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Remembering George Schultz at a 1983 Reagan cabinet meeting

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TweetFebruary 8, 2021 — In early November 1983, President Ronald Reagan was meeting with his entire cabinet, as Secretary of State George Schulz walked him through each step of an upcoming visit to Japan and Korea.  I was there as the “plus one” staff aide to Martin Feldstein, Reagan’s top economic adviser. On the occasion of Schultz’s passing, February 6, at age 100, I offer two remembered anecdotes from this meeting. Reagan and Whales Reagan said very little during the lengthy briefing and it wasn’t clear whether he was taking it all in.  At one point, Schultz was talking about the disagreement between the US and Japan over whaling. “And whaling is a very big industry in Japan, Mr. President.”   The Secretary of State looked over at Reagan.  Was he asleep? “And whales are very big

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February 8, 2021 — In early November 1983, President Ronald Reagan was meeting with his entire cabinet, as Secretary of State George Schulz walked him through each step of an upcoming visit to Japan and Korea.  I was there as the “plus one” staff aide to Martin Feldstein, Reagan’s top economic adviser.

On the occasion of Schultz’s passing, February 6, at age 100, I offer two remembered anecdotes from this meeting.

Reagan and Whales

Reagan said very little during the lengthy briefing and it wasn’t clear whether he was taking it all in.  At one point, Schultz was talking about the disagreement between the US and Japan over whaling.

“And whaling is a very big industry in Japan, Mr. President.”   The Secretary of State looked over at Reagan.  Was he asleep?

“And whales are very big animals!” Schultz said, unexpectedly.  Reagan looked over, raising an eyebrow questioningly.

“I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention,” Schultz explained.  I wondered how many other members of Reagan’s cabinet could have gotten away with that.

Human Rights in South Korea

The President was to visit South Korea for two days, after Japan.  This was an important trip at a critical time.  Korean President Chun Doo Hwan had come to power as an unelected military strongman.

Schultz reminded Reagan that he would in public be assuring the South Korean leader of unwavering US support, particularly against a belligerent North Korea.  But he also told Reagan, regarding the private meeting he was to have with Chun, that this was the right time and place to bring up the sensitive topic of human rights.  (Less than three years earlier, an estimated 2,000 Koreans had been killed in Gwang-ju, while demonstrating against martial law.)

General John Vessey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff broke in. “No, don’t do that!” he remonstrated.  “They hate that ‘human rights’ talk!”  Schultz calmly paused a moment, before replying, “Well, nevertheless.”

George Shultz was a very fine civil servant.  He even had an economics Ph.D. from MIT.

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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