On July 24, 1959 Moscow was the site of an unusual event: the American National Exhibition, which followed the Soviet exhibition held a few months earlier in New York, both with the objective of reducing tensions between the two major blocks of the Cold War, taking advantage of the period of thaw that Nikita Krushchev imposed after Stalinism. But that extraordinary scenario had an unexpected episode when the planned meeting there between the Soviet leader and the American vice president Richard Nixon turned into a prelude to a discussion at the expense of the respective advances in the domestic lives of both countries; it was what has gone down in history as the Kitchen Debate.

Krushchev was elected first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in September 1953, during Malenkov’s government, and chairman of the Council of Ministers in 1958. Since then, starting from the idea that the previous stage’s policy had damaged the image of the Soviet Union before the rest of the world, he undertook a destalinization process and as part of that timid liberalization he allowed a good number of citizens to travel abroad in 1957 and, conversely, opened the borders to tourists.

In 1958, after an interview for CBS, he signed a cultural agreement with the US that included holding exhibitions about the lifestyle of each country in the other, with the first scheduled for June of the following year in the New York Coliseum. “There must be more contact between our people”, Krushchev explained, although both sides were perfectly aware that, in reality, these events were going to be the respective propaganda spearheads in that detente process; a process that was necessary moreover, since the USSR had just successfully tested its first intercontinental nuclear missiles.

Khrushchev during his visit to the USA/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Also taking advantage of the propaganda boost from the successful launch of Sputnik 1 – which until then the West believed was a hoax -, which gave it an advantage in the space race (the NASA response, Vanguard, exploded on takeoff), Krushchev himself visited the US in 1959. Convinced as he was that his country could reach the level of development that the Western world had, the Soviet leader took note of the advanced American agricultural education program to replicate it on his return, but focused his presentation on the triumphant science and technology that seemed to grant him superiority over his rival.

The following month, it was America’s turn for the exhibition, for which the Moscow park Sokolniki was assigned. “Strengthening the foundations of world peace by increasing understanding between the Soviet Union and the American people, the land in which they live and the wide range offered by American life, including science, technology and culture” was the stated purpose, although no one was as naive as not to realize that it would seek to compensate for the dazzling image left by its predecessors.

In fact, President Eisenhower intended to lower the influence the USSR still had over a hundred and fifty countries, for which it was necessary to present the advantages of liberal democracy, the free market and capitalism in general as a major asset. And nothing was more representative of all this than to showcase, as a flag, the American way of life which contrasted its thousand and one comforts with the spartan everyday reality of Soviet citizens.

Soviet citizens visiting the exhibition/Image: Library of Congress

George W. Allen, director of the USIA (United States Information Agency, an agency dedicated to disseminating and explaining US policies abroad) and Harold “Chad” McClellan, an industrialist, were initially designated as coordinators, later joining George Nelson, who had already organized an acclaimed USIA exhibition in Sao Paulo in 1957. It was they who opted to bring pavilions that reflected the aforementioned lifestyle through countless consumer products provided by almost five hundred companies: dozens of car models, farm equipment, cosmetics, books…

The star of the complex was going to be a geodesic dome intended to house scientific and technological advances; it was, in fact, since after the exhibition the Soviets bought it. But other corners took center stage historically. One of them was the Glass Pavilion, designed by architect Welton Becket, who equipped it with an interior grid called Jungle Gym that allowed filling it with products of all kinds from the floor to the ceiling. The other was a prefabricated ranch-style home called X-61 which was jokingly re-baptized as Splitnik, a play on words combining the English verb “to split” with the name of the aforementioned Soviet satellite.

Designed by architect Stanley H. Klein, with furniture by Matthew Sergio (Macy’s interior designer), it was cut in half longitudinally, as if it were a model, to allow seeing inside. It measured one hundred seven square meters and, as advertised, it was a home designed for a middle-class family consisting of a mother, father, a young daughter and a teenage son; something that, in short, any US citizen with a minimally decent salary (around fourteen thousand dollars a year) could afford.

Reconstruction of House X-61, popularly known as Splitnik | photo National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen that impressed the hosts, thus highlighting the limitations of their everyday reality. This is what Klein wanted, endowing his work with simplicity so that it would not seem too inaccessible to Soviet eyes while astounding them with the equipment. And it had a sofa bed, high-fidelity record player, television, self-propelled vacuum cleaner… But the most impressive thing was the kitchen, equipped with refrigerator, dishwasher, water heater and oven, all in yellow tone to reinforce the idea of free choice for the user and individualization.

However, all that display constituted the spark that ignited what we initially said has been baptized in Russian as Kujonnye debaty or in English as Kitchen Debate. And it was no culinary discussion but rather the scenario where the encounter between Krushchev and Nixon took place. It occurred shortly after the latter, then vice president of Eisenhower (whose younger brother, Milton, was also present as former president of Johns Hopkins University), cut the ribbon opening the exhibition.

He had already had a first dialectical exchange with the Soviet leader a little earlier, during a first meeting in the Kremlin where Krushchev protested the Captive Nations Resolution that the US Congress had approved condemning the control the USSR exercised over Eastern countries. At the exhibition Nixon acted as a guide for the other, trying to overwhelm him with the vast amount of products exhibited in the Glass Pavilion and assuring him that American supermarkets were always full, quite a dig because Soviets usually suffered periodic shortages.

So began a debate that was recorded in novel color video and continued in one of the building’s sections, the so-called Miracle Kitchen, where multiple futuristic appliances were exhibited that “made life easier” and with which housewives’ chores would be “eliminated in the future with the push of a button”. In reality, as Nixon himself admitted, many of them were just prototypes not yet on the market but paving the way for future domestic comfort.

Those objects seemed to Krushchev simply “a waste of time”, dismissing them disparagingly as “superfluous” and making a satirical allusion to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times movie: “Don’t you have a machine that puts the food in your mouth and pushes it down?” He then said that the USSR focused on “things that really mattered” and even that “he did not believe American workers could afford the luxury of such useless appliances”.

Nixon did not take the bait and preferred to seek conciliation saying that at least the competition was technological rather than military, also trying to foster conciliation by saying: “There may be some aspects where you are ahead of us, for example in the development of missile propulsion or space research. There may be other aspects, for example color television, where we are ahead. “

Nevertheless, the vice president had learned his lesson and in a relaxed tone -putting his index finger on the other’s lapel- he insisted on home appliances, which were one of the things that marked the biggest difference. They then moved to an on-site television studio where they agreed to broadcast that encounter in their respective countries with the corresponding translations, despite the efforts of the Second Secretary of the Central Committee, Leonid Brezhnev, to obstruct the work of photojournalists.

Another moment of the debate/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

And they resumed the debate. “American homes last over twenty years, but even so, after twenty years many Americans want a new home or kitchen. Your kitchen will already be obsolete… The American system is designed to take advantage of new techniques and inventions,” Nixon boasted. The other responded with equal presumption: “This is what the United States is capable of, and how long has it existed? Three hundred years? One hundred and fifty years of independence and this is their level. We have existed for forty-two years, and in another seven we will be at the level of the United States and then we will go further. “

The kitchen of the Splitnik house, more realistic than the previous one, hosted the final part of the debate. The blood did not reach the river, as we see, and they allowed themselves to make predictions about the future: Krushchev foresaw that communism would prevail in the world and Nixon’s grandchildren would live under that regime, while the American prophesied the opposite, that the Soviet leader’s grandchildren would enjoy a life in freedom. Nixon refined even more, since Sergei, Krushchev’s second son, emigrated to the US in 1999.

As an epilogue we can add that the three major American television networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – aired footage of the event the following day while Soviet television did so on July 27, at night and with some parts censored. Nixon increased his popularity, although he lost to Kennedy in the 1960 election; the same year in which the shooting down of the American U-2 spy plane ended the feigned relaxation between blocs.

However, the company All-State Properties, which built the house, grew like foam and launched onto the market an affordable offering of alternative homes; it is still active today.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 10, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Debate de cocina, el intercambio dialéctico entre Nixon y Krushchev durante la Exposición Nacional Estadounidense en Moscú

Sources

Blanca Esquivias Román, Una grieta en el Telón de Acero. Restitución gráfica de la American National Exhibition (1959) | David Krugler (ed.), The Kitchen Debate (en TeachingAmericanHistory.org) | Karin Zachmann y Ruth Oldenziel (eds.), Cold War Kitchen. Americanization, technology, and European users | Wikipedia


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