Former US secretary of state George Shultz dies at 100

Mr George Shultz - seen at left in a 2015 photo and above with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the US in 1985 - helped forge a new era in American-Soviet relations and bring on the end of the Cold War. PHOTOS: ST FILE, REUTERS
Mr George Shultz - seen at left in a 2015 photo and above with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the US in 1985 - helped forge a new era in American-Soviet relations and bring on the end of the Cold War. PHOTOS: ST FILE, REUTERS
Mr George Shultz - seen at left in a 2015 photo and above with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the US in 1985 - helped forge a new era in American-Soviet relations and bring on the end of the Cold War. PHOTOS: ST FILE, REUTERS
Mr George Shultz PHOTOS: ST FILE, REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Mr George Shultz, the US secretary of state who survived bitter infighting in president Ronald Reagan's administration to help forge a new era in American-Soviet relations and bring on the end of the Cold War, died last Saturday at age 100, the California-based Hoover Institute said.

"He focused on the possibilities of what could be, unhindered by the impasses or deadlocks of the past. That was the vision and dedication that helped guide our nation through some of its most dangerous periods and ultimately helped create the opening that led to the end of the Cold War," US President Joe Biden said in a statement.

The Middle East was exploding, the United States was underwriting covert warfare in Central America, and relations with the Soviet Union were at rock bottom when Mr Shultz became the 60th secretary of state in June 1982.

Moscow and Washington had not spoken for years; nuclear tensions escalated and hit a peak during his first months in office.

The hard work of replacing fear and hatred with a measure of trust and confidence took place during more than 30 meetings between Mr Shultz and then Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze between 1985 and 1988.

The Soviets saw Mr Shultz as their key interlocutor; in private, they called him the prime minister of the United States.

Continual meetings between Mr Shultz and Mr Shevardnadze helped ease tensions between the superpowers and paved the way for the most sweeping arms control agreement of the Cold War, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Ratified in June 1988, it banned land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers with ranges of up to 5,500km.

Within three years, the two nations had eliminated 2,692 missiles and started a decade of verification inspections. The treaty remained in force until August 2019, when then President Donald Trump scrapped it, contending that Russia had broken the accord by developing a new cruise missile.

Before joining the Reagan administration, Mr Shultz, a New York City native, served in senior positions under president Richard Nixon, who made him labour secretary (1969-70), the first director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (1970-72) and treasury secretary (1972-1974).

He was previously on president Dwight Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisers.

He emerged from the Watergate scandal with his reputation unscathed, having shown a respect for the rule of law all too rare in that era. He quit the Nixon administration in May 1974, three months before the Republican president resigned in disgrace, and was the last of Mr Nixon's original Cabinet members to depart.

Mr Shultz's background was in economics. After leaving the Nixon administration in 1974, he joined Bechtel Corp, the international construction firm, eventually becoming its president.

He stayed there until Mr Reagan asked him to replace Mr Alexander Haig, who resigned under pressure as secretary of state in 1982.

The US faced terrorist strikes repeatedly in the Reagan years. The worst was the October 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine Corps HQ at Beirut International Airport that killed 241 Americans.

In June 1984, Mr Shultz proposed a new strategy of counter-terrorism, "preventive or pre-emptive actions against terrorists before they strike". The idea won only muted support at the time, but it became a tenet of president George W. Bush's "war on terror".

Lawmakers praised Mr Shultz for opposing as sheer folly the sale of arms to Iran that had been the cornerstone of the Iran-Contra scandal that marred Mr Reagan's second term in office.

Mr Shultz was a friend of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, the two having known each other since 1973.

They met in person for the last time in November 2013, when Mr Lee hosted a private meal for Mr Shultz when the latter visited Singapore to attend a meeting on nuclear threats.

When Mr Lee died in 2015, Mr Shultz wrote to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of his friend, whom he knew by the nickname Harry.

"I have always considered him one of the wisest and most intelligent people I have ever known. We met together many times and I was the better for it," he wrote.

"I often travelled to Singapore and, with all due respect to the appeal of the city, the real reason was to see Harry Lee.

"I am so glad that I was able to visit Singapore and see Harry once more in late 2013."

Mr Shultz was an enigma to the public and intimates alike. Revealing moments were rare, such as when State Department colleagues bid him an emotional farewell at the end of Mr Reagan's presidency.

Visibly moved, he clutched the arm of his wife, Helena, who accompanied him on his many travels. "We came as a package deal and we leave as a package," Mr Shultz said.

Helena died in 1995 and Mr Shultz married socialite Charlotte Mailliard Swig in 1997.

He loved dancing, swimming, tennis and quirky clothes, such as a peach-coloured sports coat and multi-coloured golf slacks.

He tried to keep one secret out of print: That he had a tiger tattoo on his posterior, a legacy of his undergraduate days at Princeton University, whose mascot is a tiger.

Mr Shultz was coy about whether he really had one, but he did not deny it.

REUTERS, NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2021, with the headline 'Former US secretary of state George Shultz dies at 100'. Subscribe