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Cokie Roberts Fields Questions On Past Presidential Summits


NPR News listeners have been asking Cokie about summit meetings. You know, like the summit that President Trump wants to have with North Korea's leader. Summits of the past include President Franklin Roosevelt's World War II meeting with Britain's Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: For the first time in this war, the three Allied leaders had at last been brought together from the ends of the earth to decide the fate of Germany. The joint authors of this momentous declaration have planned the shape of things to come.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, let us be clear, was not around to cover that summit.


INSKEEP: But she has been around for a few others. Hi there, Cokie.

ROBERTS: It's one of the few things I haven't been around for, Steve.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) And we're glad you're with us to field some questions. Here's the first.


NICHOLAS GARZIANO: This is Nicholas Garziano from Makawao, Hawaii. Has there ever been an instance before this most recent occurrence when a summit between the U.S. and another country has been abruptly canceled?

INSKEEP: As President Trump did the other day, although maybe it's back on.

ROBERTS: Yes. In 1960, President Eisenhower canceled a meeting with the Soviet Union after the U-2 spy plane was shot down. It seems, as in the case with this North Korean summit, that a certain amount of jockeying was going on to see who might cancel first and Eisenhower did. He and Khrushchev had met in the U.S. in 1959 and hoped for further dialogue, but the plane ended that. That same year in 1960, a four-power meeting in Paris with Britain and France included also blew up because Ike refused to apologize for the U-2.

INSKEEP: Oh, which was this American spy plane that was going in Soviet airspace and was shot down. But didn't Eisenhower's successor end up meeting with Khrushchev?

ROBERTS: In Vienna, famously, Jack Kennedy met with Khrushchev and Kennedy later said it was the worst day of his life, that he got eaten alive by the old Soviet leader. So these meetings can be dangerous. Back in 1955, Eisenhower had to pledge not to give away the store when he first met with Soviet leaders. That's similar to the fears we've heard today over the Trump meeting with Kim.

INSKEEP: Although that leads to another question, this one from Mike Koeppen, who asks, when world leaders meet for a summit, is it mostly show or do things get accomplished?

ROBERTS: Well, if nothing else, it's an opportunity to size each other up and see if you can get something done, even if nothing concrete comes out of that meeting. But in Ronald Reagan, several meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, things did get accomplished, including the signing of the treaty to eliminate intermediate and shorter-range missiles. But, Steve, these matters are usually so well worked out in advance of the summit with a huge amount of diplomacy going on between the countries.

Again, that's been one of the concerns about this somewhat hastily called meeting with North Korea.

INSKEEP: Yeah, kind of opposing concerns here. The question is, will they be able to accomplish anything? And then there's actually a fear that maybe they'll accomplish something that people won't like.

ROBERTS: That's right, exactly.

INSKEEP: Reva Goujon has a question about the mechanics of diplomacy. Like when President Trump wrote that letter the other day, does it get mailed, does it get emailed? How do world leaders communicate?

ROBERTS: Well, the State Department still uses the quaint term cable because it was the telegram for many, many years. But now we're talking about secure emails, which is one reason why there was so much upset about Hillary Clinton's use of that famous private server. It's also instantaneous, Steve, a far cry from the days of old when the news that the British had acquiesced to U.S. demands about trade restrictions that were part of the reason for the War of 1812, that news got to these shores too late to stop the war.

It had already been declared.

INSKEEP: Wow, and that concludes our summit with Cokie Roberts. Cokie, pleasure talking with you.

ROBERTS: (Laughter). Nice to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by emailing us at AskCokie@npr.org or by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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