The winding road to summitry

There may or may not be another East-West summit conference in our immediate future. So far all that has newly happened is that President Reagan has apparently dropped some of the preconditions which until now had barred the way.

We have to say ''apparently'' because there was ambiguity in his words at his press conference last Thursday. At one point he was saying that ''I am willing to meet and talk at any time.'' But at another point he reflected that some ''get acquainted'' conferences had led to great expectations and great disappointments. He said ''I don't think we ought to go into something of that kind.''

So he is ''ready, willing, and able'' to meet the Soviets, but he is not ready to go to a mere ''get acquainted'' conference, which can mean that there are still preconditions. He has left room to maneuver.

But the way is more open than before, and there are signs that the Soviets just might want to explore the possibilities, and that means that if Winston Spencer Churchill were around, he would be cheering.

Britain's World War II leader was the real father of postwar summitry. There had been high-level meetings during the war, but those were different. Their purpose was to coordinate the strategy of the war. The last in that series was the meeting at Potsdam after the German surrender but while Japan was still in the war. Stalin and Truman met there in July of 1945 along with first, Churchill , and then Clement Attlee. (A British election had replaced Churchill with Attlee during the conference.)

Within a year after the Potsdam conference severe strains developed in the wartime alliance. People began to talk about a ''cold war.'' Within two years a proxy war was being fought in Greece - the United States backing the government while Moscow backed a powerful communist rebellion against the government. Other proxy wars were to follow. The biggest was in Korea.

Churchill had alerted the West to rising Soviet imperalism with his famous ''Iron Curtain'' speech of March 5, 1946, at Fulton, Mo. But by 1951, when he came back to office as prime minister, he had begun to think that it was time for a change. Six years of ''cold war'' plus the anything but cold war in Korea had the world in a state of extreme anxiety. When Nikita Khrushchev consolidated his position in Moscow after the death of Stalin, Churchill began preaching the desirability of East-West talks. ''Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,'' he said.

The first result of his preaching took place after he retired from high office. Khrushchev went to England in 1955. Four years later President Eisenhower succeeded in bringing Mr. Khrushchev to the United States for the most dramatic of all ''summits.'' The ebullient and irrepressible Nikita Khrushchev brainstormed America, made a big hit with American public opinion, and did some serious talking with President Eisenhower at Camp David.

But there were few lasting results. US-Soviet relations were jolted by the U- 2 incident. John F. Kennedy became President and went, in June of 1961, to meet Mr. Khrushchev in Vienna. That was a very cold summit. Mr. Khrushchev said he intended to have West Berlin. Mr. Kennedy said no and had to prove he meant it.

Lyndon Johnson had a try at summitry. He met Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin at Glassboro, N.J., in June of 1967. Nothing came of it.

After that came the Henry Kissinger era, notable in history both for ''detente'' and for a series of summits. Richard Nixon went to Moscow in 1972 to talk with Leonid Brezhnev and sign the SALT I Treaty. Mr. Brezhnev returned the visit in Washington in 1973. Mr. Nixon went back to Moscow in June of 1974, and his successor, Gerald Ford, met with Mr. Brezhnev again that same year, at Vladivostok.

There was then a lapse of five years. In 1979 President Carter met Mr. Brezhnev in Vienna. They signed the SALT II agreement. But the invasion of Afghanistan soon after prevented the ratification. What many call the second cold war dates from then. There has been no East-West summit since.

Just as the first cold war caused wide anxiety, so too has the second. There is today the same anxiety that caused Winston Churchill to start preaching summitry back in 1952. No man can know whether a summit could make a real difference, but having one would at least temporarily relieve anxiety and deprive the Democrats of an election issue.

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