Nixon vs. Khrushchev — The 1959 Kitchen Debate
It was undoubtedly one of the most unorthodox – and therefore memorable – settings for a major political debate. On July 24th, 1959, the United States opened the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow. The Soviets and Americans had agreed to hold exhibits in each other’s countries as a cultural exchange to promote understanding. The Soviet exhibit in New York opened in June, and the following month Vice President Richard Nixon went to Moscow to open the U.S. exhibit, and take Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on a tour of the exhibit.
During the tour, Nixon and Khrushchev had a series of exchanges through interpreters debating the relative merits of capitalism and communism, which are now known as the Kitchen Debate. The Kitchen Debate took place in a number of locations at the exhibition but primarily in the kitchen of a suburban model house, cut in half for easy viewing.
Khrushchev surprised Nixon when he launched into a protest over a recent resolution that had passed the U.S. Congress condemning the Soviet Union for its “control” over the “captive peoples” of Eastern Europe. He then dismissed the new technology of the U.S. and declared that the Soviets would have all of the same things in a few years time. Nixon responded by saying at least the competition was technological, rather than military. Both men agreed that the United States and the Soviet Union should seek areas of agreement.
Khrushchev remarked that everything he had said in their debate should be translated into English and broadcast in the US. Nixon agreed. The three major television networks broadcast the kitchen debate in the U.S. on July 25. Two days later, the debate was broadcast on Moscow television, albeit late at night and with Nixon’s remarks only partially translated. American reaction was initially somewhat mixed, with The New York Times calling it “an exchange that emphasized the gulf between East and West but had little bearing on the substantive issue.” Khrushchev claimed that following his confrontation with Nixon he did all he could to bring about Nixon’s defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign. The entire debate can be found here.
Edward Hurwitz served as Staff Aide to Ambassador to the USSR Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson from 1958-60; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning August 1996. Raymond L. Garthoff served in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs from 1961-1968. He was interviewed by Horace G. Torbert beginning June 1989 . Hans Tuch worked for Voice of America in Moscow from 1958-1961; he was interviewed by G. Lewis Schmidt in August 1989.
George F. Sherman Jr was the East European correspondent for The London Observer from 1956-1961 and was interviewed by Dennis Kux beginning in January 1995. Abraham M. Sirkin worked in the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) Policy Officer from 1957-1962, and was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in May 1997. Gilbert A. Robinson was Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of Commerce from 1955-1959. He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in August 2002. Gilbert M. Callaway worked for USIA Yugoslavia from 1972-1974, and was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in April 1999.
“Nixon was obviously interested in preparing himself for the trip”
Raymond L. Garthoff, CIA, 1957-1961
GARTHOFF: Nixon was quite aware, and said that he really knew rather little about the Soviet Union, but he was obviously interested in learning quickly, preparing himself for the trip and to make the most out of it. I was very favorably impressed with both his energetic interest in getting the proper briefings and learning things, and his quickness in seeing points and picking them up. So that was a limited contact, but nonetheless, from then on I was involved in preparing, coordinating, really, things that the Agency [CIA] could do, both for its own interests and for his, in background briefings before the trip and briefings afterwards and that sort of thing. As I say, I was quite impressed with him.
On the trip, incidentally, one thing that had occurred to me was that he might be interested in learning, while we were still on the trip, how his visit was playing in the Soviet press. Of course, the harried delegation, as we were going around, had no time to sit down and try to read daily Pravdas or listen to the Soviet radio or anything of the sort.
So I had arranged this in advance and got, through the embassy, to the station [CIA representation in the embassy], very up-to-date coverage of how his visit was being treated in the Soviet media and so on. He was very interested in that and very appreciative of it. He was, of course, particularly interested in how it was playing in the American media, but he was also interested in that.
Edward Hurwitz, Staff Aide to the Ambassador, Moscow 1958-1960
HURWITZ: Khrushchev was considered a wily, but very unorthodox by Soviet standards, person. An earthy, peasant type, who was interested in not having a real confrontation with the United States. He was somebody who Thompson could talk to. He came to the embassy. He talked to any number of American visitors of the Rockefeller type. He was interested even at that time in seeking some kind of common arrangement to avoid confrontation. It was a totally different atmosphere from Stalin and from what came later with Brezhnev. It was an “otopel”, a thaw from what had gone on before.
[On the cultural side, things were more open.] We had Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Sandburg, Saroyan, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Gary Cooper and Edward G. Robinson. All of these were opportunities for enormous outpouring of interest on the part of Russians. It was a very active and interesting time. Perhaps the most influential, the most striking evidence of this was a triumph of USIA and U.S. policy initiative there, the U.S. exhibition in 1959. This was really a masterpiece because it was all geared to American consumer items — things that blew the Soviets’ minds.
“He asked that all cables to the Soviet Union from the exhibition be in the clear so that the Soviets could read them”
Gilbert A. Robinson, Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of Commerce, 1955-1959
ROBINSON: Eisenhower had said to his Cabinet, “The United States is conspicuous by its absence at international trade fairs. We want to do something about it. I’ve talked with the Secretary of Commerce. He’s going to set up a special division. I want USIA to work with them also.” And the State Department. It will basically be for trade, but we wanted to tell our story also.
So, Commerce, USIA and State all worked closely together. I was attached to the U.S. consulate there. I learned about State and about USIA, and we all worked together very nicely, never dreaming that I would end up as the Deputy Director of USIA some day.
[The focus of the fair] was eclectic. For my work, a lot of it depended on how well you can manage in that country and deal with the unexpected. One day, I found out that there were these gorgeous tractors. They were polished every day. I think they were made by International Harvester. I found out the story when I went up to a meeting in the embassy in Ankara.
Some guy from AID [Agency for International Development] tells me the story. He said, “We shipped those down 10 years ago. Somebody who was drafted right after the war to do this, to help, only knew one thing: State had said that what you give Greece you’ve got to be equal with Turkey. What they didn’t tell him was that the farms we were shipping to in Greece were big farms and that Turkey had small farms with walls so you couldn’t use the big tractors in these smaller patches of land. So they sat there.
So, I saw this as an opportunity for the fair and borrowed them to use as a U.S. exhibit. I borrowed a crane that was the biggest in the world at that time when they were finished building the dam in Turkey. I met the president of the corporation and he loaned it to us. Things like that.
We also had new Polaroid cameras for exhibits. Polaroid, which was still new then, had given us a bunch of cameras and film, so I set up a stage. We always hired locals as guides in uniforms and trained them from the colleges, those who spoke English. The guide would call somebody up from the audience and take their picture. It became the biggest hit of the fair and it was an afterthought for us. We put on a major exhibit there.
The Russians were there with a big exhibit because they had just had to come down to the Black Sea with lots and lots of lumber. The Israelis were there, as were the Romanians. It was a miniature World’s Fair. It was very interesting for me as a young man. The Russians used to try to find out what we were doing, so they would wine and dine the Israelis and then later on we would wine and dine the Israelis and find out what the Russians were asking. You learned a little bit about open intelligence
So, I come home. I meet with a man who had been a former Assistant Secretary for Commerce that I knew. He had been a former president of the National Association of Manufacturers. His name was Chad McClellan. He said, “You remember we were negotiating with the Soviets the year before?”
I said, “Uh, yes.”
He said, “It fell through. But while you were away, I continued negotiating and we are now exchanging exhibitions. The Soviet Union is going to go into the Coliseum in New York and we’re going into a 10-acre site in the Sokoliniki Park in Moscow. He said, “You’re probably mad at me because you just came back, but I want you to know I want you to be my assistant to do this.”
So, we spent six months doing the exhibition, putting it together. We sent managers over there. I also became the coordinator of the exhibition. We had staff in Moscow. Then he and I went over for six months and had the largest contingent of Americans since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
We had as exhibitors IBM, GE, Ford, General Motors, all of the major people. Macy’s did the furniture for the model house we had. We had top fashion models. The cement was still drying on the morning that we put up the platform for Khrushchev, Nixon, and Milton Eisenhower to open the fair.
A lot of people think that Nixon was the head of the delegation, but Eisenhower made his brother, Milton Eisenhower (pictured), the Chairman of the delegation. I was riding in a taxi once and was sort of testing how much the population knew about the exhibition. I said to the taxi driver in Russian, “Eisenhower is coming here.” He turned around and said, “Da. Nyet President Eisenhower. Milton Eisenhower.” He knew that it was the brother, not the President.
We found out when I met alone with the Soviets after the Exhibition had closed, that there had been a big fight — this is very interesting to students of history – between the Stalinists and the Khrushchevists because Khrushchev tried to do what Gorbachev did later to open the Soviet Union up. He wanted more consumer goods. He wanted the U.S. to come in and the Soviet citizens to see it. So, we had a tremendous exhibition. We had 100 Russian-speaking American college students or graduate students who were the guides.
This was another area where there was very close cooperation. In fact, the President mandated that Commerce had the lead; USIA and State were close support; and they reported to the President on this one. Ambassador [to the USSR Llewellyn] “Tommy” Thompson gave me an office there at the embassy and said, “Look, you’re doing more than the embassy is doing with the business contacts, with Americans and Soviets. So why don’t you handle that and give us the cultural and we’ll handle that?” And we did. It worked out very well.
The cooperation was wonderful between all elements mainly because we had a very good, strong leader, an independent guy, Chad McClelland, who knew how to make people work together. He was the only man I ever saw who dictated a three page contract with commas and semicolons and nobody ever had to change it.
Americans and Russians worked together very cooperatively. As a matter of fact, some funny things happened. One thing that McClelland did – and the State Department could not understand it – was he asked that all cables to the Soviet Union from the exhibition be in the clear so that the Soviets could read them. The reason he did that was that he wanted clear communications. It was an exhibition, nothing to hide. It turned out to be great for us.
We kept sending our messages to our manager over there: “Can’t the Soviets provide you with forklifts and trucks? We have seven forklifts right on the dock ready to go now. Tell us: Should we put them on a ship?” We could communicate our needs freely. Every day, we’d do that. Finally, we get a pouch from State. We open it and find Polaroid pictures of a parade of forklifts, trucks, and everything.
The Russians had been reading our cables and they didn’t want to be embarrassed. McClellan wrote these messages deliberately so we could get action. So, that proved to us that it was helpful. We found the Russians providing things we needed without asking them directly. It was good cooperation. The architect of Moscow was a Khrushchevite, and he helped tremendously
“Khrushchev remarked, ‘It looks as though someone peed on the canvas.’”
Abraham M. Sirkin, USIA Policy Office, 1957-1962
SIRKIN: A year or two before, the kitchen was very prominent in our discussions. The question was, “Do we show the most up-to-date kitchen which only a few people will have, to show the best we could possibly do? Or do we show an average class, good kitchen, not with all the latest frills, so we can say this is the kitchen which is in so many million homes and not just the best of the best?” That was a big issue.
The reason I called it long range was because I felt if we were going to make an impact on people that we were trying to influence such as the Russian populace, but maybe Russian leadership as well, we have to try to figure out what they know and what they don’t know and what’s in their minds and try to fill in that level and so that’s why I felt this was a very important breakthrough even though it was only in Moscow and didn’t reach the whole population.
I think to some extent this is still true, that you try to reach the opinion makers and the policymakers more than you try to reach every last individual. This would be people in Moscow, including the bureaucracy, who would be affected by this. I decided on a sort of slightly better than average kitchen rather than the fanciest of all because that would be easy for journalists to say that very few Americans have this.
One of my most serious involvements was in the art exhibit. Khrushchev had something to say about the ugly things he saw in our art exhibit. But before that we had to fight off Dwight Eisenhower who was merely President of the United States. For the art exhibit they picked a jury.
The art people didn’t give a damn about politics and one of the pictures they picked was by a left-wing cartoonist sort of artist, Jack Levine, who had a picture of the generals making them look foolish. Somebody who didn’t like that kind of stuff brought this to the attention of the White House and asked, “General Eisenhower, are you going to put up a picture like this about generals?” (Pictured, Levine’s Welcome Home, from 1946)
So Eisenhower immediately called to find out what the hell was going on and this got into the papers. I don’t know who leaked it but it got into the papers that this thing was going on and that Eisenhower was going to maybe wipe out this exhibit or at least censor it and have a few pictures.
At that point I got involved and said I thought this was a freedom of expression and information issue. We should show that we have people who are critical or whatever. I think that one of the women, there were two people who were going to be curators, one for three weeks and one for three other weeks, and one of them was a New York Gallery woman. She was immediately quoted by the press as saying, “What the hell does President Eisenhower know about art?” She stayed on.
First I wrote a strong memo of why we should keep the exhibit to one of my bosses, Deputy Director Abbot Washburn, and he turned it over to a guy he knew on his side of the street who I knew very well because he was one of my bosses in Paris on the Marshall Plan, Roscoe Drummond. So Roscoe Drummond read this memo I wrote and virtually turned it into a column. That sort of helped swing the content of the exhibit.
In order to appease the right wing on this including the President, they agreed to have a few additional pictures of I think Stuart, Washington and a few other Presidents and Generals… But, they added some more pictures to add to what the artists had picked.
Again I was pleased with the result of this because at the press opening at Moscow this woman from the New York Gallery was on hand and the Russian press was interested in all this hoopla they knew about in the American Press and they asked this woman, “What happened to the lady who criticized the President?”
She said, “That’s me.”
Hans Tuch, Embassy Moscow 1958-1961
TUCH: There is a footnote to this story. When Nikita Khrushchev returned for a second visit to the exhibition — the first had been with Nixon — his interpreter got lost in the crush of the crowd that surrounded the Chairman as he viewed the display of American art.
I was one of the people escorting him, and I was corralled into amateur interpreting duty. All went well as Khrushchev examined the nineteenth and early-twentieth century American paintings.
When, however, he came upon a work by John Marin, and I explained the title “Sea and Sky,” Khrushchev remarked, “It looks as though (pardon the expression) someone peed on the canvas.” (Pictured: Marin’s Sea Movement — Green and Blue)
Stuttering, I translated. I said, “The Chairman said it appeared to him that a little boy had made a puddle on the canvas.”
Khrushchev inquired and was told how his comment had been interpreted into English, whereupon he admonished, “Please interpret the Chairman correctly,” and I did….
The exhibition featured the latest in U.S. home and entertainment technology, including an RCA color television studio [the first of its kind], science, fashion, American family living, consumer products, photography, the Edward Steichen “Family of Man” exhibit, and art.
The centerpiece was a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome that contained a gigantic seven-screen film projection depicting a 24-hour period in the lives of typical Americans living in various parts of the United States. The dome also held an IBM computer — new at that time — that answered thousands of questions about America posed by the Soviet visitors.
George F. Sherman Jr., East European Correspondent for the London Observer, 1956-61
SHERMAN: I covered the famous kitchen debate between Khrushchev and Nixon. It isn’t generally remembered that that kitchen debate went on in two stages. The world only remembers the second stage when Nixon put it to Khrushchev. But, in fact, what happened was that this was the Eisenhower Administration’s effort to have some basis of working with Khrushchev. Nixon started out that visit, that was to the American pavilion at the trade fair there, being very diplomatic.
The first thing they visited, I seem to recall, was a television studio that they had set up. Nixon said that this was our latest technology in very friendly and gentlemanly terms, but Khrushchev didn’t let him get the words out of his mouth saying that they had far superior equipment here and had had so for years. Khrushchev had the “Who invented ice cream?” kind of approach and was insistent that everything new had been invented by the Russians.
Anyway, lined around the studio where this exchange was taking place was the world press and you could see Nixon getting more and more uncomfortable because Khrushchev was taking the initiative and getting the best of him. Nixon could see the headlines that would grow out of this. They moved down to the kitchen where Nixon took the offensive and that is the part the world remembers.
Well, [the debate] started with the equipment, but covered the whole world. I mean, all the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. In that sense it was far more newsworthy because it dealt with issues which brought out the real differences.
ROBINSON: On opening day in July, Khrushchev and Nixon came. I had planned the night before to take them around and then [Harold “Chad” McClellan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Director General of the Exhibition] said to me, “How are we going to do this?”
I said, “I was in the Army and in the Army you’re taught that the squad leader puts up his arm and everybody follows. I’ll put up my arm. We’ll decide now where we’re going to go. You’ll follow me and Khrushchev and Nixon know to follow you because you’re the head of the exhibition.”
We decided we’d take them into the first color studio in the world, which was provided there by NBC. After that, we would go past the Pepsi Cola stand, girls with colorful dresses and things like that. Then we went to the model house.
In model houses, you can only have a single line go through them, so we cut it in half and put the halves 20 feet apart so people could go and see the living room, the kitchen, and all. So, as we went into the studio, there was Madam Fursteva, one of the women members of the Cabinet, President of the Soviet Union, [Chairman of the Presidium Kliment] Vorashelov and [First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Anastas] Mikoyan and then of course Khrushchev and Nixon. They all stood in the color studio.
Khrushchev was very impressed and began talking about his achievement in building these 16-story apartment buildings. He revolutionized their housing so people could get away from their in-laws and 10 people living in a small apartment. So, then Nixon talked to him about our individual homes. So, things sort of escalated into a little debate.
Nixon was not known to be very ambidextrous with mechanical things. We had shown him the new Ampex recordable audio tape for the first time. He said, “Mr. Premier, please come over here with me.” So, the whole group went over. He pressed the rewind button on the Ampex tape, pressed the stop button, pressed the play, as we had shown him, and suddenly the whole debate could be heard.
looked up and his mouth dropped open, as everybody’s did. The Americans, too, hadn’t seen it before. It was very interesting. We went from there past the Pepsi Cola exhibit.
A little sidebar: The night before, the Vice President of Pepsi Cola, Don Kendall, said, “I’ve got to get Khrushchev to drink Pepsi Cola.” Don said, “How am I going to do that?”
We talked a while and I said, “Well, you asked me to lead. We’ll go by and I’ll just go a little closer to the Pepsi exhibit. The Soviets are very egalitarian, and they’ll probably call out and offer drinks.” There were six or eight of these Russian guides helping us and they were very pretty. That’s exactly what happened. We got him to drink the Pepsi Cola.
Kendall came back in December after the exhibition was closed, negotiated a 15-year contract exclusive. Coke wasn’t even allowed in there for 15 years. It’s very interesting for me when I go back now to see Coke more predominant than Pepsi….In Russia, like most bureaucracies, you follow the lead of the leader. “If Premier Khrushchev was going to drink Pepsi, we will drink Pepsi.”
We then moved to the kitchen of the model house. Khrushchev and Nixon stopped in front of the kitchen display. Now, they started up the debate again. Everybody thinks the debate was started in the kitchen. It actually started in the studio. It got hot and heavy, but it was civil. Nixon was pointing out these things and then Khrushchev would tell what his country had done. Journalists and everybody were squished in there. William Safire,… the famous New York Times columnist, was with the public relations firm and his assignment was the model house. So, he was in the kitchen looking out and the AP guy couldn’t do anything, so he threw Safire the camera. Safire took the picture.
One of the pictures was Nixon pointing to Khrushchev’s chest. That picture was used in Nixon’s campaign, and a lot of people attribute that picture to helping him to win. The reason is that in those days, from Truman through Kennedy through to almost Clinton, a predominant factor that students of political science will tell you about is that the American people basically voted for the leader who they thought could deal best with the Soviet Union. They feared that the Soviets had huge atomic weapons and were afraid of a first strike.
The photo showed Nixon being tough, and the photo captured a moment that influenced political history and had impact far beyond the immediate occasion.
CALLAWAY: [The debate] took place in one of our exhibits in which Khrushchev basically said, “This is a bunch of propaganda. You don’t really have kitchens like this in the United States.” Nixon said, “Yes, this is representative of what we have.” It sort of went on from there about perceptions and misperceptions of the two countries.
I think that the exhibits that went around the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent the satellite communist countries of Eastern Europe, were extremely effective.
The Soviets, Bulgarians, Romanians, and others limited the people who could go to those exhibits, but thousands, and thousands of people went through those exhibits. They had a chance to talk to young American people in their own language and have a relatively open conversation with them, when for the most part all they were seeing was the propaganda that had been coming out from their governments about the United States and the relationships between those countries.
Many of the people who have gone into the Foreign Service, I think, started out their careers as guides on those exhibits and felt that they were extremely effective.
Q: Did the “Kitchen Debate” put a damper on the warming of relationships?
TUCH: No. It just became, I would say, a symptom of that relationship in that we were always at each other, but in a way that we could manage the relationship much more easily than we had before.
Now this came to an immediate and very abrupt stop on May 1, 1960, when the U-2 with Gary Powers (pictured) was shot down, and our relations sank back into the cellar. They canceled President Eisenhower’s trip to the Soviet Union; Khrushchev made some very antagonistic and very unfriendly statements about him and about the United States, and our relationship became worse — what had previously become a more normal relationship wasn’t very good.
However, our exchange activities continued even during this new period of tension. That tension was increased because of Khrushchev’s aggressive statements about Berlin at that time. However, the exchanges continued under our first agreement, and in 1960, after the Gary Powers incident, after the U-2 incident, was renegotiated in Moscow, and renewed for another two years.
Now gradually the exchanges continued, the relationship moved upward again, culminating in the election of President Kennedy and some movements by the Soviets vis-a-vis the new President, indicating that they wanted to have better relationship again….
It is difficult to measure, in public diplomacy terms, the impact of such a major and expensive effort. In my judgment, it more than paid off. For hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, many coming from afar, it was the first glimpse of America, their first personal contact and conversation with Americans, the fifty-odd Russian-speaking American guides mostly young graduate students.
Not only did they see something of life in America, but they also enjoyed themselves, sampling Pepsi for the first time, having their hair coiffed and their faces made up by Coty beauticians, swaying with the music in the fashion show, getting their first look at color television, seeing the inside of a typical American one-family home. And many remembered the experience for a long time.
On a visit to Moscow fifteen years later, I met a man on the street, still wearing on his lapel the American National Exhibition emblem, who told me, when I asked him, that his visit to the exhibit in 1959 was a lifelong memory, a pleasant memory, since it was his first look at America.