The Kitchen Debate, 52 Years Later

1. The Kitchen Debate. In 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev found themselves in an impromptu debate over the relative merits of Russian and American consumer goods at an exhibition of American goods in Moscow. A program remembering that debate was held last week at the National Archives featuring Timothy Naftali, director of the Nixon Presidential Library and a Soviet/Russian expert, as moderator, and three who were there in 1959, two American exhibit guides, Tatiana Sochurek and George Feifer, and an American official who coordinated the exhibition, Ambassador Gilbert Robinson. The event is to be broadcast on C-span.

I was in high school in 1959, and I remember the debate and the stir it caused. Looking at it now, it appears more like casual fun than an international incident, but then, when American-Soviet relations were so strained and the Cold War so pressing, the idea that the Russian premier and the American vice-president could just run into each other a talk was unheard of, and the idea that they could get into an actual debate was both exhilarating and worrisome.

There were actually two debates, as both officials toured the exhibit together. The first, in the RCA pavilion was viewed a Khrushchev victory and a Nixon embarrassment – today, to me, I don’t find it that way at all. Khrushchev was proclaiming (loudly and boastfully) that Russian goods were all better and more advanced than American goods. Rather than fight back, Nixon tried to take the diplomatic approach – “you may be better in somethings, and we are better in others”. But Khrushchev would have none of this compromise for compromise sake. And Nixon stuck to his guns – he was not going to be drawn into battle. This initial debate was filmed (in fact on immediate play-back Ampex tape, something that had never been used before and which surprised both the Russians and the Americans).

The second debate was witnessed, but not filmed. It was in the exhibit of a “typical” American ranch house, which had a modern kitchen (complete with dishwasher) and other conveniences, the likes of which were certainly not available in the Soviet Union, and which Khrushchev (who had never been to America) had probably not seen before. Perhaps he did not believe that this model house was “typical” (perhaps he would have been right, as an audience member pointed out – she did not have a dishwasher at that time), and thought that the exhibition makers were exaggerating – something the Russians did all the time. But this time Nixon was ready for a real debate, which apparently ensued.

The incident turned out to be quite beneficial, and quickly. Khrushchev was invited to come to the United States to see for himself – and apparently had a great time, even seeing “Can Can”, of all things, being filmed in Hollywood. Eisenhower, our president, was invited back to Moscow, and was looking forward to it, when the American U-2 spy plane was forced down and its pilot, Gary Powers, captured, setting back formal relations between the two countries. The Eisenhower trip was canceled and never rescheduled.

About 20 years ago or so, I had a client whose company had been selected to build the model home for the 1959 exhibition, and he told me some stories surrounding it and the debate, the details of which I cannot fully remember. He was a nice fellow, who owned a very nice residential property for senior citizens in Florida – a remarkable property in some ways, because it had become the repository of the Jennie Grossinger Theatre and theatrical collection from Grossinger’s in the Catskills. I hope and assume that this facility is still operating and still successful.

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