In context: Summits in the 1970s and 1980s, primarily involving the leaders of the US, USSR, and East and West Germany, aimed to tackle two thorny Cold War issues: the nuclear arms race and the German situation. The Reagan-Gorbachev summits of the 1980s resulted in a real improvement of relations. Then, as the Eastern Bloc collapsed from 1989, Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and George HW Bush worked to ensure a peaceful transition from communism.


The summits only really got going halfway through the Cold War. Why?

David Reynolds: The word ‘summit’ was introduced into common parlance in the 1950s by Winston Churchill, who wanted to have “parleys at the summit” to defuse the Cold War, but in the 1950s and 1960s the confrontation was still too hot. It was not until the era of détente that leaders felt they ought to meet to try to develop mutual understanding, because nuclear weapons were just too dangerous to play around with.

Kristina Spohr: Another strand here is the German question at the heart of the Cold War in Europe. West Germany would not de jure recognise East Germany as a separate independent state because it wanted to keep open the option of reunification. It was not until the period of détente that they began to meet, with the West German chancellor Willy Brandt travelling by train to East Germany. This was really, as Brandt said, to “get a smell of each other”.

DR: This was a huge icebreaker at a time when there was a fundamental division between the two Germanies.

KS: At one point during a meeting in Erfurt, Willy Brandt went to a window and outside was a crowd shouting: “Willy! Willy! Willy!” They meant Brandt, rather than the East German leader Willi Stoph. This spontaneous reaction by its own people totally shocked the East German regime.

The locations of summits were clearly important. How were they chosen?

DR: Sometimes there were sequences of summits, such as under Nixon and Reagan, moving from one place to another. So Nixon went to Moscow in 1972 – the first time an American president had been to the Soviet capital – but the idea was that Brezhnev would then come to Washington. Yet location also involved issues of precedence and privilege, and that’s why, for example, Reagan and Gorbachev had their first meeting in Geneva, a neutral city.

KS: Some of these summits were also reconnaissance trips. Each leader was trying to find out what the other’s place was like. At other times it was better to choose a remote location. In 1979 there was a summit in Guadeloupe, so far away from the media limelight that it was almost in hiding.

What typically happened at a summit?

KS: That depended very much on the summit. At Guadeloupe, for example, there were hours of meetings between US president Jimmy Carter, UK prime minister Jim Callaghan, German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. They discussed world politics and security affairs, but there was also an informal aspect – they went snorkelling, sailing and jogging. It looked like a holiday – the press talked about the “swimming pool summit” – but the discussions were incredibly intense.

DR: This partly also depended on the health of the leaders. For much of this period Brezhnev was a basket case: he’d had heart attacks and all sorts of problems. Everything had to be done from prompt cards. For the 1979 Vienna summit [aimed at limiting nuclear weapons] Carter was told the whole thing had to be planned in advance because if Brezhnev had to do anything spontaneous he would completely blow it. It was very different when dealing with a leader such as Gorbachev, who was quick witted and argumentative.

Dubbed “the swimming pool summit”, the 1979 Guadeloupe meeting saw the four leaders – left to right: Helmut Schmidt, James Callaghan, Jimmy Carter and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing – go snorkelling and sailing. But discussions were “incredibly intense”. (Getty)

The summits were very big, symbolic occasions. Was that the most important aspect of them?

DR: In our book we try to emphasise the symbolic and the substantive moments, because both really matter. Undoubtedly the symbolism was very important in the 1988 Moscow summit. Five years earlier Reagan had decried the Soviet Union as “the evil empire”; then, in Red Square, he was asked if he still believed that was true. He said: “Oh, I was talking about another time, another era.” That was very powerful. These opportunities for leaders to meet could be hugely important in how the world saw international relations. But substance also mattered. Reagan and Gorbachev just clicked, which had massive implications.

KS: I also think about the Kohl-Gorbachev summit in July 1990. They had a very formal meeting in Moscow, then Gorbachev invited the West German leader to fly with him to the Caucasus and visit his dacha [holiday home]. No other western leader had been invited there, and though this summit was all about substance – how to wrap up German unification and the issue of Red Army withdrawal from Germany – it was also a very symbolic moment. The leaders went together to lay wreaths at Stavropol in remembrance of the Second World War, and the two of them bonded. They felt they had a historic moment in which they could change the world.

The summits were often played out in front of a huge media apparatus. How important was public image?

DR: It was very important in the 1972 Nixon-Mao summit. There was a belief in China that at the 1954 Geneva conference the then American secretary of state John Foster Dulles had refused to shake the hand of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai – a serious snub. It’s not clear whether the story was true, but the important thing is that Nixon was absolutely convinced he had to deal with it. So when Air Force One lands in Beijing, Nixon came down the steps with his arm straight out the whole way – because the one thing he is going to do is shake Zhou’s hand to show this is now a different era. The timings were arranged for American primetime television, for the evening news bulletins. You had to hit CBS, NBC and ABC, and if you did so, you got the message across. This was a time when news management was vital but it was also possible to control in a way that’s not true now.

KS: You could tell a similar story about the Kohl-Gorbachev meeting in the Caucasus. The Germans took a huge media entourage. There were photographs of Gorbachev and Kohl walking by the river in the mountains, then sitting on tree trunks in their woolly jumpers. Pravda [the official Soviet newspaper] called it the “summit without ties”. It looked really informal, but it was media theatre too: the images said that these were two people getting on really well.

To what extent did summitry bring about the end of the Cold War?

DR: If you try to play counterfactuals, the Soviet system was clearly increasingly rickety in the 1980s but probably would have carried on for an indefinite period of time. Gorbachev was undoubtedly a crucial element: mixing vision, impatience for change, and a naivety about what would happen. None of the changes in eastern Europe would have occurred if he hadn’t signalled that they wouldn’t be crushed by the Red Army.

But summits also matter. Reagan and Gorbachev shared a basic belief that the nuclear arms race could be curbed. In the book we emphasise the importance of the 1987 Washington summit, which was the first time the superpowers actually reduced their nuclear arsenals, showing the arms race was not going to spiral out of control. We also emphasise that German reunification, potentially a huge tinderbox, was handled by leaders in a responsible way. Here are two really important moments in which you need to look at summitry to explain why the Cold War ended the way it did, without a major conflict in the heart of Europe.

KS: We must remember that the Chinese employed force [at Tiananmen Square in June 1989] and that there was a fear that the same might happen in East Germany. Even at the Malta summit in December 1989, George HW Bush was still trying to get assurances from Gorbachev that the Soviets would not apply force. At the time the Berlin Wall came down, Bush had written in his notebook: “Tiananmen, Tiananmen, Tiananmen”. There was a great fear of the Red Army being let loose in East Germany. A lot of Americans were asking Bush why he wasn’t jumping up and down on the Berlin Wall; he said that he didn’t want to thrust two fingers in Gorbachev’s face.

Were leaders at the summits aiming to end the Cold War or just cope with it?

KS: We see three separate phases of summitry. The first, in the early 1970s, was really about thawing the Cold War; the end point – for example, German reunification – just seemed so far away. There was a real fear at the time that World War Three could break out. Then, in the mid-1970s, there were ideas of how to make the Cold War liveable. After that, though, superpower relations got much worse, sparking a second Cold War. Finally, we get to our third part, transcending the Cold War. It started with the creative spark that happened with Gorbachev and Reagan and opened up new perspectives. They didn’t think, though, that the Cold War would be over in five years. They were really focusing on curbing nuclear weapons.

DR: We often asked each other: what did X think was going to happen in the Cold War in the next 20 or 30 years? What is clear is that the events of 1989–91 were amazing for most people. It’s fascinating to look at what happens when leaders suddenly see doors opening in all directions. How do they respond? This was a period of historic change, like 1815, 1918 and 1945 – except it didn’t involve a major war. The huge political and social changes occurred largely peacefully because, we argue, they were managed cooperatively by the leaders at the top. What intrigues us, in this rather unfashionable study of summitry, is what happens when leaders click, and how much they can actually shape history in a positive way.

Kristina Spohr and David Reynolds are the editors of Transcending the Cold War: Summits, Statecraft, and the Dissolution of Bipolarity in Europe, 1970–1990 (Oxford University Press, 2016)


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2016