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Inexact Science : Past Summits Not Immune to Foibles, Follies

December 08, 1987|RUDY ABRAMSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The last time there was a U.S.-Soviet summit meeting on American soil, Leonid I. Brezhnev arrived in Washington with all the trappings of superpower diplomacy--and a super case of jet lag.

His 600-m.p.h. leap across eight time zones and 5,000 miles in 1973 delivered such a wallop to the Soviet leader's biological clock that a quiet Sunday in the spring sunshine, amid the flowers and songbirds of Camp David, was not enough to right the balance wheel. When he began his meetings with Richard M. Nixon, Brezhnev wore two watches--one set for Moscow time, the other for Washington--but he was still confused over whether it was earlier or later at home.

Brezhnev's continuing disorientation led to one of the most bizarre incidents in the annals of U.S.-Soviet summitry and demonstrated anew a striking fact about those often historic meetings: No amount of advance planning can avert momentary lapses in decorum or keep Olympian diplomacy from sometimes degenerating into slapstick.

Subject to Chance

Wrapped in pomp and circumstance, devoted to the most momentous issues of our time, summits still have not been immune to the vagaries of chance or the personal impulses of the leaders who attended them.

From the first face-to-face meeting between the President of the United States and the leader of the Soviet Union in 1943 until the bewildering conclusion of the encounter between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, last year, U.S.-Soviet summits have had a way of jumping carefully lain tracks--in small ways as well as large.

In the case of the Brezhnev and his jet lag, just when he was getting oriented to Washington, a flight to Nixon's Western White House at San Clemente hurled the Soviet leader across three more time zones. He went to bed when the sun was still above the Pacific horizon and the San Diego Freeway was suffering rush hour.

Bedtime for Brezhnev came only slightly later the last night of the summit, and with no one to talk to but themselves, the American summiteers also retired at an uncommonly early hour.

In his memoir, "Years of Upheaval," then-National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger described what happened next:

"At 10 o'clock my phone rang. It was the Secret Service informing me that Brezhnev was up and demanding an immediate meeting with the President, who was asleep."

All of a sudden, Brezhnev wanted to discuss the Middle East, which he had been brushing aside throughout his meetings with Nixon. Kissinger considered it a crass negotiating ploy to catch Nixon off guard, but the President was, nevertheless, awakened, and the leaders of the world's superpowers sat down to discuss the Middle East in the middle of the night.

Extraordinary as the scene seemed, it was not all that out of character for summit meetings.

Traveling Circus

Nikita S. Khrushchev turned his 1959 summit trip to the United States into a coast-to-coast traveling circus that overshadowed his substantive meetings with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and then-Soviet Premier Alexei N. Kosygin drove a small-town college president from his home in Glassboro, N.J., in 1967 for a helter-skelter summit arranged on only hours' notice. They met to discuss a Middle East crisis but came away with a communique on "The Spirit of Glassboro"--an important opening to arms control negotiations.

And President Franklin D. Roosevelt, eager for a direct meeting with Josef Stalin, came close to being killed when he sailed to a summit meeting in Tehran aboard a spanking-new battleship, the Iowa, in 1943. In the mid-Atlantic, as the President sat on deck in his wheelchair watching a defense drill being carried out while the convoy was underway, there came a terrified call over the loudspeaker: "This is not a drill. Torpedo on the starboard beam."

An American destroyer escorting the President had accidentally launched a torpedo at the battleship. With bells clanging and the engines advanced to full ahead, the great vessel swung about to present a smaller target. The torpedo hit the wake created by the maneuver and exploded within sight of the President and the horror-stricken chiefs of staff of the Army and Navy.

As it turned out, a crewman aboard the destroyer, the William D. Porter, had failed to remove a primer from a torpedo-firing tube before the escort ship brought the Iowa into its sights as a practice target.

Assassination Plot

Once Roosevelt, Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had reached Tehran, the Soviets claimed to have uncovered an assassination plot, and the President, at Stalin's behest, moved from the American legation into a villa in the Soviet compound.

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