in Reykjavik, there would have been a storm of protests, but, nevertheless, it would have pushed the ball strongly.

I remember, when we came back from Reykjavik, I was practically summoned to the British ambassador’s residence by Margaret Thatcher, who said to me, “George, how could you sit there and allow the president to agree to eliminate nuclear weapons?”

I said, “But, Margaret, he’s the president.”

She said, “Yes, but you’re supposed to be the one with his feet on the ground.”

I said, “But, Margaret, I agreed with him.”


GEORGE SHULTZ: And — but her — her reaction was typical.

But it is striking. As — recently, as you know, a group of us, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry, and I, and many others, have been working again on this effort to get to a world free of nuclear weapons. The reaction has been entirely different, much more favorable.

Still, there are plenty of people are opposed, but it’s a different atmosphere now.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.

GEORGE SHULTZ: But Ronald Reagan’s ideas are often — you see, he’s very prescient. And this idea, I think, has staying power. And, sooner or later, we’re going to get somewhere.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Secretary Shultz, thank you very much.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The documentary “Turmoil and Triumph” will air tonight and the next two Mondays on many PBS stations. There is a book of the same name accompanying the series.