The 1959 Kitchen Debate: (Or, How Cultural Exchanges Changed the Soviet Union)

Article excerpt

KITCHENS IN MODEL HOMES are not normally sites where world leaders debate their differences. Yet that is exactly what happened 50 years ago, on July 24, 1959, when U.S. Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev squared off while touring the kitchen of a model American home at the U.S. National Exhibition in Moscow's Sokolniki Park.

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In that "kitchen debate," as it came to be known, the two leaders vigorously debated not only whether such a well-equipped kitchen--with dishwasher, refrigerator, and range--could be found in the $14,000 home of a typical American worker, but also on the relative merits of their rival political and economic systems. There is no exact record of their remarks, but many Western reporters witnessed the debate, and a reconstructed version was published in The New York Times (July 25,1959; see russianlife.com for a link).

Neither Nixon nor Khrushchev, moreover, could have foreseen that their verbal sparring would signal not only the start of a series of high-level summit meetings between leaders of their two countries, but also the endorsement of a broad program of cultural and other exchanges, which would lead eventually to profound changes within the Soviet Union.

Nixon had come to Moscow to preside over the opening of a U.S. National Exhibition under the 1958 U.S.-Soviet Cultural Agreement, which provided for national exhibitions in the two countries. A centerpiece of the U.S. exhibition was Buckminster Fuller's 30,000 square foot geodesic dome, which housed the scientific and technical exhibits, and which the Soviets agreed to purchase at the close of the Moscow exhibition. But the success of the U.S. exhibition was due in large part to the many items provided gratis for display by more than 450 American companies, ranging from consumer products to automobiles, trucks, farm machinery, and other mechanized products of U.S. industry, as well as the 75 young American guides, all fluent in Russian, who were assigned to explain the exhibition's products to inquisitive Russian visitors. And it was at Sokolniki that Khrushchev got his first taste of Pepsi Cola, dispensed free to all visitors in Dixie cups. Khrushchev and other Russians liked it, giving Pepsi a huge head start in the Soviet market over its rival Coca Cola.

More than three million Soviet citizens attended the six weeks of the exhibition. For Soviet visitors, the U.S. exhibition was a cornucopia of consumer products that had never been seen in the Soviet Union. And for most of the Soviet visitors, it was their first and only opportunity to speak with an American. In the reciprocal exchange, the Soviets mounted their own national exhibition in New York City's Coliseum. Unlike the U.S. exhibition, which emphasized consumer goods, the Soviet exhibition was strong in machinery, science, and technology.

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Nixon had four encounters with Khrushchev during his Moscow visit. The first was the so-called "courtesy call" on Khrushchev in the Kremlin, where Khrushchev defied diplomatic protocol by railing against the Captive Nations Resolution passed by the U.S. Congress one week earlier, and banging his fist on the table for emphasis. The second was in a television studio at the U.S. exhibition where, as William Safire reported in The New York Times (July 27, 1984), "the bellicose Soviet leader verbally mauled the American Vice President, who was trying to be Mr. Nice Guy." A video tape of that encounter was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and shown on American TV. The third encounter was the so-called "kitchen debate," where the two leaders traded barbs and debated over the $14,000 model American prefab home, with Nixon defending its kitchen as typical for an American worker's home, and Khrushchev arguing that the home on exhibit was within the reach of only rich Americans, while Soviet workers had homes with similar modern appliances. …