When All Eyes Were on Glassboro

Fifty years ago, the world’s most powerful leaders and diplomats descended on a South Jersey college town to talk peace.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, left, and Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin exchange greetings at the opening of the Glassboro Summit. At center is Soviet foreign minister Andrei A. Gromyko.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, left, and Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin exchange greetings at the opening of the Glassboro Summit. Far right is Soviet foreign minister Andrei A. Gromyko. The man in the center is an interpreter for the event.
Photo by Arthur Schatz/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Betty Moll graduated from Glassboro State College in 1966 and took a teaching job in Cherry Hill. On Saturday, June 24, 1967, she was going to be a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding in Mantua, near Glassboro. She thought something big might happen: a proposal from her boyfriend, a local farmer named David Griffin.

Then something bigger happened that redefined the moment for everyone in the Glassboro area. It was announced that President Lyndon B. Johnson was coming to the little Gloucester County college town for a summit with Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin.

“We were just excited,” says Moll, now Mrs. Griffin. “Everyone in the area came out to see them.”

The summit was scheduled to take place June 23 to 25 at Hollybush, the college president’s official residence. The whole world would be watching the Glassboro Summit Conference.

It was a particularly fraught time around the globe. Earlier in June, Israel had knocked out the bulk of the Egyptian air force and overrun the armies of Syria and Jordan in what became known as the Six Day War. Much of the area Israel conquered during that time, especially on the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem, remains a source of conflict today. In Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War seemed to be escalating almost daily with U.S. bombing raids of North Vietnam.

Kosygin, a reformer who had risen to the top of the Communist state  government in 1964, was coming to New York to give a speech at the United Nations. He decided to seek a face-to-face meeting with Johnson to cool global tensions and discuss limitations on antiballistic missile systems.

Johnson was receptive, but he was not willing to come to New York, says William Carrigan, chairperson of the history department at Rowan University in Glassboro.

“Johnson was already under fire for the American role in Vietnam,” says Carrigan. “He knew there would be protests if he came to Manhattan that would spoil whatever progress might come.”

Similarly, Kosygin did not want to go to Washington, D.C., seat of American power. Into the breech stepped Richard Hughes, governor of New Jersey. Hughes suggested Glassboro, more or less halfway between New York and Washington, as the site for the summit. Both sides accepted.

The summit caused an immediate stir. The morning after its announcement, only 11 hours before the meetings were set to begin, New Jersey Turnpike overpasses leading to Glassboro filled with onlookers hoping to see Johnson’s and Kosygin’s motorcades pass by. Johnson let them down; he arrived on the campus by helicopter.

Being late June, the campus was largely deserted. Glassboro itself was a lot more rural than it is today. One of the area farmers who witnessed Kosygin’s arrival was Horrace Griffin, Betty Moll’s future father-in-law. The Griffin family farm was four miles from campus. Griffin walked from the farm to Route 322 and stood in front of Shelmire’s peach orchard hoping for a glimpse of the Soviet leader. The big, black limousine slowed as it approached. “Kosygin himself rolled down the window,” says Betty, “and waved to the humble farmer proudly holding his small American flag.”

The initial session on Friday, according to news accounts of the time, involved only the two leaders and their translators. Later negotiations also included boldface names like Soviet foreign minister Andrei A. Gromyko, ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk, secretary of defense Robert McNamara, foreign policy advisor McGeorge Bundy and veteran diplomat W. Averell Harriman.

The talks were interrupted on Saturday when Johnson flew to Texas to see his new grandchild and Kosygin returned to New York. Both men returned to Hollybush for more meetings on Sunday.

“My fondest memory of the 1967 summit is one which I had a chance to witness personally,” wrote Glenn Ware, a 1977 Glassboro grad, when the college asked a decade ago for memories of the event. “I was at my family’s home in Mantua watching the events unfold on television as LBJ’s helicopter took off from Philadelphia International Airport. We were in the flight path of the airport and seconds later I heard aircraft sounds and ran out to the backyard to see the chopper carrying the Secret Service advance fly over our house ahead of the President’s arrival at Glassboro.”

Joe Cardona, Rowan’s current vice president for university relations, says it was not easy to ready Hollybush for the summit. “At the time, the college president lived there, but the Secret Service came in and told him and his wife, ‘Sorry, you have to go,’” says Cardona. “They had to install air conditioning and upgrade everything overnight. They grabbed AC units from stores and set up things for the onslaught of the press.”

Today, Hollybush is used only for special events.

“It has not been the president’s residence since 1997,” says Cardona. “It’s just too small and needed too much renovation. The main dining room would only sit maybe 15 around a dinner table. It was fine for another era, and it is a beautiful building, but not sufficient for those purposes today.”

As for the impact of the summit, Carrigan says that, while it didn’t immediately resolve the Middle East and Vietnam standoffs, it did set the stage for future negotiations.

“The main thing that came out of it was what might be called the Hollybush spirit,” Carrigan says. “Historians said it could have been better, but it was the real start for the idea that there could be negotiations. There had been small meetings before, but this was the first big summit that gave hope that tensions could be settled between East and West.”

On Sunday evening, at the end of the summit, Betty Moll and her beau, David, stood among “a couple thousand” people in front of Hollybush.

“Both men came out and waved to everyone,” Betty recalls. “It seemed like a lot of people then, but today it probably would be more. Back then, newscasts were short, and there was no social media. Still, it was something that gave hope for the future.”

The night before, David had indeed proposed to Betty. “I can’t say that the summit caused it,” says Betty, “but we’ve been together 49 years, on that same farm where his family lived then, so it must have been a good omen.”

Contributor Robert Strauss watched from a New Jersey Turnpike overpass near his childhood home in Cherry Hill as Alexei Kosygin’s limousine traveled to Glassboro.

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