THE initial verdict in the United States, as well as in both West and East Europe, is that the Reagan-Gorbachev Geneva summit was a considerable success in three areas. It eased East-West tensions, restored a civil dialogue between the superpowers, and created the necessary atmosphere for a fresh start in the hard bargaining that lies ahead before it will be clear whether the conference will actually result in major arms or other agreements. Before going overboard about the success of the summit, however, it might be useful to compare it with the 1955 Geneva summit. It ended on the same upbeat note of hope and optimism, based on what was then called ``the spirit of Geneva,'' but deteriorated into confrontation over West Berlin, nuclear missiles in Cuba, and other matters.
I happened to serve as coordinator for US plans and policies for the 1955 summit and the foreign ministers' conferences before and after. In comparing the two summits, I have noted basic differences, but I have been struck by the number of similarities that might usefully be kept in mind before we become too euphoric.
First a word about the differences: In 1955 it was a four-power summit (United States, United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union). Its main focus was not on nuclear weapons, where the US had overwhelming superiority, but on Europe and the problem a divided Germany posed for European security.
The similarities are striking, however:
Before the 1955 summit, US-Soviet relations were virtually frozen -- the cold war, it was called -- because of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, the threat to Greece and Turkey, and Soviet support for North Korean aggression. Likewise, US-Soviet ties before the '85 summit were chilled because of the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan, their violation of both the Helsinki rights accord and SALT agreements, and support for client regimes in Nicaragua, Southeast Asia, and Africa.
Before the 1955 summit, the Soviets mounted a massive campaign of threats to prevent West Germany from becoming a member of NATO and Western Europe. But when, in October 1954, the Paris Accords restored sovereignty to West Germany and made it a member of NATO and the Western European Union, the Soviets accepted the result and agreed to a summit. Again, before the 1985 summit the Soviets launched a campaign of intimidation to prevent introduction of medium-range US nuclear missiles into NAT O Europe to restore the balance there and also to force the US to abandon the ``star wars'' project. Yet, when this campaign failed, the Soviets once again accepted the result and returned to the conference table.
In 1955 as in 1985 the Soviets had a new and dynamic leader, with a vibrant Nikita Khrushchev then playing the role that a vigorous Mikhail Gorbachev played in the recent summit.
What was the result of the 1955 summit? At the actual conference table, more than we had hoped for; in the follow-up, less than nothing. Let me explain:
In the foreign ministers' meetings before the summit, in 1954 and '55, the Soviets adamantly refused to accept any agenda wording that mentioned German ``reunification,'' insisting on ``the German question'' or ``German problem.''
At the 1955 summit, however, under pressure from Eisenhower, Khrushchev finally accepted a follow-up directive to the foreign ministers containing the following sentence: ``The Heads of Government . . . have agreed that the settlement of the German question and the reunification of Germany by means of free elections shall be carried out in conformity with the national interests of the German people and the interests of European security.''
None of us at the conference table with President Eisenhower will forget the visible agitation of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his deputy, Andrei Gromyko, when Khrushchev accepted this language. They need not have worried, for the Soviets soon made clear that German reunification depended on West Germany's quitting NATO and ending its special ties with West Europe while East Germany maintained its communist system and ties with the Soviet Union.
Now for the future in light of past and present summitry! What have we to look forward to, and who came out on top?
On major substantive issues (nuclear, SDI, and regional issues), neither side budged. It was a standoff. On one most important intangible -- public opinion, which counts for so much in the democratic West -- Gorbachev did well. But on balance Ronald Reagan was the winner.
He transformed an image held by some in West Europe of a gun-slinging cowboy, given to harsh rhetoric, into that of a strong and responsible leader who could hold his own. He capped this positive image by personally briefing NATO before reporting to Congress and the public. This is important, because ``star wars'' is not popular in Europe and we will need all the support we can get from NATO in future US-Soviet arms negotiations.
But Gorbachev also came off well. He was tough substantively, yet genial, and he projected an aura of authority contrasting sharply with the fumbling Soviet gerontocracy of recent years. It is now clear that because of the Soviets' major economic problems, which would be greatly aggravated if they had to engage in an arms race at this time, Gorbachev seeks a reduction of tensions and a return to ``d'etente'' as practiced in the 1970s, when the West slept while the Soviets built up a substantial military
Gorbachev may well calculate that in a relaxed atmosphere with agreed summits in 1986 and '87, time can be gained to string out negotiations, building up pressure for Western concessions; and at the same time perhaps ``star wars'' will self-destruct as Congress cuts US defense spending. He may hazard that such a d'etente may inhibit or mute Western protests on Soviet actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere and its human rights abuses, for fear of rekindling the cold war.
So let us by all means negotiate with the Soviets but be careful not to be overconfident that a new era in US-Soviet relations has dawned until Soviet actions or positions at the conference table demonstrate a change. Let us adhere to the motto that General Eisenhower chose for SHAPE when he assumed command of NATO: ``Vigilance is the price of liberty.''
Douglas MacArthur II, a lecturer and consultant on international affairs, is a retired career ambassador who served as US coordinator at the 1955 Geneva summit.