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Turmoil and Triumph: The George Shultz Years

Airing on PBS in July; check local listings

Caught for seven years in the Reagan Era between international explosions and Cabinet infighting, Secretary of State George Shultz maintained his belief that people can disagree but find reasonable ways to mitigate their differences. His signal achievement came with Reagan’s summits with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva and Reykjavik: The Cold War at last began to end as nuclear arsenals were dismantled. For this, as well as his opposition to Iran-Contra—the sale of embargoed arms to Iran to secure the release of American hostages and fund Nicaraguan opponents of the Sandinista regime—Shultz was undercut by Cold Warriors like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and CIA director William Casey, who complained he wouldn’t “let Reagan be Reagan.” But Shultz never pulled the president anywhere he didn’t want to go. He encouraged Reagan to go one-on-one with Gorbachev about reducing nuclear weapons, which Reagan loathed, while his antagonists grew frantic that softheaded Ronnie would “give away the store.”

A Republican moderate, Shultz trained as a labor economist and served as graduate school dean at the University of Chicago before entering politics. This solid documentary reveals how he accomplished more at State than many, right and left, admitted at the time. Unfortunately, however, the show’s three-hour length also encourages padding that ill serves its subject, whose patient, firm realism often helped Reagan be the best he could be.


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here