24 July 1959: Nixon’s ‘Kitchen Debate’ with Khrushchev

What better place to have an argument than around the kitchen table? For many families, it is where lively debates boil over into angry feuds. It’s fitting, then – and more than a little surreal – that the kitchen set the scene for a clash of words between the two Cold War superpowers: the USA and the USSR on 24 July 1959.

At the American National Exhibition in Moscow, US vice-president Richard Nixon was playing host to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The idea was to showcase American products, made in a free enterprise economy, to a Russian audience. Visitors could take a stroll through a ‘typical’ Californian house and marvel at all the cutting-edge gadgets on display, including a colour television.

Shortly before the exhibition, however, the United States Congress had passed a proclamation that called on its citizens to “pray” for the “people enslaved by the Soviet Union”. That put the Russians in a bad mood.

Walking through the house, Nixon stopped to draw his guest’s attention to a built-in washing machine. “We have such things”, Khrushchev snapped. Nixon replied that “Americans were interested in making life easier for their women”. That is “the capitalist attitude toward women”, Khrushchev shot back.

But the great thing, said Nixon, was that the house was so cheap, even a steelworker on $3 an hour could afford it. Khrushchev replied that Soviet “peasants” could afford it too. But unlike the Americans, they built their houses to last.

Under a veneer of fake smiles, the debate took a more sinister turn – nuclear weapons. “Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?” Nixon appealed. Accusing Nixon of hypocrisy, Khrushchev replied that it was America that was belligerent and that “in this respect, we can also show you something”.

The frank nature of the exchange on their respective economies in front of the media made the ‘Kitchen Debate’ so remarkable, as was the agreement to broadcast their opposing views on each other’s television services. As Khrushchev remarked, “even in an argument between friends, there must be sitting down around a table”.

Merryn

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