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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

Historic Handshakes: Past Presidential Summits

As Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prepare to meet, here’s a look back at some pivotal powwows involving U.S. presidents.

President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon tour China's Great Wall in 1972.

President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev

Vienna, June 1961

The Vienna summit took place within two months of the U.S.’s failed invasion of Cuba and the defeat of anticommunist forces at the Bay of Pigs. That misstep so early into his presidency put John F. Kennedy on the back foot in the summit, where the two men discussed Berlin, Laos and disarmament.

“Ailing and unprepared, Kennedy came across as an inexperienced adversary to his Russian counterpart,” according to the Office of the Historian at the Department of State.

Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy in Vienna on June 4, 1961.

After Vienna, the two leaders held further public exchanges, and swapped confidential letters known as the “pen pal” correspondence, designed to allow them to discuss ideas more freely.

Just over a year after Vienna, in October 1962, the Cold War reached its hottest moment when the Soviet Union gave Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba medium-range ballistic missiles.

Thirteen days into a tense blockade of Cuba by the U.S., Mr. Khrushchev ordered the missiles be removed—but relations between America and the Soviet Union remained strained.

President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China

Peking, February 1972

Richard Nixon described his eight-day visit to China, the first by a U.S. president, as “the week that changed the world.” The summit’s importance to geopolitics is certainly hard to overstate.

Mao and Nixon shake hands in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972, the start of the U.S. president’s eight-day visit to China.

Mr. Nixon, who built his political career as an anticommunist, stunned the international community by reaching out to communist-ruled China, one of America’s greatest rivals.

In a thorny face-off that dated back almost a quarter of a century, the U.S. continued to recognize the Republic of China in Taiwan as the official government and had no diplomatic relations with Communist China.

National security adviser Henry Kissinger took secret trips to China to negotiate the details ahead of the carefully prepared encounter, but a face-to-face between the president and Mao wasn’t confirmed even as Mr. Nixon boarded the flight to Beijing.

“The meeting drove a wedge between China and the Soviet Union because it allowed Beijing to reconcile with the U.S. in ways that the Soviet Union had not,” said Gary Gerstle, professor of American history at the University of Cambridge.

President Nixon inspects his food during a banquet in Hangzhou.

By playing the two communist powers off against each other, rather than regarding them as bonded by ideology, Mr. Nixon also hoped that the Soviet Union or China would abandon the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War.

The summit began a fresh era in Sino-American relations and its significance propelled it into the political lexicon—a Nixon to China moment becoming shorthand for an audacious maneuver.

President Jimmy Carter, President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin

Camp David, Maryland, September 1978

Over two weeks in 1978, Jimmy Carter attempted to undo the Gordian knot of the Arab-Israeli conflict and hammer out a detailed Israeli-Egypt peace agreement.

Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, left, shakes hands with Israeli Premier Menachem Begin, as President Jimmy Carter looks on, at the Camp David retreat on Sept. 6, 1978.

The summit at the president’s Camp David retreat in Maryland brought together Mr. Begin—who backed the establishment of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank—and Mr. Sadat, who had come to power in Egypt declaring he sought peace with Israel in the wake of the Yom Kippur war.

Mr. Carter acted as a go between, meeting with the two leaders separately to try to agree a deal between them. Camp David didn’t produce a formal peace agreement, but resulted in the foundation for Egypt-Israel peace, in two framework documents laying out the principles for a bilateral peace agreement peace in the Middle East. Mr. Begin and Mr. Sadat were jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.

Wider peace in the region proved elusive.

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

Geneva, 1985; Reykjavik 1986; Washington, 1987; and Moscow, 1988

Ronald Reagan repeatedly described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” during his presidential campaign and when he first came into office. Within years, he was cutting deals with the Soviets.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the Geneva Summit in 1985.

That was in part because of the chemistry developed during summits between Mr. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985.

Mr. Gorbachev understood instinctively how to establish a relationship with the U.S. president. At their first summit meeting in Geneva in 1985, Mr. Gorbachev charmed Mr. Reagan by talking about old Reagan movies, U.S. officials said. When they met the next year in Reykjavik, Iceland, they discussed radio broadcasting, another of the then-president’s passions.

They also, to the surprise of many advisers, considered Mr. Reagan’s “zero option” to wipe out either all ballistic missiles or all superpower strategic nuclear arms. In the end, no deals were struck but the fact that Mr. Gorbachev entertained the offer (on condition the U.S. drop plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as Star Wars) allowed Mr. Reagan to pursue his vision of a nuclear-free world. “This is Reagan being Reagan,” an aide told The Wall Street Journal in December 1987.

Messrs. Reagan and Gorbachev at their second meeting, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986.

Historians debate whether the Reykjavik summit led to the eventual end of the Cold War; in the short term, it was regarded as a failure and didn’t produce the immediate conclusion of hostilities.

At their last summit, in Moscow in mid-1988, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev discussed reducing their strategic nuclear arsenals by 50% and reaffirmed that neither would pursue military supremacy.

Corrections & Amplifications
Henry Kissinger was national security adviser when he took secret trips to China to negotiate the details of President Richard Nixon’s summit with Chairman Mao in 1972. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mr. Kissinger was secretary of state at the time; he took that post in 1973, retaining the role of national security adviser. (June 18, 2018)

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