Famous summits from U.S. presidential history

Written by:
August 6, 2021
Photo 12/Universal Images Group // Getty Images

Famous summits from U.S. presidential history

When United States presidents do just about anything, the world takes notice. But one thing they do to get the whole world’s attention? Meet with one of their counterparts around the world to discuss issues of strategic importance. Such meetings between leaders—often termed “presidential summits”—have historically reset policy between entire countries, normalized long-chilly relations, and in the case of the Cold War, kept the world’s two great established superpowers from using nuclear weapons on each other.

Using secondary and primary historical documents, Stacker looked at the 20 most consequential presidential summits in history. Some of them occurred on American soil, while others were conducted in the home countries of other leaders. Still, others were held in countries that agreed to act as hosts, such as the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore. And in one memorable case, a summit was held in what one side considered the United States but the other did not. But wherever the meetings were held, and whatever their outcome, they captivated the public’s attention and, in some cases, led to lasting global change.

Click through for a look at the 20 most famous summits in U.S. presidential history.

1945: Yalta Summit

The Yalta Summit of 1945 took place in the seaside town of Yalta in Crimea. Russia, the United States, and Great Britain met to formally end World War II. The Russians would occupy most of Eastern Europe for decades after during the Cold War.

1972: Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong

President Nixon’s 1972 trip to China was the first time an American president had visited the People’s Republic of China. The visit alone heralded an end to two decades of non-diplomatic relations between the countries. The meeting brought the countries closer together, and some diplomats have said it established China as the player on the global stage it is today.

2018: Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un

After weeks of name-calling, President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met in Singapore in 2018. It was the first meeting ever between the leaders of the two countries and involved discussions of denuclearisation and Korean reunification.

1961: The Vienna Summit

President John F. Kennedy met Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 to discuss the brewing Cold War. Kennedy later called the meeting one of the worst experiences of his life. He spent time debating Marxism with Khrushchev, and it was said the Soviet leader basically “walked all over him.”

1985: The Geneva Summit

Ronald Reagan met with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 to discuss ending the Soviet-American nuclear arms race. Although few tangible policy outcomes came out of the summit, it was still considered a breakthrough for Soviet-American relations, based on the warm relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev, which established the groundwork for negotiations in the years to come.

1865: The Hampton Roads Summit

Unique among presidential summits was the Hampton Roads Summit of 1865. President Abraham Lincoln met with three generals from the breakaway Confederate States to discuss ending the Civil War. The summit was a failure, as the generals had not been authorized to accept any outcome other than Southern independence, which Lincoln would not accept.

1978: The Camp David Accords

President Jimmy Carter persuaded Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to meet at Camp David in 1978 to try and establish the elusive goal of peace in the Middle East. The Accords were a major breakthrough that established peace between Egypt and Israel after decades of conflict.

1989: The Malta Summit

President George H. W. Bush met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta as communist regimes around Europe were collapsing, and the end of the Soviet Union seemed potentially nigh. The two men established a warm rapport during the summit that eased the end of the war.

1945: The Potsdam Conference

President Harry S. Truman’s 1945 participation in the Potsdam Conference shortly following the death of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, set the tone for the next decade. Truman, a straightforward Missourian distrusting of grand gestures and displays, was highly put off by what he saw as propaganda speeches by Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and British ally Winston Churchill. Truman’s lack of enthusiasm effectively relegated summits to a low priority and dimmed communication channels between the East and West as the Cold War commenced.

1974: The Vladivostok Summit

President Gerald Ford traveled to Vladivostok in 1974 to discuss arms control with his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev. The two landed on the agreement that they would have roughly an equal number of arms, theoretically giving neither country an offensive advantage over the other.

1909: Taft-Diaz Meeting

The 1909 meeting between President William Howard Taft and his Mexican counterpart, Porfirio Díaz, was the first of its kind between the United States and Mexico. The two met in the disputed territory of El Paso, which was temporarily declared a neutral zone. No policy was officially discussed, but reports suggest the basis of a treaty of arbitration was laid in a conversation between the two men.

1919: The Paris Peace Conference

President Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Europe when he arrived at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The conference negotiated the terms of Axis surrender in World War I, including economic reparations to be paid by Germany. The summit also laid the groundwork for the United Nations predecessor, the League of Nations.

1919: Woodrow Wilson and Pope Benedict XV

While attending the Paris Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson took a brief trip to Rome to become the first sitting American president to meet with a pope. The two men saw each other as rivals for the chief postwar peacemaker of the world. The meeting was largely ceremonial and included prayer. Both would die at the same young age of 67 relatively soon thereafter.

1928: The Sixth International Conference of American States

President Calvin Coolidge traveled to Cuba in 1928 to extend an olive branch and try to make diplomatic inroads with Latin American leaders upset about America’s intervention in the region. It was the only time in his life President Coolidge traveled outside the United States.

1955: The Geneva Summit

President Dwight D. Eisenhower traveled to Geneva in 1955 to meet with his counterparts from the Soviet Union, France, and Britain. This was the first meeting of the four major world powers since the end of World War II. Although no major policy changes emerged, the summit had the effect of cooling tensions that had been running very high during the Cold War.

2015: United Nations Climate Change Conference

President Barack Obama attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2016. There, he met with world leaders and outlined the United States’ position in what would become the historic Paris Climate Accord.

1967: Glassboro Summit

President Lyndon B. Johnson met with his Soviet counterpart on American soil in 1967 at what is known as the Glassboro Summit. The aim of the meeting was to discuss events in the Middle East, the Vietnam War, and other key issues. No specific breakthroughs came from the meeting, but Johnson described the meeting as being warm and in good spirit, which would pave the way for more cooperation on issues like nuclear weapons in the coming decade.

1972: Moscow Summit

Richard Nixon arrived in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in 1972 to meet with his counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev. One of the most consequential policies to come out of the meeting was the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which limited both nations’ anti-ballistic missile arsenals.

2008: North American Leaders’ Summit

In 2008, President George W. Bush hosted the presidents of Mexico and Canada in New Orleans. Free trade was a major topic at the summit, with the leaders of each country defending the policy in spite of pushback among some workers at home.

1994: NATO Summit

In 1994, President Bill Clinton attended one of the first NATO summits since the end of the Cold War. There, the president committed to keeping 100,000 troops in Europe, despite the war’s end.

Trending Now