Many politicians and diplomats from the 1980s lay claim to a pivotal role in ending the cold war, but the former US secretary of state George Shultz, who has died aged 100, had a better claim than most. And he was not shy in letting people know, as he did at length in his 1,184-page account of his years at the state department, Turmoil and Triumph (1993).
When he became secretary of state in 1982 – a job he was to hold for seven years – relations between the US and the Soviet Union were at a dangerous low. The administration of US president Ronald Reagan was packed with anti-Soviet hardliners. Reagan himself in 1983 dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire”.
Shultz seldom let his frustration with anti-Soviet colleagues in the Pentagon, the CIA and elsewhere in the administration show in public. But he let his guard down in a terse response to a reporter who asked whether he was enjoying the job: “I did not come here to be happy.”
He persevered, opening up a secret channel to the Soviet Union and gradually winning over Reagan, with whom he established a close bond. Relations with the Soviet Union began to improve. Four years after taking office, Shultz was in the room at one of the most extraordinary diplomatic encounters of the 20th century, the 1986 Reykjavik summit at which Reagan and the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came briefly and tantalisingly close to agreeing to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
When Shultz left office in January 1989, he said Americans were unable or unwilling to recognise that the cold war was over. “But to me it was all over bar the shouting,” he wrote. Ten months later the Berlin Wall came down and in December 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved.
Shultz looked stuffy and conventional, and for the most part he was, but he liked to persuade people he was not as conservative as he appeared. A regular ploy when being interviewed was to direct journalists to a signed photograph of him dancing at a White House dinner with Ginger Rogers. She had written: “Dear George, For a moment I thought I was dancing with Fred. Love, Ginger.”
Born in New York, George was the son of Margaret (nee Pratt) and Birl Shultz, who in 1922 helped found the New York Institute of Finance to train those working on Wall Street. When he was three the family moved to New Jersey.
He studied economics at Princeton and after graduating in 1942 joined the Marines. Service in the Pacific included the taking of the Palau islands in 1944, when more than 2,000 Americans and 10,000 Japanese were killed.
During a rest and recreation break in Hawaii Captain Shultz met a lieutenant in the army nursing corps, Helena “Obie” O’Brien. They married in 1946 and had five children.
Although an average student at Princeton, he completed a PhD in labour relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949 and stayed on to teach.
Throughout the rest of his life, he combined academia – MIT was followed in 1957 by the University of Chicago, and in 1968 by Stanford University – with long spells in business and in government. He was a Republican, but more pragmatic than ideological. He became one of the ultimate Washington insiders, serving under three presidents – Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan – and worked on various federal task forces at the request of John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was an informal but influential adviser on foreign policy to George W Bush.
Under Nixon he served from 1969 as secretary of labor, director of the office of management and budget (1970-72), and Treasury secretary, in the latter post helping set up what became the Group of Seven, or G7, and its annual meetings of heads of government.
Shultz clashed several times with Nixon, notably when the president pressed him to use the tax records of political opponents against them. To his credit, Shultz refused. Nixon was caught on tape in the White House describing Shultz as “a candy-ass”, a coward.
After that spell in government, in 1974 he moved to the west coast as president of the engineering giant Bechtel, where he remained until Reagan invited him to become secretary of state, even though he had no experience of foreign affairs.
One of his first steps at the state department was symbolic, removing a prominent 20ft abstract painting with a red line falling from one end to the other. He had heard a state department joke that the painting reflected the department’s diminishing influence. When he left the department in 1989, state department officials lauded him for restoring morale and reversing the decline, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the early 1980s he started discreet meetings with the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, and introduced him to Reagan. Various conciliatory gestures followed. Shultz was quick to recognise the generational change taking place in 1985 when Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, came to prominence.
He courted both men. At one informal meeting, Shultz surprised Shevardnadze, who was from Georgia, by launching into a rendition of a well-known Georgian folk song he had learned for the occasion. It helped that Shultz had a good voice.
There were only four in the room at the isolated Höfði House, where the Reykjavik summit was held: Reagan, Gorbachev, Shevardnadze and Shultz. Later he recalled that Reagan astonished everyone by telling Gorbachev: “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.” Gorbachev’s response was equally surprising, immediately agreeing with Reagan. “We can do that,” Gorbachev said. “Let’s eliminate them.”
While Reagan and Gorbachev argued about the detail, Shevardnadze stared out the window at the chilly landscape and Shultz, ever pragmatic, spent the meeting drafting and redrafting, trying to find the final elusive compromise.
Although they failed to seal the deal, they made very significant progress behind the scenes on arms reduction, human rights and other issues. A year later Reagan and Gorbachev signed the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, eliminating a whole class of nuclear-related weapons. The US and the Soviet Union, as part of that accord, destroyed thousands of missiles. The pact remained in place until 2019, when President Donald Trump suspended it, blaming Russian non-compliance.
Shultz’s success with the Soviet Union was seldom matched elsewhere in the world. His involvement in the Middle East ended badly, with the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen supported by Israeli troops at the Sabra and Chatila camps in West Beirut in 1982, and the suicide bombing in the same city a year later that saw 241 US military personnel killed, most of them Marines.
As a former Marine, he described the suicide bombing as his worst day in office. It turned him into an advocate of pre-emptive strikes against terrorism, leading him to push for the military strike on Libya in 1986 based on intelligence alleging that Libyans were targeting Americans.
During Shultz’s time at the state department, the Reagan administration backed rightwing guerrilla groups in Africa and Latin America. One of those operations led to the Iran-Contra scandal, a covert and complex arrangement in which the US sold arms to Iran and the proceeds were used to fund Contra guerrillas fighting a leftwing Nicaraguan government. Shultz was kept out of the loop: when the scandal broke, he was able to present himself as the voice of common sense in the administration, using the affair to wrest back Iran policy to the state department.
After leaving government, he continued to be an advocate for a nuclear arms-free world and criticised successive US administrations for failing to build on the relationship with Russia. He returned to Bechtel and to Stanford, becoming in 2001 a fellow of its Hoover Institution public policy think tank. As an adviser to George W Bush, he helped shape the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against states and groups viewed as posing a threat to the US.
Aside from nuclear weapons and terrorism, the other issue that continued to preoccupy him was climate change. He enthusiastically backed the Montreal protocol agreed in 1987, the first international treaty aimed at protecting the atmosphere from global warming. He was an economics adviser to the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who served as governor of California from 2003 to 2011, and was co-chair of a campaign in 2010 against a move to roll back the state’s environmental protection laws.
He implemented in his private life what he advocated in public, driving a Toyota Prius hybrid car and having solar panels fitted at home.
Helena died in 1995, and two years later he married Charlotte Mailliard. She survives him, along with the children from his first marriage, Margaret, Kathleen, Peter, Barbara and Alexander, 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
• George Pratt Shultz, US politician, born 13 December 1920; died 6 February 2021