OTD in History… July 24, 1959, VP Richard Nixon engages with Soviet leader Khrushchev in the Kitchen Debate
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history July 24, 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon on a mission to the Soviet Union engaged in the Kitchen Debate with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow. The exhibit featured an American home with modern conveniences that the average worker could afford. In their third meeting of the trip, Nixon and Khrushchev debated through translators over capitalism, communism and the technological race over a model American home and kitchen and its advanced appliances. The three television networks captured the vivid and headline-making exchange and they aired it on July 25. The debate was one of the most significant summits in the early Cold War era and the televised and much-publicized debate help catapult Nixon to the 1960 Republican presidential nomination.
The exhibition was the second of two the United States and the Soviet Union agreed upon in 1958, as part of a cultural exchange. The Soviets hosted their exhibition in New York in June.
President Dwight Eisenhower sent his Vice President Nixon to the exhibition’s opening in Moscow and his younger brother Milton S. Eisenhower. The exhibit featured products from 450 companies, while the exhibit’s “centerpiece” was a 30,000 square foot geodesic dome featuring “scientific and technical experiments.” Afterward, the Soviet’s would buy the laboratory.
Nixon met Khruschev four times during his mission. At the first meeting as Nixon showed him around, Khrushchev argued about the Congress’ recently passed Captive Nations Resolution calling those living under Soviet rule captives, who needed the nation’s prayers. The second debate was at the exhibit’s opening in a televised studio, there Khrushchev and Nixon debated the superiority of each country’s technology, rather than “compete” over weapons, military or politics. There Khrushchev quipped, “We haven’t quite reached 42 years, but in another 7 years, we’ll be at the level of America, and after that, we’ll go farther.” Nixon told Khrushchev “not be afraid of ideas. After all, you don’t know everything.” To which he shot back, “You don’t know anything about communism–except fear of it.” The Soviet leader also made Nixon promise their exchanges would be translated into English, to which Nixon responded, “Certainly it will, and everything I say is to be translated into Russian and broadcast across the Soviet Union. That’s a fair bargain.”
The third meeting took place near the famed Kitchen exhibit part of a model home than any American worker could afford. Nixon explained about the model, saying, “This house can be bought for $14,000 (about $92,000 in current dollars), and most American [World War II veterans] can buy a home in the bracket of $10,000 to $15,000. Let me give you an example that you can appreciate. Our steelworkers, as you know, are now on strike. But any steelworker could buy this house. They earn $3 an hour. This house costs about $100 a month to buy on a contract running 25 to 30 years.” Khrushchev responded, saying, “We have steelworkers and peasants who can afford to spend $14,000 for a house. Your American houses are built to last only 20 years, so builders could sell new houses at the end. We build firmly. We build for our children and grandchildren.” Nixon and Khrushchev’s third meeting was a five-hour closed-door session at Khrushchev’s dacha.
Their debate centered on luxury versus substance. The exchange, however, became heated over the differences between Communism with a dictator at the held and Capitalism and a democracy with the people making the decision. Nixon told Khrushchev, “I appreciate that you are very articulate and energetic.” To which, he responded, “Energetic is different from wise.” Nixon took advantage of the opening telling the Soviet leader, “If you were in our Senate, we would call you a filibusterer. You do all the talking and don’t let anyone else talk … To us, diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different houses is the most important thing. We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official.” Khrushchev became sarcastic and mocked American technology, asking Nixon, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food in your mouth and pushes it down?”
The debate, however, descended into Nixon claiming Khrushchev’s threats over nuclear weapons “could to war,” Khrushchev seeing this as threat retorted, warning of “very bad consequences.” The Soviet leader, however, backed off saying, “We want peace with all other nations, especially America.” Nixon agreed, “We also want peace.” Nixon somewhat apologized admitting, “I’m afraid I haven’t been a good host.”
The heated exchange had the press and television cameras following Nixon and Khrushchev as they argued through the exhibition. William Satire, who was working as a press agent for the house exhibit battled future Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to obtain a photo of the exchange at the model kitchen. Safire would serve as Nixon’s speechwriter during his presidency and then a New York Times columnist. Safire commented on the exchange, “The shrewd Khrushchev came away from his personal duel of words with Nixon persuaded that the advocate of capitalism was not just tough-minded but strong-willed.”
The newspaper and three major television networks had a field day with the debate, airing the exchange the next day on July 25. Just airing the exchange caused a diplomatic skirmish as the Soviet claimed it was agreed the American and Soviet television would air the exchange on the same day. The Soviets would air it on late night television two days later on July 27. Unlike Nixon who kept his promise to air the debate with English translation for all of Khrushchev’s words, the Soviet only aired a partial translation of Nixon’s remarks.
The newspapers were divisive in their coverage, the New York Times called the debate, a political stunt, and “an exchange that emphasized the gulf between east and west but had little bearing on the substantive issue.” TIME, however, praised Nixon, saying he “managed in a unique way to personify a national character proud of a peaceful accomplishment, sure of its way of life, confident of its power under threat.” Unfortunately, despite the attention, the press paid to the event, historians have not been as kind.
Historian Irwin F. Gellman observed in A Companion to Richard M. Nixon in 2011 that few historians “have published anything on the genesis of Nixon’s evolution during the vice-presidency. No historian has written any study on how deeply involved the Vice President was in the administration’s foreign policies.” Even less attention was paid to his trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1959, with Gellman noting, “No scholar has evaluated the significance of that mission to Russia and Poland.”
Gellman would go on to write the book The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952–1961 in 2015, arguing although never a partner, Eisenhower relied on and trusted Nixon, giving him much responsibility. Gellman notes, “Nixon’s trips to Asia, Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were never ceremonial goodwill journeys; he conducted delicate business and sometimes tense negotiations with foreign leaders, and he gave Eisenhower detailed reports on what he saw, heard, and did.” (Gellman, 11)
The exchange and its subsequent press coverage increased Nixon’s profile to the public and allowed him to demonstrate to the country his foreign policy chops, the newfound credibility elevated him to the 1960 Republican presidential nomination. Nixon would lose the 1960 election, but would go to win in 1968; during his time in office, he instituted a détente with the Soviet Union that opened the door to the eventual end of the Cold War. As Gellman indicates, “This immersion in foreign affairs as vice president gave Nixon the background, when he became president, to conduct a foreign policy that included winding down the war in Vietnam, détente with the Soviet Union, and a historic opening of relations with China.” (Gellman, 11)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Gellman, Irwin F. The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952–1961. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
Small, Melvin. A Companion to Richard M. Nixon. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.