History usually unfolds on a large scale: a clash of civilizations, a battle between armies, a global war that redraws the map. But it is also written in smaller increments and by individual contributors—when two rival leaders set aside their differences and resolve to come to terms, for example, or when silenced groups of creative thinkers dare to question the status quo. These are just a few of the many face-to-face meetings that have altered the course of history and changed the world, demonstrating all that can be accomplished when perfect strangers become willing partners.
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The rivalry between the United States and the USSR, known as the Cold War, began after World War II and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union.
During the 1950s and '60s, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a heated competition to see which superpower would dominate the exploration of space.
In 1920, American women voted for the first time, thanks to activists such as Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
From 1774 to 1789, the Continental Congress served as the government of the 13 American colonies and later the United States.
Did You Know?
In a speech to Congress after his return from Geneva, Ronald Reagan dubbed the relaxed, informal meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev "The Fireside Summit."
Ronald Reagan shakes hands with Mikhail Gorbachev. (Corbis)
Ronald Reagan was a firm believer in the powerful role personal communications could play in shaping world affairs. Early in his presidency, he had reached out to the leaders of the Soviet Union, only to be rebuffed. So, when the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the USSR, Reagan seized the opportunity. In November 1985, the leaders of the world’s two superpowers met for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland. Expectations for the summit were low, as the two sides remained far apart on key issues. However, Reagan and Gorbachev both agreed on the need for open dialogue and frank discussions. In a break with tradition, the two men met alone, without advisors, throughout the two-day summit. The Geneva summit did not result in an immediate treaty or agreement, but it opened the door for future communications; Reagan and Gorbachev would meet four more times.
End of Apartheid
Nelson Mandela and Frederik W. de Klerk. (Getty Images)
In the 1990s, two men from vastly different backgrounds worked together to forever change their nation. Nelson Mandela had spent the last 27 years in prison for his active role in the fight against racial apartheid in South Africa. F.W. de Klerk was a white politician from the country’s ruling class who had slowly shifted his position on reform and called for a non-racist South Africa. After Mandela’s release in 1990, de Klerk began negotiations with Mandela and Mandela’s African National Congress that eventually led to a new constitution and Mandela’s election as president. The meetings were often tense and difficult, but both men were able to put aside their differences for the greater good and a new South Africa.
Seneca Falls Convention
Postage stamp of Stanton, Catt, and Mott. (National Park Service)
The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention marked the first step in the long march toward gender equality in America. When a small group of activists and reformers met in a sleepy upstate New York town demanding equal opportunity, including the right to vote, they launched a revolution. Within weeks, local, state and national organizations sprang up, and thousands of women (and men) were inspired to join the crusade for gender equality. Working together, they drafted legislation and lobbied governments to overturn unfair laws. It would be nearly 75 years before the ideas put forth at the convention came to fruition with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, but it all started at Seneca Falls.
A meeting of the Continental Congress.
In the early 18th century, the American colonies were suffering under what they considered to be unfair British policies. Early communication between the colonies was limited to local meetings and letter writing. As tensions with Britain rose, the need for an organized political response was clear. In September 1774, colonial representatives met in Philadelphia for what would be known as the First Continental Congress. Members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The delegates came from different backgrounds and regions but were all committed to the idea of open dialogue and free debate. By 1776, this formerly disparate group of activists had become united, formally breaking with England and adopting the Declaration of Independence.
International Space Station
Crew members on the International Space Station. (NASA)
The end of the Cold War had an unintended consequence. As the Space Race ebbed and nations cut back funding and cancelled expeditions, the future of space exploration was in jeopardy. However, out of this dilemma came a rare opportunity for cooperation between former enemies. In 1992, the United States and Russia announced plans for a joint space program. The project would soon grow to include Japan, Canada and Europe, and lead to the creation of the International Space Station, launched in 1998. For more than 10 years, astronauts from around the world have lived and worked together, millions of miles above the Earth. Their collaborative, face-to-face efforts have produced scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that will continue to inspire the entire world.
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