George Shultz, who as secretary of state played a pivotal role in ushering in the end of the Cold War, died on Saturday at his Stanford home. He was 100.
Shultz was a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Business. One of the most influential diplomats of the twentieth century, Shultz served the United States in three presidential administrations and is one of only two individuals to have held four cabinet positions.
“Our colleague was a great American statesman and a true patriot in every sense of the word,” wrote Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and current director of the Hoover Institution. “He will be remembered in history as a man who made the world a better place.”
While Shultz had a sizable impact on American economic and foreign policy, he is also remembered by the Stanford community as a mentor to many and a man whose character shone through everything he did. Whether in his Stanford office or the White House, Shultz never lost sight of the importance of integrity. “When trust was in the room,” Shultz wrote in December on his 100th birthday, reflecting on the most important lessons he learned throughout his life, “good things happened.”
Indeed, Shultz was guided by the principle of integrity throughout his tenure in government. As secretary of the Treasury, he drew the ire of President Richard Nixon by rejecting the president’s requests to audit the tax returns of political enemies. And as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, Shultz was resolute in his opposition to the Iran-Contra program. When scandal embroiled the White House, Shultz stayed true to his convictions, confronting Reagan over his aides’ obfuscation of the truth.
A beloved figure in the Stanford community, Shultz’s commitment to addressing society’s most pressing issues — nuclear disarmament, climate change, energy and democratic governance — placed him at the forefront of scholarship at Stanford.
“George Shultz was a giant in public policy and world affairs, as well as a dedicated scholar and educator,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “He was an extraordinary role model, a consummate bridge-builder in pursuit of the public good even beyond his hundredth birthday. His remarkable life and career serve as an inspiration to all those whose lives he touched at Stanford and beyond.”
George Pratt Shultz was born in 1920 in New York City. Raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, Shultz earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton University. He went on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, meeting his first wife Helena O’Brien while stationed in Hawaii.
After the war, Shultz completed his doctorate in industrial economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and stayed on as a faculty member after his studies. He later became a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business before being named dean of the school from 1962 to 1968.
Shultz joined the Stanford community in 1968 for a yearlong fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences. He left for Washington not long after he arrived to become secretary of labor, and would go on to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget and secretary of the treasury in Nixon’s cabinet. After leaving the Nixon administration in 1974, Shultz returned to Stanford as a professor in the Graduate School of Business.
When President Ronald Reagan tapped him as secretary of state in 1982, Shultz left Stanford for Washington a second time. Philip Taubman, a consulting professor at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, was a reporter for The New York Times when he first met Shultz in 1983. Taubman, who is writing the first comprehensive biography of Shultz, remembers him as a visionary who was never afraid to embrace novel ideas and work tirelessly toward positive change.
Taubman said Shultz was considered inscrutable by much of the press corps. The former secretary of state adopted a reserved relationship with journalists, often keeping thoughts to himself. But what started as a distant relationship transformed when Shultz learned Taubman played tennis.
“I got to see a playful side that was all but invisible while he was secretary of state,” Taubman said. The two bonded over the sport, playing together in Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Bangkok.
When he returned to Stanford in 1989, Shultz made it his home for the rest of his life. His dedication to advocacy did not waver after his career in public service. Shultz’s steadfast commitment to nuclear disarmament led to a lasting professional partnership with the late Sidney Drell, who was the deputy director for SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Shultz’s resolve for clean energy led him to launch the Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy at the Hoover Institution. Clean energy was more than a policy matter for Shultz — it was personal. He adopted an electric vehicle early on and installed solar panels on his rooftop. He was particularly troubled by the effects of climate change on the lives of his great-grandchildren. “I’ve got to see that they have a decent world,” he said in 2012.
A pillar of the Hoover Institution, Shultz was also respected beyond its walls by the broader Stanford community. Taubman said Shultz was a personable and accessible individual who enjoyed collaborating with faculty and mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students. Shultz was also a prolific presence in the social life of the Stanford community.
“He had a mischievous sense of humor, a twinkle in his eye and was a remarkably gregarious figure,” Taubman said.
The former secretary of state also stood at the forefront of Stanford scholarship in economics. John Taylor, an economics professor and George P. Shultz Senior Fellow in Economics at the Hoover Institution, said that he always looked to Shultz as a mentor. The two worked closely at the institution, co-authoring a book on the keys to economic policy in 2020.
“Everybody wants to be the best they can. Everybody wants to make positive change, and he was always a model for how you do it correctly. He showed that it’s not just the fact that it’s been done. It’s how it’s been done,” Taylor said of Shultz.
Taylor said that he admired Shultz’s capacity to reflect on matters with clarity and objectivity. The two first met in the early 2000’s, when Taylor, the under secretary of the Treasury for international affairs at the time, attended one of Shultz’s talks. Taylor remembers leaving that event inspired by how “crystal clear” Shultz’s advice for the nation was in the wake of 9/11.
As Shultz and Taylor grew close at Stanford over the next 15 years, Taylor realized that Shultz’s commitment to his beliefs was not a coincidence, but rather was representative of Shultz’s character.
“He always focused on ideas that are tested or proven,” Taylor said. “And that’s the sense of establishing the integrity of an idea. But that really reflected who he was as a person. Integrity was very much a characteristic of him as well.”
Kiron Skinner, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, remembered her mentor fondly. “I affectionately called him GPS, for George Pratt Shultz. In reality, he was a global positioning system,” she wrote. “I can’t imagine my life without our conversations about domestic and international realities.”
Contact Cameron Ehsan at cehsan ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tammer Bagdasarian at tbag ‘at’ stanford.edu.