Summit Conferences

         From Richard the Lion Heart to Ronald Reagan




In the days when the whole world read the novels of Sir Walter Scott, one of everyone's favorite stories came at the conclusion of The Talisman, where Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, and Richard the Lion Heart, King of England, meet in a desert in the Holy Land for a conference in which each has an opportunity to display his prowess.  Richard raises his sword, "a broad straight blade...which extended wellnigh from the shoulder to the heel of the wearer," stretches it up above his giant frame and brings it crashing down on a steel bar an inch and a half thick. The bar breaks clean in two, the sword is unscathed. Saladin politely expresses his admiration, then bares his lean sinewy right arm, stretches out his scimitar in front of him, "a curved and narrow blade...of a dull blue color," drops a silk veil over it, and with one flick of his wrist cuts the veil neatly in two.

The story is pure romantic invention, as Scott was happy to admit. He was embroidering on chronicles of the Third Crusade (1189-1192) which are full of flowery accounts of single combats and private meetings between the two monarchs. According to more responsible historians, they never once laid eyes on each other. Richard asked for a face-to-face meeting, but Saladin prudently replied that "kings meet together only after the conclusion of an accord, for it is unthinkable for them to wage war once they know one another and have broken bread together."

If they did not quite break bread, they still achieved something of an accord, in fact became rather intimate with each other, scandalizing pious Christians and Moslems alike, who could not understand such trafficking with an unbelieving enemy of God: as if, when there was war in heaven, Saint Michael and Satan had gotten together to see if they could make a deal.

. King and Sultan set up tents a few miles apart, and between them kept up a constant stream of messengers bringing compliments, camels, fine linen and proposals for ending the war. When Richard was in bed tormented by fever, Saladin sent him peaches and pears to eat, and snow from the mountains to soothe his heated brow..

Scott, as usual, had an eye not only for the picturesque detail but for historical significance. The negotiations of Richard and Saladin were a unique, a revolutionary event, the first recorded example of what has in our time become a familiar feature of international life, the summit conference.

A summit is not any old meeting between two or more heads of state. Potentates have been visiting each other since the beginning of organized governments. The Queen of Shea came to visit King Solomon and exchanged riddles with him. The triumvir Mark Antony came to visit Cleopatra Queen of Egypt and stayed on. Royalty, presidents and prime ministers of allied nations have sometimes got together after a victorious war to divide the spoils as they did at Vienna in 1814 after the collapse of Napoleon's empire and at Versailles in 1919 after the collapse of the Kaiser's. But a summit, in the sense in which Winston Churchill introduced the word into the language when he called for one in 1950, is something quite different, and quite specific: it is a meeting between the heads of rival or enemy great powers trying to satisfy their mutual demands by negotiation instead of perpetual war.

It is easy to see why such summits are rare. To begin with, a summit demands powers which are more or less evenly matched: the Great White Father receiving the Chief of the Choctaws in Washington is a summit only by courtesy.

It also calls for rulers who have the power and prestige which makes them  capable of making major decisions on the spot and have the authority to carry them out afterwards. Such leaders are not always available, and when they are it is not always easy to get them close enough to press the flesh.. In the ninth century AD, Charlemagne at Aachen ruled an empire that comprised almost all of western Europe at the same time that Harun al Rashid at Baghdad ruled an empire that comprised almost all of the Middle East. They were both energetic, charismatic rulers, with invincible armies and enormous prestige (the word for "king" in all the Slavic languages of eastern Europe is a form of the name Charlemagne was born with, Karl; and Harun was so universally popular that it was only natural for him to become the central figure in so many of the thousand-and-one stories of the Arabian Nights), and they might well have been able to settle many of the ninth century's problems and establish a durable peace over their half of the civilized world.. But the distance between Aachen and Baghdad was so great that they would have had to spend months on the road in carriages and in boats and on horseback if they tried to get together personally, they would have been out of effective touch with their own governments, and their empires might have collapsed while they were banqueting each other without their getting the news before it was too late for them to do anything about it.

In addition, summiteers must have a practical agenda, they must have agreed on some subjects which they can discuss, on which they can make concessions, make compromises. There are conflicts that simply do not lend themselves to discussion. Philip II of Spain, determined to bring the fair land of England back to the Roman Catholic faith of its former Queen (and his former wife) Mary, could not conceivably have sat down to talk things over with his heretic sister-in-law Elizabeth, any more than Abraham Lincoln could have arranged a friendly business meeting with Jefferson Davis.

Another deterrent to summit conferences in the old days was the quasi-sacredness of rulers. A king or an emperor was too precious an object to be transported to foreign soil where he might be treacherously be kidnaped or killed. And these kings and emperors were raised to be warriors, their mission in life was to subdue their rivals on the field of battle, not to sit down with them to haggle over boundaries and tariffs.

Thus it was quite unusual for Richard to propose personal negotiations. He had set out for Palestine as one of the three leaders of the Third Crusade to win back Jerusalem from the unbelieving Saracens. The other two leaders had departed the scene, Emperor Frederick of Germany having drowned in a river in Asia Minor before he could do all the mischief he was planning, and King Philip of France having sneaked off home to seize or plunder Richard's possessions. So Richard was now de facto head of Christendom in the war zones of the Middle East. He was a huge man of legendary strength who could spend a whole day in the saddle, chopping off enemy limbs and heads, impulsive, choleric, utterly reckless of his personal safety. Bah'a al-Din, Saladin's secretary, records how once Richard rode alone in front of the whole length of the Saracen battle line, challenging any one to come out and meet him in single combat. Not a man stirred. He then had a table set down halfway between the two armies, and ordered dinner. Generations of Moslem mothers would curb unruly children by threatening them with a visit by the Malik Ric, the King Richard, if they misbehaved.

He was a superb field commander, who never risked his men's lives unnecessarily. And he was the only king of England to have been not only an accomplished general but an accomplished poet.

Al-malik al-Nasir Yusef Salah-al-Din al-Ayyubi, whom the Crusaders called Saladin, was also an exceptional individual.  Wise, wily, devout, outspoken, a politician more than a military hero, he had achieved what amounted to a miracle in uniting most of the squabbling emirates sultanates, kingdoms and whatnot of the Muslim East. He had also fulfilled a century-old Muslim dream of breaking the power of the realms set up by the Crusaders and reconquering the holy city of Jerusalem from the infidels. Like the Lion Heart and every other  successful monarch of the time, he ruled by personal authority and knew how to reinforce his prestige by theatrical gestures which, though are attested by sober eyewitnesses, sometimes seem to come out of books of chivalric romance.  Besieging the fortress of Reynald of Châtillon, one of the bloodiest ruffians among the crusading lords, he learned the Reynald's stepdaughter was being married inside. He then instructed his troops to keep their catapults pointed away from the pavilion where the newlyweds would be housed. Later, when Reynald was taken prisoner, Saladin personally cut off the infidel's head.

Richard and Saladin had separate missions, and by definition the missions were irreconcilable. Richard's was to reconquer the Holy Land from the Muslim infidels. Saladin's was to rid the Holy Land of the Christian infidels. Each one was ready to die for his own true faith. But they were are also realistic politicians, capable of a realistic assessment of the situation which faced them. "Men of ours and of yours have died," wrote Richard to Saladin, "the country is in ruins, and events have entirely escaped from anyone's control. Do you not believe that it is enough?...There must be an end to all this."

The fact was, as both leaders had come to see, neither side could win a decisive military victory. The Crusaders, less civilized in most respects  than the people whose land they had invaded, had a more efficient military machine. When the heavily armored cavalry of the European knights first appeared in the East, they must have seemed to be creatures from another world. It is hard today to see how they could have done what they did, riding and fighting under the blaze of the summer sun, broiling beneath the heavy iron armor which covered them, maddened by fleas and lice and mosquitoes which they could not reach with their iron-gauntleted hands. When they were well led by a commander like Richard, they were almost impervious to attack from the lighter-armed foe. With arrows sticking out of them and their iron-clad horses all over they .looked like gigantic hedgehogs. When they charged in a steady thundering line, nothing merely human could resist them.

But if they could win battles, they could not win the war. There were never enough Crusaders to settle down and hold the entire country. As they died in battle or of fever, they needed to be reinforced by new waves of fighters from Europe, and by Richard's time Europe was becoming bored by the Crusades. There were more pressing things back home. Richard himself was anxious to get back to his domains in France and England to save them from the depredations of King Philip Auguste and the incompetence of his young brother John.

So it made sense for both leaders to settle for what they could get. They bargained hard for months in 1191, through the fighting season, through the rainy season, using the Sultan's brother al-Adil Abu Bakr Sayf-al-Din (Saffadin to the Crusaders) as a go-between. Relations grew warm enough for Richard to make Saladin a knight, a wicked deed to fundamentalists on both sides, as this was a Christian ceremony and Saladin went on being a pious Muslim after it.

There would have been a still greater scandal if another of Richard's propositions had worked out. He offered to give in marriage his own sister Joan, the widowed Queen of Sicily, to Saffadin and make them joint rulers of Jerusalem. (Imagine Ariel Sharon making a matrimonial deal with Yasser Arafat.) Joan was outraged by the idea of entering an infidel's harem, but stranger marriages had been forced on unwilling princesses in the previous century by the political needs of various Crusader and Saracen rulers. Eventually, this marriage deal fell through, along with many others, but on September 2, 1192 a general agreement was reached, and both Richard and Saladin signed a treaty. It left a string of coastal cities in the hands of the Crusaders, and gave Christian pilgrims right to free entry in the holy places in Jerusalem.

Richard himself would not set foot in the city he had sworn to redeem by the sword, but his warriors rushed there under Saladin's safe-conduct, weeping with joy and falling into the arms, "as though they had been friends all their lives," of the Muslim warriors they had been fighting for years of appalling butchery. It did not take them long discover that they had common tastes in wine and women and music, and they went rollicking together through the holy streets of Jerusalem which had been rivers of blood when the Crusaders first arrived.

The summiteers parted with gallantries and expressions of mutual admiration and respect. Their separate paths afterwards would lead only downwards. Richard, taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria on his way home, spent a year in prison writing poems while England was bled dry to pay for his ransom. Freed, he squandered his last years skirmishing with his vassals and with the King of France and died of a stray arrow shot while he was besieging a castle of no great importance. Saladin, in poor health to begin with (though he had a distinguished doctor in the person of Maimonides the great Jewish philosopher), died within a year of signing the treaty..


Historians have treated the Richard-Saladin conference as a very minor episode in the long tragic history of the Crusades, and no doubt they are right. But as far as summit conferences go, this one, the first of the species, must be counted as also the most successful. The participants did not live to see a mockery made of their noble intentions. Indeed, the peace they promised the Middle East, lasted more or less continuously, with the usual raids, treacheries, kidnapings and so forth, for a good hundred years, which by Middle Eastern, as by most other, standards, is quite a long time. It was during that time that the insidious influences of the subtle Arabs - the translations of Aristotle, the ideals of chivalry, the concept of romantic love, and all the rest - began to penetrate the tough hide of the brutish West - and change the course of its civilization.


Hundreds of years would pass before anything that could be called a summit conference was held again. This came about in 1520, and the motive force was the ambition of Cardinal Wolsey, the butcher's son who had become chief minister for young King Henry VIII of England, and who dreamed of mediating a general peace in Europe. All the Great Powers of western Europe had come at about the same time into the hands of ambitious, vainglorious and lecherous young men: Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (that is, ruler of most of Germany and of Italy) and King of Spain; Francis I, King of France; and Henry of England. They were all quite rich, having inherited treasuries filled by parsimonious predecessors, all devoted to the cult of their own personalities, all determined to make a splash in history. Henry had the smallest dominions but the most money, and Wolsey poured into his willing ear the suggestion that he should arrange a personal meeting with Francis, not only to end centuries of conflict between their two countries, but to dazzle all the world by their combined magnificence.

The details took months to work out. Since neither monarch would demean himself by being the first to set foot on the other's soil, which would make him look as though he was coming to ask for a favor, a site was selected on the border between the Kingdom of France and the English cross-Channel province of Calais. Every day brought up a new problem of protocol. Which shield should be hung in the place of honor, on the right? Which Queen would be presented first? (The solution to this was to have each king visit the other's spouse in separate places at the same moment.) How many attendants would follow, at each event?

The top of a hill was lowered on the French side so that the two troops of horsemen approaching the meeting would be exactly on the same level.

Henry took off from Dover with 5,172 courtiers, ladies-in-waiting and other attendants in their fanciest dress, virtually the whole ruling class of England, plus 2,865 horses. When they got to the field at the border between the English town of Guines and the French town of Ardres, there was a general gasp of admiration. King Henry's carpenters had built a palace of brick and wood with rooms bigger than any in his palaces in England; the great hall alone was 124 feet long and 30 feet high. All the rooms were hung with immensely expensive cloth of gold, which led to the name under which this meeting has gone down in history: the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Around the palace were grouped 2800 richly decorated tents for both the French and English nobility.

Francis slept five miles away in the town of Ardres.

They were all on tenterhooks at the start, for no one had any idea how such a meeting might turn out. Everyone remembered how in 1419 the Duke of Orleans and the Duke of Burgundy, leaders of the two factions whose strife was tearing France apart, having arranged a meeting on a bridge over a river separating their territories, had started out with fair words, only to have one of the Duke of Orleans' men reach over the barrier between them to stab the Duke of Burgundy, leading to many more cataclysmic years of civil war. And every one remembered how Francis' distant cousin King Louis XI had rashly gone to visit his kinsman Charles the Rash, Duke of Burgundy, at Péronne, 70 miles as the crow flies from Ardres. A visit that had turned out badly when Charles discovered that Louis had been secretly suborning rebels in his domains, and was only barely restrained from cutting his treacherous  head off.

But this time, all was graciousness and gallantry. There might have been a contretemps when it was discovered that Henry had not kept the solemn bargain agreed upon by the two sovereigns to let their beards grow in the latest sixteenth-century fashion. But Henry's Queen, Catherine of Aragon, not yet set aside for the crime of not having produced a male heir to the throne, had "daily made him instance and desired him to put it off for her sake," so he came clean-shaven to the Cloth of Gold. "Our friendship," said Francis in his lordly courteous way when he saw the naked chin, "lies in our hearts and not in our beards," and the matter went no further.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold lasted 17 days, days that the kings filled with jousting, dancing, drinking vintage wine (3,000 butts, holding 324,000 gallons, were on hand) and on one occasion wrestling (Henry challenged, Francis won, Henry demanded an instant rematch but it was called off when the bell rang for dinner).

They also signed a treaty, under the terms of which Francis' son, the Dauphin, was engaged to marry Henry's infant daughter Mary, and perpetual peace between the two kingdoms was declared. .

International treaties are rarely noted for long life (the Treaty of Verdun, signed in 843 AD, which fixed the frontier between France and Germany for more than seven hundred years, is an honorable exception), but this one was of record-breaking brevity. Henry could hardly wait to find a new fiancé for his daughter, the German Emperor Charles V (she would later marry Charles' son King Philip II of Spain and go down in the history books as "Bloody Mary"), and to make plans with Charles for a joint invasion of France and a march on Paris. The English troops began happily devastating many square miles of French countryside, and when Charles urged Henry to restrain them from looting, which made the conquered territories less valuable, he replied that "if they should forbear the profit of the spoil, they shall have evil will to march forward, and their captains shall have much ado to keep them from crying 'Home! Home!'' Henry and Charles each came to the conclusion that he was being tricked into a fighting a war for the benefit of his partner, and not surprisingly their friendship quickly turned to bitter enmity.


The Field of the Cloth of Gold, though it may have been a propaganda triumph while it lasted, impressing all the world with the wealth and might of the kings of England and France, soon came to be seen as a symbol of conspicuous and frivolous waste. Police records reveal that a man at Shaftesbury in England was denounced to the authorities in 1521 for having said to a passing soldier, "Ah, sir, have you been with Mr. Harry King? A noble act ye did there. Ye spent away my moneys like a set of vagabonds and knaves." Not many people said anything like this out loud, for in Mr. Harry King's day the penalty for doing so could be flogging,, castration, hanging, disembowelment and hacking into four pieces in a public square. But the message was clear, and nobody thought of having another summit conference till almost three centuries had past.

It was the summer of 1807 and Napoleon Bonaparte, who had recently crowned himself Emperor of France, was at the height of his power and the top of his form. He had conquered almost all of Italy, almost all of Germany, he had put brothers and brothers-in-law and buddies on thrones all over Europe.. He had crushed the Russian armies in a series of battles in East Prussia , and there was no one left on the continent to challenge his dominance. Playing magnanimous victor, he invited Czar Alexander I to meet him on the River Niemen, the boundary between Prussia and Russia. His engineers built a raft in the middle of the river near the city of Tilsit, and there in his simple field uniform he awaited the arrival of the autocrat of all the Russias.

Alexander, in black cloak and white breeches, wearing a hat with black and white plumes, was rowed to the island. Handsome, shy, sentimental, mystical, he was an idealist who dreamed of establishing a league of nations that would impose peace and justice on the world. He was also a reformer, the Gorbachev of his day, who was going to drag his beloved backward Russia into the progress and enlightenment of the nineteenth century. His taste for reform would die off quickly when he began to realize that it would mean giving up his unlimited power, but at the time of Tilsit he was, at 30, still a dreamer, still impressionable, prime meat for a crafty carnivore like Napoleon. The French Emperor was only eight years older, but he had spent an eternity learning how to dazzle, frighten, confuse, control and manipulate people.

At Tilsit he appeared to manipulate Alexander like a master. The Czar, who had like rulers everywhere been horrified by the sight of a Corsican bandit making and unmaking the crowned heads of Europe at his pleasure, now looked with youthful enthusiasm on this new Caesar, invincible in battle, creator of legal codes, builder of empires. Napoleon cajoled him, flattered him, went riding with him, walked with him arm in arm through the streets of Tilsit, projecting a glorious future for mankind. They bantered on the raft while the poor King of Prussia sat on his horse on the riverbank in the rain, morosely waiting to hear how many fragments of his kingdom they would let him preserve.

Napoleon was at his fast-talking Corsican best. "If we act together," he told Alexander, "we will be the masters of the world." More specifically he promised to support Alexander in future operations against Turkey. All he asked in return was for Alexander to recognize the map of Europe as he had redrawn it and join his embargo on trade with England. In practical terms, he wanted and got a free hand in Europe in exchange for a promise he had no intention of keeping.

Alexander may have suspected that he had made a less than good bargain, and the suspicions deepened in the year following his return to St. Petersburg from Tilsit. This was the year in which Napoleon passed beyond the bounds of reason. He had hitherto always had a very shrewd idea of what he could get away with. But now his ambitions recognized no obstacles. He was ready to literally conquer the world. He annexed Rome and made it the chef-lieu of the French Department of the Tiber. He kidnaped the Spanish royal family and put his alcoholic brother Joseph on the throne in Madrid. He began drawing up plans for the invasion of India.

"The state of against nature and civilization," said the Austrian ambassador to Paris, Count Clemens von Metternich. One who agreed with him was Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the clubfooted aristocrat, once Bishop of Autun, principal author of the Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man, now Prince of Benevento in southern Italy (which gave him the right to eat at the same table as royalty), who had recently been booted out of his post as Napoleon's Foreign Minister. Talleyrand was one of the architects of Napoleon's rise to power, and had served him faithfully (and been richly rewarded) ever since. But now he saw his Emperor the slave of his own illusions, leading France to certain. He decided ro betray him.

One day Napoleon strode through a room crowded with dignitaries to where Talleyrand was leaning against a mantelpiece and shouted at him, "You are a piece of shit in a silk stocking," and then strode out of the room slamming the door. Talleyrand did not budge, or show any sign of emotion, he simply said in his simple cultivated way, "What a pity that so great a man should not have better manners."

Napoleon would have done well to get rid of Talleyrand after this little incident. But he was still something in awe of his courtly manners and quiet aristocratic self-assurance which no upstart little Corsican could ever hope to master, knowing as he once said that a defeated King was still a King but a defeated Emperor Napoleon was a nobody. For some unknown reason, perhaps simply his belief that he could do no wrong, he decided that he could use Talleyrand to perform one more service for him. He asked him to set up a second summit meeting with Alexander - "You speak his language," he said -- to arrange a marriage between Napoleon and the Czar's sister while continuing to dangle dreams of Oriental conquests in exchange for a Franco-Russian alliance against all enemies in Europe. If the Czar took wing on one of his idealistic fancies, so much the better. "You may agree to any philanthropies," said Napoleon in a classic statement of Great Power philosophy, "provided it is philanthropy at a distance."

Talleyrand did indeed speak the Czar's language. They were both  aristocrats, though the Romanovs, had been around for only a couple of hundred years, could not hope to compare with the Talleyrand-Périgords who had been around since the ninth century.

"Sire," said the Prince of Benevento to the emperor of Russia, "the French people are civilized, their sovereign is not. The Russian sovereign is civilized, his people are not." In short, both people would be happier if Napoleon should providentially disappear from the scene. As a first step to this goal, Talleyrand kept the Czar informed of all Napoleon's secret instructions to him.

The resulting summit, held at Erfurt in the heart of Germany, was a disappointment to Napoleon. Outwardly, it was very gay. There were luxuriously decorated palaces in which festivities went on nonstop for 18 days. Napoleon was dazzling as usual. Alexander was charming as usual. But he seemed to become unaccountably vague every time Napoleon tried to pin him down to a specific commitment. He didn't quite say no to the projected marriage with his sister, but he said he would have to get their mother's consent, knowing full well that the Dowager Empress would rather die than see her daughter in the arms of a base-born Roman Catholic heretic.

Alexander was reverting to his earlier idea of the French emperor as a crude cutthroat, a killer of kings. Had he not kidnaped and murdered a French royal prince, the Duc d'Enghien?. When the Czar made an oblique allusion to this, Napoleon turned the conversation to the untimely death of Alexander's father which had occurred at about the same time. Czar Paul Petrovich was strangled in his bed in the Winter Palace by a group of drunken officers and court officials while Alexander, who had only indicated that he wanted his father to be forced to abdicate, was (depending on which version of the story you believed) either restlessly sleeping or impatiently pacing the palace corridors waiting for the news from upstairs.

On another occasion Napoleon turned to the overtalkative King of Bavaria at dinner and told him, "Shut up!" and the Czar shuddered at the discourtesy shown to one of the Lord's anointed.

Erfurt might end with smiles and assurances of undying affection, but Napoleon soon came to realize that his old magic had not worked., that if any philanthropy had been performed, it was he who had done the performing.  He had agreed to let Alexander grab Finland from Sweden and two provinces in the Balkans from Turkey. In exchange all he got was promises, and more than any one else, he knew what the promises of an absolute ruler were worth.

Eventually, Napoleon was convinced he would have to invade Russia. Alexander was swinging to the view that instead of leading his armies hundreds of miles westward to fight the French, he should retreat into the vast spaces of his own country and leave a desert between his troops and Napoleon's. In 1812 each of them carried out his plan, and Napoleon became a nobody.

In the terrible retreat from Moscow, with his army disintegrating around him, Napoleon had plenty of time to brood about how he had been outmaneuvered at Erfurt by an inferior intellect like Alexander's. One day he blurted out to his aide, General de Caulaincourt, that someone must have been passing his secret instructions to the Czar. Caulaincourt caught his breath: as French ambassador to Russia, he had been the go-between for Talleyrand's messages to the Czar. But Napoleon couldn't get anything right in 1812. "It must have been Lannes," he said. Marshal Lannes was in his grave, dead of his wounds on the field of honor at Essling, and Caulaincourt's breathing could return to normal.


After this summitry went out of fashion, perhaps because there were so few Napoleonic figures on the world scene, until September 1938 when Neville Chamberlain, that most un-Napoleonic of nation\al leaders, furled his umbrella and climbed into a plane headed for Berchtesgaden, to try to talk Hitler out of starting a new world war. He didn't quite succeed, he failed again a couple of weeks later at Bad Godesberg, but then he tried again at Munich, with Mussolini and Prime Minister Daladier of France along for the ride. After long and earnest discussions, he agreed to let Hitler have what he was asking for, the German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia, thus effectively eliminating Czechoslovakia as a military power, and received in exchange a paper signed by Hitler in which he promised to be a good boy in the future. Chamberlain would wave this paper when he came back to Croydon airport in the face of admiring throngs and tell them it guaranteed "peace in our time."

People in all the western democracies went wild with delight and danced in the streets: the nightmare was over, there was not going to be another war like the one that had drained their blood and destroyed their morale twenty years before.

One man who did not share the euphoria was Edouard Daladier who had had to keep up the pretense during the days of talks at Munich that France was still a great power and had something to say in the decision-making process. He was not a very inspiring figure, he was a run-of-the-mill politician, but he was bright enough to know that he had signed away the freedom of a nation to which France was bound by a solemn treaty of alliance, in exchange for a politician's promise. When his plane, returning from Munich, landed at Le Bourget airport, a screaming crowd ran out to meet it. He assumed they meant to lynch him. When he learned that they were hailing him as the savior of their country, he exclaimed: "Les cons!"  Or as we would say, assholes. Then he went on to tell a cheering people that he had helped win a great victory for peace.


 .Four and a half months later, Hitler effectively tore up his paper by sending his troops into Prague and wiping the Czechoslovak Republic off the map. And five and a half months after that, he invaded Poland and started the second World War.

By this time modern means of communication made it relatively easy for chiefs of state to cover vast distances quickly if they wanted to talk things over in person. And so there started a new series of summit meetings, among the leaders of what proved to be the victorious coalition against Hitler, the US, the USSR and Great and Great Britain, who later had to decide how to carve up the afterwar world. The Big Three first met in person in 1943, at Teheran, the capital of Iran which their troops were then occupying, later in the Crimea near the summer resort of Yalta, which would give the conference the name under which it has gone down in his history. By the time of Yalta in the winter of 1945, the Big Three had shrunk, as a member of the British delegation put it, to the Big Two-and-a-half. [See, in this Website, Item 5, Yalta, for an account of what did and did not happen there]. And after Potsdam in the summer of the same year, there was room at the top for only two superpowers.

 Summit conferences would remain a part of the international scene for the next half century, always good for banner headlines, photo opportunities, television specials, smiling faces, consoling words, adulatory or angry analyses by columnists and commentators, as Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan met Soviet bosses from Nikita Khrushchev to Mikhail Gorbachev in places from Glassboro in New Jersey to Reykjavik in Iceland at various stages of tension and relaxation in what for forty-five years was considered the central event of all our lives, the Cold War. They all came determined to do something, feeling, as Richard the Lion Heart put it, "There must be an end to all this." They signed cheerful communiqués, and on occasion they reached agreement on practical details like cutting down on the number of superfluous ballistic missiles. But it would be hard, indeed I suspect it is impossible, to point to a single summit agreement which had any significant effect on the actual course of the Cold War.

     There was one Summit which might have had potentially disastrous effect. When Kennedy and Khrushchev got together in Vienna in 1962, things did not go very well. Jack in his young life had never met anything like Nikita in full ranting rage, and apparently he let his astonishment show. Khrushchev, it has been surmised, deduced that he was dealing with a mollycoddle, and the way to handle him was to deliver some really serious threat, such as putting missiles loaded with atomic bombs in Cuba. 

As we all know, the threat was duly made, and its only practical result was to remove Khrushchev from the Summit league.

Perhaps it also taught the Politbureaucrats a useful lesson, and induced them to proceed with more caution and not make warlike gestures except when they were sure of winning the war, as in Afghanistan in 1979.

In 1987 at Reykjavik, Reagan appalled his friends and supporters by appearing to agree to a massive disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union. But by that time the Soviet Union was disintegrating so fast that it didn't make any difference what it might agree to.

Since that time there have been no more summit meetings, but it takes a minimum of two to hold a meeting. Perhaps if a new superpower or powers should appear on the scene, there will be more of them. But perhaps also it will be determined that there is no longer any need for Summits, at least Summits in the oldfashioned way, with long transoceanic trips, elaborate decoration of palaces, feastings, parades, press conferences and all the other time-consuming, money-consuming ceremonials. The Cuban missile crisis was solved in October 1962, and solved very happily for the human race, by the two heads of state and a little group of their top advisers, the same who would have gone with them to Yalta or Reykjavik or wherever. But they did not have to take a step outside of their headquarters in the WhiteHouse and the Kremlin.Washington and Moscow. The everfaster improvement of modern communications permitted them to hold what may be called a virtual summit.



Perhaps that is the wave of the future.                                                           ©1986, 2003 Robert Wernick                                                                                       Most of this text was printed in Smithsonian Magazine, September 1986