From Confrontation to Negotiation: RN with Nikita Khrushchev in the famous Kitchen Debate in Moscow in 1959, and with Leonid Brezhnev (who had been part of Khrushchev’s official entourage in the Kitchen) on the Truman Balcony at the White House in 1973.
In a few hours, President Obama will be arriving in a cool and rainy Moscow. After less than six months in office, Mr. Obama is already well-traveled; even his presidential campaign had a European leg.
The first time the Stars and Stripes flew over the Kremlin was thirty-seven years ago —in May 1972— when RN stayed there during his first —of three— Soviet Summits.
The externals have changed radically —President Obama will be visiting a fledgling democracy on the economic ropes rather than the competing superpower with which RN had to deal.
But the more things change the more they stay the same, and it’s not too late for 44 to learn from some of 37’s experiences.
26 May 1972: President Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signing the SALT 1 Interim treaty freezing US and Soviet weapons at their current limits. Although spouses weren’t invited, PN wanted to witness the historic late-night post-banquet Kremlin event. She followed RN’s advice and watched surreptitiously from behind a pillar.
When Air Force One lifted off from Andrews Air Force Base on 20 May 1972 (en route to Moscow via Salzburg) the thin backstory of Soviet summitry wasn’t auspicious to say the least.
Eisenhower’s meeting with Khrushchev at Geneva in 1955 and Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the US were at least uneventful. But the plans for Ike’s 1960 visit to Russia had to be scrapped when Khrushchev withdrew the invitation in the wake of the U2 spy plane debacle. And JFK’s 1961 Vienna meeting with Khrushchev turned out to be disastrous.
The 1972 Soviet Summit had been long and carefully planned. From the first weeks of his administration, RN had initiated a pragmatic policy of hardheaded détente, and insisted on the linkage of Soviet conduct (particularly in North Vietnam, North Korea, and the Middle East) to America’s willingness to negotiate on issues of interest to the USSR.
Indeed, many had direly predicted that RN’s refusal to be intimidated by North Vietnam’s invasion of the South the month before —which he countered with the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong Harbor— would lead the Soviets to cancel the Summit at the last minute. RN noted that, after Air Force One was airborne, Henry Kissinger “came into my cabin and exuberantly said, ‘This has to be one of the great diplomatic coups of all times! Three weeks ago everyone predicted it would be called off, and today we’re on our way.”
When RN and PN arrived in Moscow on Monday, 22 May 1972, the greeting was polite — but no more. Brezhnev, whose power was supreme but whose official title was a few pegs down the totem pole, wasn’t among the official greeting party. But as soon as the President and First Lady were installed in rooms in the Kremlin, Henry Kissinger arrived with word that Brezhnev was waiting in his office.
Although this would be their first official meeting, RN and Brezhnev had crossed paths before. In the uncropped photographs of the 1959 Kitchen Debate —when Vice President Nixon confronted the belligerent Premier Khrushchev with some home truths about American capitalism— the young communist party official Leonid Brezhnev had positioned himself directly behind the young American Veep.
In RN, RN recalled:
Brezhnev’s office was the same room in which I had first met Khrushchev, thirteen years before. Like Khrushchev, Brezhnev looked exactly like his photographs: the bushy eyebrows dominated his face, and his mouth was set in a fixed, rather wary smile. I was sure that neither of us, standing shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen at the American Exhibition thirteen years before, had imagined that we would one day be meeting at the summit as the leaders of our country.
For the next few days, the communist leaders —Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Podgordny— alternately applied the complete Soviet arsenal of surprise, belligerence, crudity, charm, schmaltz, erratic and late hours, and, of course, gallons of vodka. President Obama can expect these techniques to be indigenous —as familiar to Count Nesselrode as to Sergei Lavrov— and should be prepared accordingly.
Throughout, RN remained calm, unruffled, resolute, and unfailingly diplomatic diplomatic. And, no less important, he didn’t lose his sense of humor.
In the first plenary session at 11 A.M. with Brezhnev, Kosygin, Podgorny, Gromkyo, and Dobrynin, I decided to establish the straightforward tone I planned to adopt during the entire summit.
“I would like to say something that y Soviet friends may be too polite to say,” I began. “I know that my reputation is one of being a very hard-line, cold-war-oriented, anticommunist.”
Kosygin said dryly, “I had heard this sometime back.”
“It is true that I have a strong belief in our system,” I continued, “but at the same time I respect those who believe just as strongly in their own systems. There must be room in this world for two grea nations with different systems to live together and work together. We cannot do this, however, by mushy sentimentality or by glossing over differences which exist.”
All the heads nodded on the other side of the table, but I guessed that in fact they would have much preferred a continuation of the mushy sentimentality that had characterized so much of our approach to the Soviets in the past.
This first Soviet Summit produced the first SALT (strategic arms limitations talks) Treaty establishing a temporary freeze on the numbers of ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles that either side could have or build until a permanent agreement could be reached. RN also signed the ABM treaty, stopping would would have become a headlong arms race to defend American and Soviet cities from missile attacks.
As RN later wrote, “Together with the ABM treaty, the Interim Agreement on strategic missiles marked the first step toward arms control in the thermonuclear age.”