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What you need to know about the SUMMIT TALKS. Soviets, Americans look for a workable relationship

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THE superpowers are groping for a way to put their relationship on a stable, constructive basis. That, in essence, is the objective of the coming summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Since the time of World War II, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union have been characterized by sharp swings. The spirit of cooperation during the war was followed by cold war confrontation as the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin solidified communist regimes in Eastern Europe and challenged Western interests in Berlin and elsewhere.

Then came efforts to warm up the atmosphere, which were undermined by Western and Soviet actions. These included US espionage activities that resulted in the 1960 U-2 spyplane incident and the Soviet initiative that precipitated the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. '70s `d'etente' gives way to '80s chill

By the early '70s the tensions had lifted and the era of ``d'etente'' was born. New hopes arose for peace and cooperation. Yet by the early 1980s the chill was back, with disappointments on both sides. Americans watched the Soviets build up their military power; extend their military and political influence in third-world areas; and march into Afghanistan.

The Soviets nursed their own set of disappointments, including US failure to ratify the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), Congress's refusal to give the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trade status, and a general reluctance to treat the USSR as an equal power.

Today relations are cool, although far from the level of a new cold war. President Reagan, determined to rebuild America's military strength and preoccupied by his domestic agenda, relegated superpower ties to the back burner during his first term.

Mr. Reagan's strong anticommunism and antipathy for the Soviet Union led to sharp words about the ``evil empire,'' a characterization that pleased his conservative supporters but did little to ingratiate him in Moscow's eyes.

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