George Shultz Had a Wise and Discerning Heart

The Wall Street Journal

George Shultz came into my life some 50 years ago and never left it. He was secretary of labor, but President Nixon asked him to study the trend in oil prices because before coming into government George had been an economist at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was Nixon’s national security adviser and George called on me to discuss a conclusion he thought might affect my policy portfolio. The price of oil was then around $3.35 a barrel, but George warned me that U.S. production was projected to fall considerably; a greater reliance on imports was therefore inevitable. The price of oil would rise—perhaps precipitously. The bargaining power of foreign oil producers would skyrocket. Events proved George right.

His career in government continued as director of the Office of Management and Budget and Treasury secretary. His calm demeanor made him influential in interagency discussions. Colleagues knew that when he raised issues, it was out of deep concern. Never seeking personal advancement, always expressing sincere convictions, George invariably became a driving force on every committee. Our relationship evolved from association to partnership, and then to a friendship that lasted for the rest of our lives.

After the Nixon years, he served as president of the Bechtel Corp. before returning to government as secretary of state in the Reagan administration. In that capacity he built a cooperative relationship with China and greatly expanded cultural and economic relations. Contrary to today’s revisionist narrative, the U.S.-China relationship at that time was based on specific, shared strategic benefits. With his Soviet counterpart, George negotiated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the only Cold War agreement that eliminated a category of nuclear weapons. The crowning achievement of George’s diplomacy was to see the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion.

For all his proximity to presidents and important roles, George was never seduced by the trappings of power. “It’s a great mistake to want the job too much, because then you do things to keep the job that you probably wouldn’t do otherwise,” he once said. His equanimity was not contrived; outer composure reflected an inner serenity.

In the last two decades of George’s life, the control of nuclear weapons became his chief preoccupation. He approached nuclear arms control the same way he tackled every other issue of public importance—by engaging in deep study, assembling the best group of advisers, and then making deliberate contributions to the public debate, often in these pages.

Nothing captures the range of his reflections better than a prayer he delivered in July 2016 for an interfaith group concerned with nuclear weapons: “Dear God, please bring common sense and Divine guidance to our work on the problems that nuclear weapons pose to our world. Man has invented a means to destroy us all. We must eliminate these weapons in order to preserve a sane and peaceful world. We pray for your help as we work toward this goal.”

George was proud of his service in the Marine Corps during World War II. His recognition of nuclear dangers in no way impaired his dedication to national defense. But he felt it his duty to remind his country that weapons of increasing destructiveness, accuracy and automaticity—which had been accumulating all over the world for more than half a century—must not be left to accident, evil intention or miscalculation. Weapons of mass destruction must be controlled, within nations and among them, for the safety of all of us.

George left us at a moment when our national arguments are too often vindicated by passion rather than reason, by the debasement of the adversary rather than the uplifting of purposes. He also believed that if you were blessed with great gifts, you had a responsibility to apply yourself, and if you cared about your country, you had a duty to defend and improve it. He was skilled in presenting his convictions, but above all practiced the art of making controversy superfluous by encouraging mutual respect. Trust, George used to say, is the coin of the realm.

George’s outstanding attribute was his combination of wisdom and humility. Solomon’s prayer was for “a discerning heart,” and that blessing was extended to George. As a statesman, he would gain the whole world yet never forfeit his soul.

Mr. Kissinger served as secretary of state and national security adviser in the Nixon and Ford administrations.