The Kitchen Debate was a series of impromptu exchanges (through interpreters) between then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow on July 24, 1959. For the exhibition, an entire house was built that the American exhibitors claimed anyone in America could afford. It was filled with labor-saving and recreational devices meant to represent the fruits of the capitalist American consumer market. The debate was recorded on color videotape and Nixon made reference to this fact; it was subsequently rebroadcast in both countries.
In 1959, 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 1959, and the following month Vice President Nixon was on hand to open the US exhibit in Moscow. Nixon took Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on a tour of the exhibit. As recounted by William Safire who was present as the exhibitor's press agent, 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.
In the course of the tour Khrushchev surprised Nixon when he protested a resolution passed by the US Congress that condemned the Soviet Union for its "control" over the "captive" peoples of Eastern Europe and called upon Americans to pray for those people. After protesting the actions of the US Congress, he dismissed the new technology of the US and declared that the Soviets would have all of the same things in a few years and then say "Bye bye" as they surpassed the U.S. He satirically asked if there was a machine that "puts food into the mouth and pushes it down". 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. At the end, Khrushchev stated that everything he had said in their debate should be translated into English and broadcast in the US. 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." To this proposal, Khrushchev shook hands vigorously.
The exchange between Khrushchev and Nixon is interesting because while they were discussing which country was superior, they did not compare nuclear weapons, political influence, or control of territories. ["The World Transformed: 1945 to the Present"] They were using the technological innovations set up in the exhibit to compete with one another. Nixon argued that the Americans built to take advantage of new techniques, while Khrushchev argued that the Soviets built for future generations. Khrushchev states, "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."
In The World Transformed, 1945 to the Present: A Documentary Reader, Michael H. Hunt points out that the two leaders differed both in their opinions of the nature of consumerism and in the duties of women vis-à-vis men. At one point in the exchange, Khrushchev stated, "Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism." This small reference towards women and their position in society was significant at a time when women around the world were fighting for a better role in society.
Future Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev is reported to have been present and acting to obstruct photos of the event by Safire.
The Kitchen Debate was the first high-level meeting between Soviet and U.S. leaders since the Geneva Summit in 1955.
Television broadcast and American reaction
In the US, three major television networks broadcast the kitchen debate on July 25. The Soviets subsequently protested, as Nixon and Khrushchev had agreed that the debate should be broadcast simultaneously in America and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets threatening to withhold the tape until they were ready to broadcast. The American networks, however, had felt that delay would cause the news to lose its immediacy. Two days later, on July 27, 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" and portrayed it somewhat as a political stunt. The newspaper also declared that public opinion seemed divided after the debates. On the other hand, Time, also covering the exhibition, praised Nixon, saying he "managed in a unique way to personify a national character proud of peaceful accomplishment, sure of its way of life, confident of its power under threat."
Because of the informal nature of the exchange Nixon gained popularity, improving upon the lukewarm reception he previously had with the U.S. public. He also impressed Mr. Khrushchev. Said reporter William Safire, present at the confrontation:
"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."
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 trip raised Nixon's profile as a public statesman, greatly improving his chances for receiving the Republican presidential nomination the following year.
- Safire, William. "The Cold War's Hot Kitchen", The New York Times, Friday, July 24, 2009.
- "Nixon in USSR Opening US Fair, Clashes with Mr. K". YouTube. Universal International News. July 1959.
- "William Safire Oral History Interview".
- Richard H. Shepard. "Debate Goes on TV over Soviet Protest", The New York Times, July 26, 1959
- Associated Press. "Soviet TV Shows Tape of Debate". The New York Times, July 28, 1959
- "News of the Week in Review", The New York Times, July 26
- "Moscow Debate Stirs U.S Public", The New York Times, July 27, 1959
- "Better to See Once", Time, August 3, 1959
- Paul Kengor. "The Vice President, Secretary of State, and Foreign Policy". Political Science Quarterly Vol. 115, No. 2 (Summer 2000) 174–199. pg 184
- Bruce Mazlish. "Toward a Psychohistorical Inquiry: The Real Richard Nixon". Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol 1, No. 1 (1970) pp 49–105
- "Now the Summit", The New York Times, August 3, 1959
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- The original color videotape recording, Part 1 on YouTube and Part 2 on YouTube
- A condensed version is available at TeachingAmericanHistory.org, a project of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.
- A more complete version of the text is available.
- The Loss of Early Video Recordings – Article about the missing Kitchen Debate videotape