As relations between the U.S. and Russia make daily headlines over election meddling and Moscow’s growing global influence, a New Jersey town is marking the 50th anniversary of when leaders of the world’s two superpowers gathered at a small liberal arts college to talk through similarly turbulent times.
Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin sent a message to President Lyndon Johnson as the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab states raged in 1967, in hopes of ensuring the conflict did not escalate into world war. The leaders decided to meet, but the Cold War atmosphere required negotiations for picking the site.
They looked for a spot nearly equal distance between New York and Washington, selecting what was then Glassboro State College to host the hastily arranged summit 50 years ago this weekend in the college president’s mansion called Hollybush.
“It was one of the most quickly arranged summits,” said Professor Jeremi Suri, of the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs. “The majority of the planning was aimed at controlling events from spinning out of control.”
The talks from June 23-25, 1967, were the first meeting between the two leaders and the first between U.S. and Soviet leaders since President John F. Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1961.
While it didn’t lead to any important agreements on the Mideast conflict, nuclear arms control or the Vietnam war, historians believe the “Spirit of Glassboro” offered lessons for future summits.
“When nations have deeply different positions, as we do on these issues, they do not come to agreement merely by improving their understanding of each other’s views,” Johnson told the nation in a televised address after the summit. “But such improvement helps.”
Retired ambassador and arms negotiator William Courtney sees parallels between the summit at Glassboro and current relations between Washington and Moscow, pointing out there’s not the slightest hint the Russians are ready to adjust their positions on Ukraine or Syria.
“There is a new, untested U.S. president and both sides are dug into their positions. It’s hard to find any progress for success,” added Courtney, who is also an adjunct senior fellow with nonprofit think tank, the Rand Corporation.
Courtney said it’s vital for President Donald Trump and his administration to be as prepared as possible before he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 Hamburg summit next month.
Glassboro State College is now known as Rowan University, and the community on Saturday will remember the summit with tours, memorabilia displays and a dinner with food inspired by the summit’s menu.
“The word that comes to mind is ‘astonished,'” said university vice president emeritus Thomas Gallia, a graduate student at the time.
The school was transformed overnight, including the installation of 16 air conditioners in school president Thomas Robinson’s home, Gallia said. Media also descended, including an Associated Press reporter who convinced the owner of a home across from the mansion to let the news service use it as an office.
The home belonged to the parents of Nick Petroni, who was 18 years old at the time and had just returned home from the University of Notre Dame. His father allowed some 20 reporters, photographers and technicians to set up shop for no charge.
“They put all kinds of phone lines in our home and set up a darkroom in our basement. I got enlisted as a film carrier,” Petroni said.
His mother fed the team and Petroni received a $100 savings bond for his help.
After the summit ended, the college president returned to find that the chairs used by Johnson and Kosygin, and which belonged to his wife, were missing.
Gallia said Johnson soon told Robinson that he had White House carpenters make replicas, which were shipped to Hollybush, while the originals were sent to the LBJ Library.