The Cold War and its ongoing ideological, political, cultural battle was encapsulated by two men, both seemingly polite, arguing in a showroom kitchen in what has become known as the ‘Kitchen Debate’.
The two men were Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier, and Richard Nixon, the US Vice President. The occasion, on 24 July 1959, was the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, part of a cultural exchange between the two superpowers. Although in Moscow, this was an American exhibition and Nixon, for the benefit of Khrushchev, was its proud host.
Communism v. Capitalism
At times polite, at times restrained, mocking, jibing, or heated, the two men debated the relative merits of communism and capitalism, from nuclear weapons to washing machines, over several hours across many venues. At one point Nixon makes his point by jabbing his finger into Khrushchev’s chest whilst the Soviet leader listens, his bottom lip jutting out in anger.
But it was the image of Nixon and Khrushchev leaning on the railing in front of the model General Electric kitchen, surrounded by interpreters and reporters that captured the moment. The Cold War in a make-believe kitchen. Standing behind Nixon, looking somewhat distracted, is future Soviet premier and Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev.
The make-believe kitchen
The kitchen was part of a showroom house which, according to Nixon, almost any worker in America could afford. “We have such things,” said Khrushchev, adding that they had much the same for the Russian worker, but better built.
Nixon boasted of the processes and appliances available to the modern American housewife, “In America, we like to make life easier for women”. Khrushchev shot back, “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism”.
Khrushchev, exasperated and perhaps intimidated by the display of modernity, asked, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life. They have no useful purpose. They are merely gadgets.”
“We will wave to you.”
In one notable exchange Khrushchev asks Nixon how long America had been in existence, “Three hundred years?” he asks, making the mistake to emphasis a point. 150 years, Nixon corrects him.
Khrushchev’s answer captured the essence of the Soviet Union’s paranoia and jealousy of the USA: “One hundred and fifty years? Well then, we will say America has been in existence for 150 years and this is the level she has reached. We have existed not quite 42 years and in another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you.”
Of course it didn’t quite work out that way.
See also article on Ping-Pong Diplomacy.