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Looking Back On History-Making Summits Between U.S. Presidents And Foreign Leaders


We've heard the phrase historic summit endlessly over the past few days as President Trump traveled to Singapore to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The final countdown to the historic summit here in Singapore...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Special coverage of the historic Singapore summit...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Will their summit bring us closer to peace or peril?

CORNISH: The phrase stirs memories of meetings between past American presidents and the leaders of what had been hostile foreign governments, meetings that changed the course of events thereafter. NPR senior editor correspondent on the Washington desk Ron Elving joins us now to take a look at the origins and history of historic summits. Hey there, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: It seems obvious that the term summit means meeting, but how did we start to use it in this way?

ELVING: It means meeting at the top. And it may have been Winston Churchill who used it first that way in 1950. He said it was time for, quote, "a parley at the summit." Now, of course Churchill had been part of the meetings during World War II with Joseph Stalin, with U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Near the city of Yalta in the Crimea is the meeting place of the leaders of Britain, Russia and the United States, scene of the most successful international conference of the war.

ELVING: Five years later, the Cold War was deepening, and Churchill thought it was time for them to get together and have another chat.

CORNISH: And of course those two World War summits were very controversial, right? Maybe this is why we think of it as a high-stakes meeting.

ELVING: It worked better for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin than for, say, Winston Churchill or Roosevelt or the West. The Russians proceeded to occupy Eastern Europe or most of it for more than four decades.

CORNISH: So we're still using this term during the Cold War years, right? You have summits with Eisenhower and then with President Kennedy. What happens?

ELVING: Those presidents met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Premier Khrushchev arrives in Vienna for the first summit meeting with a U.S. president since the ill-starred conference with President Eisenhower in Paris.

ELVING: He had a real cannonball style. And they had some trouble dealing with that. And after the young President Kennedy met with him in 1961, we got the Berlin Wall. We got a worsening situation in Vietnam.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: There still appears to be sharp disagreement on Berlin, nuclear testing and Soviet demands for veto rights in international discussions.

ELVING: So at that point, summits were not yielding much of a payoff for the United States.

CORNISH: The game-changing one, though, came after this period, right? And it was with the Chinese.

ELVING: That's right. The communists had taken control in China in 1948, and the U.S. did not officially recognize that fact for decades. But it began to change in a dramatic way in the summer of 1971.


RICHARD NIXON: Good evening. I have requested this television time tonight to announce a major development in our efforts to build a lasting peace in the world.

ELVING: Now, that of course is President Richard Nixon, a fervent lifelong anti-communist. But he at that time was looking for a second term as president, trying to distract from some economic problems and trying to extract the United States from that Vietnam War. So he had reasons to do what he did.


NIXON: It is in this spirit that I will undertake what I deeply hope will become a journey for peace.

CORNISH: And Nixon had dual goals, right? I mean, he wanted to engage with China, but he also wanted to recalibrate this relationship with the Soviet Union.

ELVING: Exactly. And so three months later, he's sitting down with Leonid Brezhnev, who was at that time the Soviet leader, to talk about arms control agreements and eventually even a ban on nuclear weapons testing. It was the dawn, if you will, of what became known as detente, a thaw in the Cold War.

CORNISH: Going forward, you still have summits, but it doesn't seem as, like, high-stakes as the Nixon one, right? You have presidents Ford and Carter. They meet with Soviet leaders. So what's the difference?

ELVING: As you say, the stakes were not as high. But of course there were still tensions over Afghanistan and many other issues. Ronald Reagan got elected president in 1980 as a hard-liner on communism, someone who called the Soviet Union the evil empire.


RONALD REAGAN: To ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire. To...

ELVING: So it came as a shock, a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of shock, when he in the later 1980s built up a real relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. And the two men really did have a kind of interpersonal chemistry. And they got started talking about nuclear weapons.


REAGAN: These last few days have been exciting indeed for both of us, for our fellow countrymen who followed the course of our discussions. I'm pleased to report that upon the completion of our business, that this summit has been a clear success.

ELVING: Now, the two men met several times. That tape is from 1987 when the two men agreed on a ban on intermediate-range missiles. But of course they never quite got to abolishing nuclear weapons.

CORNISH: These days you hear about multinational summits - right? - global meetings, the G-8, the U.N. The idea of sitting down with dictators or, you know, quote, unquote, "sworn enemies" isn't what it was. And it seems like these summits are just much more friendly looking.

ELVING: Well, they're orchestrated. And they're orchestrated to make it multilateral, to only have the one-on-ones as kind of side events. And they're usually put together to project a lot of sweetness and light. That is obviously not President Trump's style. We saw that in the G-7 last weekend. He prefers the more dramatic, mano-a-mano summit between apparent adversaries reaching back for perhaps some of that grand gesture and high-stakes drama that we saw in the Cold War.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for this summit.

ELVING: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.