Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Camp David Meeting (25–26 September 1959)

Summit meeting between U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the presidential retreat, Camp David, during 25–26 September 1959. The Camp David Meeting, held at a rural retreat of U.S. presidents in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains 60 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., was part of a larger state visit by Khrushchev that had commenced on 15 September. This marked the first U.S. visit ever taken by a Soviet head of state and as such produced a considerable—albeit brief—thaw in the Cold War.

Camp David provided an informal setting for the historic talks between Eisenhower and Khrushchev and the background for a significant turning point in the Cold War. In 1959, the ongoing Berlin Crisis was still at the forefront of U.S.-Soviet relations after Khrushchev's November 1958 pledge to sign a separate peace treaty with the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). In mid-July 1959, Eisenhower believed that personal diplomacy might ease the tensions between Washington and Moscow. Although he intended to extend an invitation to Khrushchev only after the Geneva Foreign Minister Talks (May–August 1959) had seriously addressed issues surrounding the German question, the State Department issued the invitation on an unqualified basis. Eisenhower was furious about the mistake but could do little to remedy it, as Khrushchev accepted a week later.

On 15 September 1959, Khrushchev began his two-week state visit. The first meeting between Khrushchev and Eisenhower, which lasted ninety minutes at the White House, was merely a prelude and an opportunity for the two leaders to size each other up. As such, it did not produce anything of substance. But Eisenhower did approach Khrushchev privately, trying to persuade him to show more willingness to compromise. Khrushchev shared Eisenhower's desire for peace but emphasized that both sides needed to make an effort to overcome their differences.

On 16 September, Khrushchev visited the U.S. Capitol and met congressional leaders, including Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. During 17–24 September, Khrushchev toured New York, California, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, accompanied by U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Henry Cabot Lodge. On 18 September, Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to address the UN General Assembly in New York City. There he made a surprise announcement of a Soviet plan for general and comprehensive disarmament, which carried considerable weight with many nonaligned nations.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev flew by helicopter to Camp David on 25 September 1959. The next day, they discussed the prickly subject of Berlin, first in a formal meeting, then more informally during a walk and private discussion between Eisenhower and Khrushchev, speaking through his interpreter Oleg Troyanovski. Nevertheless, the two men failed to reach agreement on Berlin. After lunch, Eisenhower took Khrushchev to his farm in nearby Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The change of venue led to a sudden change of mood. A grandfatherly figure, Khrushchev delightedly interacted with Eisenhower's children and grandchildren. Eisenhower even showed the Soviet leader his prize-winning herd of Angus cattle. By day's end, things were looking considerably brighter.

On Sunday, 27 September, Eisenhower again met privately with Khrushchev, with Troyanovski again interpreting. Finally, the two men arrived at a compromise formula and, ultimately, a breakthrough in the Berlin dilemma. Khrushchev promised that he would not insist on a time limit for negotiations on Berlin. In Eisenhower's mind, Khrushchev's disavowal of a time limit on the Berlin ultimatum had essentially nullified it. Thus, he agreed to Khrushchev's suggestion of a four-power summit conference, to include Britain and France, as a way to further discuss Berlin and other contentious issues.

Both sides considered the visit a great success. Although it did not end the Cold War, tensions between the two superpowers were significantly eased. Eisenhower and Khrushchev each received the minimum concessions they were hoping for. In addition, the talks allowed both leaders to build a personal and diplomatic relationship.

The thaw forged at Camp David, however, was short-lived. Already in difficulty over a lack of forward movement on substantive issues, it collapsed when Khrushchev left the four-power summit in Paris on 16 May 1960.

Christian Nuenlist


Further Reading
Nelson, W. Dale, and David Eisenhower. The President Is at Camp David. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.; Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003.
 

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