The First Instant Summit Was Long On Logistics, Short on Agreements
WASHINGTON — AT 7 o'clock on a warm June evening in 1967 a young White House aide received an unexpected call.A senior advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, the caller issued brisk instructions to travel to the tiny New Jersey college town of Glassboro to advance a meeting between President Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. There was only one catch: The summit, announced only moments before, was to begin at noon the next day. In the subsequent 17 hours a small team of White House aides performed a logistical miracle that is one of the most engaging episodes in 40 years of superpower summitry. It could hold a lesson or two for the small army of bureaucrats working frantically - with two weeks' notice - to put the final touches on this week's Bush-Gorbachev summit. The most sudden of superpower summits was the result of an unlikely compromise. The United States wanted the Soviet premier, who was attending a United Nations emergency session in New York, to come to Washington. The Soviets wanted Johnson to come to New York. At the last minute they compromised by picking the campus of Glassboro State College, a point half way in between. Within three hours of the phone call, a team of 30 White House staffers, secret service agents, diplomats, and chefs swooped down on the unsuspecting campus. After a quick tour, they agreed Hollybush, the 100-year old residence of Glassboro State president Thomas Robinson and his wife, was the most suitable site. At midnight, the Robinsons were informed the first superpower summit in six years was about to be held in their living room. "We just knocked on his door and said we are here and it's going to happen in your house," recalls Sherwin Markman, the White House aide who directed the summit preparations. What followed was the equivalent of producing a Cecil B. De Mille epic in a week, as 50 people transformed the quiet residence into a diplomatic nerve center. Just after midnight, an electrician, who had heard about the summit on his car radio, dropped by and offered to help. He was pressed into service to run an extra power line into the house from a nearby pole. The house was then totally rewired and re-fused. An hour later, 15 workers from a Glassboro firm began installing 14 air conditioners, while five telephone men hooked up a small, secure, communications system. At 4:00 a.m. a local draper was brought in and told to hang curtains in all the meeting rooms to keep the conferees hidden from the prying eyes of reporters, who were already gathering on the grounds. While the tradesmen worked, a dozen carpenters and handymen installed interior doors, rearranged furniture, and carried in a huge new dining room table with a dozen chairs. A new freezer and refrigerator were located and moved into the kitchen, while, across campus, the college gym was transformed into a press center. At 8:00 a.m., less than eight hours after the work began, Hollybush was ready for its rendezvous with history. Impressed by the achievement, Johnson later wrote in his memoirs that "preparations that ordinarily would have required 12 days or more had taken just 12 hours." Despite fleeting allusions to the "spirit of Hollybush," little came of the heroic effort. The two-day summit did nudge progress toward two important arms agreements. But no communiques were issued, and little levity was added to sober superpower relations, then under the cloud of the Vietnam War. "We agreed on next to nothing," Premier Kosygin later said. After the summiteers departed, a carpenter restored Hollybush to its original condition. But the Robinsons' brush with history was not without a sacrifice. After some friendly persuasion they reluctantly agreed to allow an old rocker used by Johnson, a Robinson family heirloom, to be expropriated for "historical preservation." Today it sits in the Johnson presidential library in Austin. But then, they might have been forewarned. As he surveyed the overnight miracle at Hollybush moments before Kosygin's arrival, Johnson spotted the chair and pronounced: "Why, that's just like the one my mother used to have."