WASHINGTON — When President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei N. Kosygin parted after their hastily arranged 1967 meeting at Glassboro, N.J., it appeared that another U.S.-Soviet summit had turned to ashes.
There was no agreement to describe for the hundreds of reporters who had rushed into the little college town. There was not even a joint statement. Kosygin drove back up the New Jersey Turnpike to New York, and the President took his helicopter back to Washington.
Later, the Soviet leader was reported to have said that the two days of talks accomplished "next to nothing." At the White House, Johnson was glum. He hoped, he said, that the meeting had made the world a little safer.
As it turned out, the seemingly futile encounter at Glassboro planted the seeds for 20 years of on-again-off-again arms negotiations that have finally produced the first agreement to dismantle nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
Push for Arms Control
Although the Vietnam War and another explosive crisis in the Middle East brought Johnson and Kosygin to one dead end after another, the President and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara pushed hard on arms control issues--the possibility of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the United States' rising alarm over Soviet deployment of defensive missiles to protect Moscow.
Within months, negotiators were laying the groundwork for a 1968 summit meeting in Moscow. Plans were set to announce on Aug. 21 that Johnson would visit Moscow in late September for a meeting that would lead to the first strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) between the nuclear superpowers.
But on Aug. 20, the Soviet Union led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, shattering the carefully laid plan and throwing the next U.S.-Soviet summit conference four years into the future.
For all the attention they have received, U.S.-Soviet summit meetings since World War II have proved to be risky ventures, laced with missed opportunities and demanding exquisite timing and choreography.
The very process, author Michael Beschloss told the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute last year, "is a dangerously unstable element of American-Soviet relations."
"The public demands a summit," he said. "Both sides jockey into position. The leaders meet, determined to impress each other with their toughness or reason, as the times demand. Agreements are hammered out. Both sides run to the television cameras to put the best possible spin on their performance. If there is success, the public can be led to assume that disagreements between Washington and Moscow are over. If there is failure, it sometimes seems as if a new Cold War is about to begin, with no more summits for another four, five or six years."
The checkered record of post-war summit meetings between U.S. and Soviet leaders began with Nikita S. Khrushchev's visit to the United States in 1959. His meetings with President Dwight D. Eisenhower served mainly to produce agreement for an allied summit extravaganza in Paris in 1960, where Western leaders would home in on the problems of Germany, European security and disarmament.
David Eisenhower, the late President's grandson and biographer, said Eisenhower came out of his Camp David talks with Khrushchev with mixed feelings about their worth and doubtful even then about the prospects for the planned super-summit meeting.
But two weeks before Eisenhower and Khrushchev joined British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and French President Charles de Gaulle on May 16, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Khrushchev threw a tantrum on the first day of the summit, wrecking the meeting because Eisenhower would not publicly apologize and renounce future spy flights.
A year later, John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev took the measure of each other in Vienna. More than a quarter-century later, it is still argued by some that Khrushchev misjudged the young new American President and blundered into the Cuban missile crisis.
Political scientist Lloyd Etheredge of Yale University calls the Kennedy-Khrushchev encounter the "most consequential of the postwar summits." It was, he said, a meeting at which the "aggressive and demanding" Khrushchev confronted Kennedy on the Berlin issue, sobered the President and "made him feel the United States had to stand up in other areas of the world."
But Sovietologist and former diplomat Raymond L. Garthoff, of the Brookings Institution, said he doubts that the 1961 summit meeting led Khrushchev to install Soviet missiles in Cuba, providing the most serious confrontation of the nuclear age. It may, he said, have caused the Soviets to escalate the Berlin crisis.
'A Lot Had Changed'