It remained for a new president, one possessing a gregarious personality and enormous self-confidence, to break open the frozen channels of East-West communication and to restore the summit conference to preeminence. The epoch that began with the meeting of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leaders at Geneva in July 1955 (the first "summit conference" so labeled) witnessed an astonishing return of popularity of the summit conference. It also produced significant changes in the functions of this diplomatic instrument. As Adam Ulam observed: "Negotiations as such were perhaps less important than the ability to assess your protagonists needs, fears, and goals." Thus, the dimension of personal understanding remained central. But in contrast with the wartime meetings, Geneva and a long list of successor conferences openly disavowed matters of substance in favor of the goodwill and rapport to be gained (or proclaimed). For example, the meeting in Panama in July 1956 of leaders from nineteen nations under the auspices of the Organization of American States was portrayed as a "hemispheric summit" to inaugurate a new era of cooperation. President Eisenhower attended but, aside from posed photographs, little was accomplished. From the American perspective, the effects of summitry on public opinion at home became more important than the chance for diplomatic breakthroughs. As noted, publicity always had been important. Now, however, the determination of American leaders to avoid any impression of weakness in dealings with the communists and, as well, to defuse popular anxieties produced modifications not just of emphasis but also of basic purpose. As Joan Hoff notes, when U.S. and Soviet leaders met in person, "it gave people a sense of reassurance that, even though there was the possibility of a terrible nuclear confrontation, … they were meeting and war was not going to happen."
The agreement to convene a summit conference in 1955 was especially noteworthy because of the previously intransigent attitude of President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, toward the possibility of improved relations with the Soviet Union. It was forced upon them mainly by sentiment in Europe (where the Austrian peace treaty had finally been negotiated and the Warsaw Pact had been signed) and at home that, in Stephen Ambrose's cogent phrase, "some ground rules for the Cold War, of spirit if not of substance, were obviously needed." Worrying crises, such as the flare-up over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu off the China coast, demonstrated that the public would not support a longterm policy based on brinkmanship. Eisenhower himself was dedicated to peace, and he had been impressed by Churchill's argument for a summit. "It was only elementary prudence," the British statesman had written in the hopes of reviving the wartime habit of meetings between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, "for the West to learn at firsthand what sort of men were now in charge in the Kremlin, and to let these new men gauge the quality and temper of Western leadership." Secretary of State Dulles at first opposed such a meeting. He argued that the Russians were eager for a conference to dramatize the Soviet Union's moral and social equality with the West and to enhance the legitimacy of Stalin's successors. Finally, Dulles bowed to the president's wishes, muttering that if the summit served "as an object lesson for deluded optimists," it would be worthwhile.
The meeting of Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and the new leaders of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, opened in Geneva on 18 July 1955. Each side brought a huge staff and a staggering amount of background data (the American delegation had prepared 20 "basic documents" and 150 "secondary papers"), and an elaborate agenda was agreed upon. The volume of documentation ensured that the conference would bog down in details, and this soon happened. The meeting's significance derived from the reopening of communication it symbolized. Perhaps, given the rigid stance of Soviet and American policy and the comparable frigidity of public attitudes, some such dramatic gesture was necessary. At any rate, it worked. Smiling genially, President Eisenhower posed for photographs with the beaming Bulganin and Khrushchev. Such incidents and the ingenuous statements by both sides about a possible future reduction of tensions sparked a wave of popular exhilaration. The conference had transpired in a blaze of publicity (some 1,500 reporters and such public figures as the evangelist Billy Graham were present), and almost everyone acclaimed the "spirit of Geneva" as inaugurating a new era. The "spirit of Geneva" did not end the Cold War and did not resolve any of the grave problems faced by the Soviet Union and the West. It did, however, provide a clear impression that neither side wanted a thermonuclear holocaust and recognition that a military stalemate existed.
As the Atlantic Conference had for the wartime summits, so the Geneva meeting of 1955 served as a model for the following period of conferences between national leaders. Indeed, the obvious psychological and political benefits of such affairs (Eisenhower's popularity index reached 79 percent shortly after Geneva) proved irresistible. Even the aborted Paris summit of 1960, at which Premier Khrushchev forced Eisenhower to admit publicly that he had authorized U-2 spy flights over Soviet territory, did not greatly diminish the luster of summitry.