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George Shultz sealed a lasting legacy by helping to bring down the Iron Curtain

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz died Sunday at his California home at the age of 100. The statesman, economist, and business executive served as America's top diplomat under President Ronald Reagan. Nick Schifrin reports on his lasting legacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now a look at the life of former Secretary of State George Shultz, who died yesterday at his California home.

    The statesman, economist, and business executive served as America's top diplomat under President Ronald Reagan.

    And, as Nick Schifrin tells us, that is where his lasting legacy was formed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1985, President Ronald Reagan shook hands with the man leading what he'd called the evil empire, at his side, the man behind the strategy, Secretary of State George Shultz, who explained his belief in diplomacy to Judy Woodruff in 1987.

  • George Shultz:

    It's a form of direct communication. By and large, good things happen in connection with such meetings, and have historically.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shultz called U.S.-Soviet diplomacy the highest-stakes poker game ever played. That first meeting between Cold War foes in a decade kick-started U.S.-Soviet detente that helped bring down the Soviet Union and the U.S. win the Cold War.

  • George Shultz:

    I will well and faithfully discharge…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shultz became Secretary of State in July 1982, and held that office until Ronald Reagan left in 1989. He was the longest-serving chief diplomat of the last half-century.

    The idea that Reagan should talk with the Soviets was initially met with pushback, he told the late Jim Lehrer in 2010.

  • George Shultz:

    I was told that some members of his immediate staff tried to stop it.

    People had a funny feeling. 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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first arms control treaty in history to eliminate an entire class of weapons.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    Today, on this vital issue, at least, we have seen what can be accomplished when we pull together.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And though that treaty died last year when both the Trump administration and the Putin government pulled out, Shultz believed the seeds planted by the detente helped lead to Eastern European revolutions and the fall of the Berlin Wall, as he told Jim Lehrer in 1990.

  • George Shultz:

    It was almost as though you were sitting behind a big dam, and you see these leaks start, and, pretty soon, you think, maybe I better get out of the way. Maybe that dam is going to break.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shultz's friends say he embodied the Greatest Generation. He began his public service as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. And he became the most versatile of aides, on President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisers in the 1950s, President Nixon's labor secretary in the late '60's, where he helped lead desegregation, then Nixon's director of the Office of Management and Budget, and then Treasury secretary, one of only two American officials to have ever held four Cabinet-level positions.

    Throughout, his friends say he lived by a code: Trust is the coin of the realm. That's the phrase he highlighted in December in The Washington Post to celebrate his 100th birthday.

    And Shultz used that trust with Congress during the Iran-Contra affair. In the '80s, the U.S. sold weapons to Iran to help fight then American partner Saddam Hussein of Iraq, in an effort to release American hostages held in Lebanon. The proceeds of those sales were funneled to right-wing rebels in Central America.

    After initial denials, Reagan admitted it.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    A few months ago, I told the American people that I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But a few months later, Shultz insisted he and President Reagan had been kept in the dark.

  • George Shultz:

    And I remember saying: "Well, Mr. President, I don't know very much, but if I am telling you things that are news to you, then you are not being given the kind of flow of information that you deserve to be given."

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Congress believed him, helping Reagan's legacy and Shultz's to remain their work bringing down the Iron Curtain.

  • George Shultz:

    We had a special project having to do with the countries of Eastern Europe, and you could see this change coming.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As an elder statesman, a voice for American leadership, and a champion of diplomacy and the diplomats who conducted it, George Shultz was 100 years old.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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