Elder statesman George P. Shultz ’42, who served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan and helped bring an end to the Cold War, died at his home in Stanford, Calif. on Saturday, Feb. 6. He was 100 years old.
A marine, an economist, and a businessman, Shultz was one of only two people in U.S. history to have held four different cabinet-level positions in the federal government. Before he was Secretary of State under the Reagan administration, Shultz served as Secretary of Labor, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Secretary of the Treasury under the Nixon administration.
After leaving government service in 1989, Shultz remained an active voice in politics and business, serving on advisory boards and writing opinion pieces on prominent issues. He became a faculty member at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and joined the Hoover Institution as a senior fellow.
Early life and time at Princeton
The great-grandson of a German immigrant, George Pratt Shultz was the only child of Margaret Lennox Pratt and Birl Earl Shultz, an official for the New York Stock Exchange who played football for DePauw University and received a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. Born in midtown Manhattan on Dec. 13, 1920, Shultz moved with his parents to Englewood, N.J., when he was around two or three years old.
In his 1993 memoir “Turmoil and Triumph,” Shultz remembered himself as a child who deeply enjoyed reading, partially due to his mother’s influence, and excelled in school, where he found the academic program to be strong and the teachers to be “top-notch.”
Shultz entered the University as an undergraduate student in the fall of 1938, and having grown up in the Great Depression, decided to study economics. He graduated cum laude in 1942 with an A.B. in economics and a certificate in public and international affairs.
For his senior thesis, “The Agricultural Program of the Tennessee Valley Authority,” Shultz examined the effect of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) — a Depression-age government-funded program that brought infrastructure and economic development to the Tennessee Valley region — on local agriculture by spending the summer after his junior year in the Tennessee Valley with the support of a fellowship from the University.
Shultz gathered information from the TVA headquarters in Knoxville and lived with a local family. By speaking to residents, Shultz learned that to continue receiving fertilizer and other supplies, the farmers often told government authorities what they wanted to hear, even if it meant giving inaccurate reports.
“I learned that if you are going to get people to talk candidly,” Shultz wrote in his memoir, “they have to trust you, and trust takes time to develop.”
A college athlete, Shultz played basketball and football during his time at the University, but failed to make the first team for football in his last year due to a knee injury, instead spending his senior year coaching the first-year players backfield.
A proud Princetonian, Shultz reportedly had a tiger tattooed to his bottom while he was a student at the University, and when asked why he wasn’t running for president in 1987, replied that “as far as I’m concerned, I’m afraid the country is not ready for a president who might have a tiger tattooed on his rear end.”
Marine service and academic scholarship
Shultz was in the middle of his senior year when Japan launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into the Second World War.
At first, Shultz sought to become a pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force, but he failed the eye exam. He then decided to join the Marine Corps and became an artillery officer, but not before being accepted to a Ph.D. program in industrial economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Later in his life, Shultz remarked that being a Marine Corps captain was the best job he ever had.
After seeing combat in the Pacific, Shultz returned to the United States and began his Ph.D. studies at MIT, where he took a course with young economist Paul A. Samuelson, who would later win the 1970 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.
While in Kauai, Hawaii, for a rest-and-recreation trip, Shultz met Helena O’Brien, or “O’Bie,” an Army nurse. The pair married in Feb. 1946, just two months after she returned to the United States. After nearly five decades of marriage, O’Brien died in 1995.
After completing his Ph.D. in 1949, Shultz remained at MIT, where he taught in the economics department and the Sloan School of Management until 1957. During a leave of absence in 1955, Shultz served as a senior staff economist on the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the CEA, Shultz befriended CEA Chair Arthur F. Burns, who would later become the Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.
Shultz left MIT for the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in 1957 and served as its dean between 1962 and 1968. In Chicago, Shultz was influenced by prominent economists like Milton Friedman and George Stigler, who reinforced Shultz’s support for an economy based on the free market.
A specialist in labor relations and employment who helped settle numerous labor disputes and held a positive reputation among union and business leaders alike, Shultz became President Nixon’s Secretary of Labor in 1969. During his 18 months in the post, Shultz confronted multiple major strikes and implemented the landmark Philadelphia Plan, which established quotas for hiring minority workers on federal construction projects.
Nixon named Shultz as the first director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 1970, where he served for two years before becoming Secretary of the Treasury in 1972. In this role, Shultz worked with former Federal Reserve Chair Paul A. Volcker ’49 to abolish the gold standard in a series of decisions that moved the world economy off the Bretton Woods Agreement.
The Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation, occurred during Shultz’s time at the Department of the Treasury. Shultz emerged from the episode with his reputation undamaged, having refused to use the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Nixon’s political opponents. This reportedly caused the former president to exclaim, “What does that candy-ass think I sent him over there for?”
After leaving the Nixon administration, Shultz became an executive at the engineering and construction firm the Bechtel Group, running its international and domestic operations.
Secretary of State
In 1982, Shultz returned to public service to become President Reagan’s Secretary of State, succeeding the controversial General Alexander M. Haig Jr., who had resigned from the post over fierce policy disputes on the subject of diplomacy and American power. Thus began the tenure that would most define Shultz’s long career in government.
As Secretary of State, Shultz is said to have been the moderate voice in the Reagan administration — having shown initiative to engage in diplomacy with the Soviet Union at a time of strong nuclear tensions between the two nations — even as his colleagues on the National Security Council (NSC) were hostile to his proposals. Shultz believed that the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was different from his predecessors in a way that could improve diplomatic relations with the United States, in sharp disagreement with other members of the NSC, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Shultz’s former deputy at OMB.
Feeling sidelined by the hard-liners in the administration, Shultz threatened to resign on three different occasions after clashing with both the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.
In dozens of meetings with the Soviet foreign minister, Shultz worked hard to improve relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. His efforts culminated in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987 and prohibited both nations from land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
In 2019, the Trump Administration announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the INF Treaty, citing allegations that Russia had breached its requirements. Shultz co-wrote an opinion article with Mikhail Gorbachev in The Washington Post, arguing that it was a mistake for the United States to depart from the treaty they had helped build.
By the time he was succeeded as Secretary of State by James A. Baker III ’52 in 1989, Shultz had completed the second longest tenure in the position of anyone after World War II.
Stephen Kotkin, the John B. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs at the University, praised Shultz’s tenure as Secretary of State in an email to the ‘Prince.’
“Shultz was indispensable to President Ronald Reagan’s success in bringing about a mostly peaceful end to the Cold War in Europe,” Kotkin wrote. “Shultz’s record as Secretary [of] State – across the full range of issues – stands above that of any other.”
Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a lecturer and visiting professor in the School of Public and International Affairs who served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2016 to 2018 and entered the U.S. Foreign Service when Shultz was Secretary of State, reflected on the impact that Shultz had on him as a young Foreign Service Officer.
“For him, a diplomat or a statesman was a constant gardener; it was somebody who focused on relationships,” Shannon recalled. “And for me, that was always a powerful image, because it reminded me that we weren't just about asserting positions or declaring our values; we were building relationships that allowed us to cooperate with other countries.”
After his final departure from government, Shultz became a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and taught at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In his last few decades, Shultz remained an active voice in politics, having informally advised President George W. Bush during his presidential campaign and written critically about the War on Drugs. Shultz became involved in advocacy for the fight against climate change and authored reports with other economists like N. Gregory Mankiw ’80 in support of environmentally-focused policies, such as a carbon tax.
Shultz is survived by his second wife, five children from his first marriage, 11 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.