The relationship between the US and USSR was strained after WW II. Soviet communism and Stalin's dictatorship had long been viewed with suspicion by Americans, while Russia was enraged by the American refusal to recognize the USSR as a state. Despite Stalin's death that eased tensions during the 1950s, the rivalry between the two countries remained. Moreover, they were engaged in another competition to explore space at the end of this decade. The first artificial satellite was launched into orbit by USSR in 1957. The US was caught off guard by the launch of Sputnik, immediately launching its own satellite in 1958 and establishing NASA. The Kitchen Debate came as a result of a cultural agreement during the midst of these events. US and USSR signed an agreement in 1958 to foster cultural exchange and mutual understanding. Upon this agreement, a Soviet exhibition in New York, and an American exhibition in Moscow were scheduled for the next year. This article explores how one of these exhibits became a striking chapter of the Cold War.
USSR aimed to prove its superiority through pioneering space race as an extension of its ideology. The Soviet Union show held in New York in June 1959 was showcasing the most innovative technologies from the USSR, including Sputnik satellites and a nuclear power vessel, whereas their American counterpart take a different approach. Space exploration was seen as an extension of the American tradition of superiority, so it was vital not to fall behind the Soviets too quickly. This conquest-focused approach combined with advancements of the USSR led the US to adopt a different perspective. Llewelyn Thompson, the US ambassador to the USSR, advised on exhibition strategies and proposed that displays should "endeavor to make the Soviet people dissatisfied with the share of the Russian pie which they now receive" (Castillo, 2005, p. 261). Instead of focusing on political or military superiority, the idea here was to strengthen the ‘perfect American nation’ image by promoting daily American life as the ideal. As a result, the show's brief sampling of American "high culture" was dwarfed by a consumer spectacle featuring cosmetics, clothing, televisions, kitchens, soft drinks, mail order catalogs, fiberglass canoes, sailing boats, automobiles, and prefabricated suburban house (Castillo, 2005, p. 261). In addition, having the option to spend money on the home of their dreams would demonstrate the lifestyle and freedom of the American people, which the citizens of the USSR could never enjoy.
Kruschev and Nixon entered an American kitchen-themed room. Nixon stated that it resembled an ordinary kitchen in California and points at the dishwasher saying that this newest model would make life easier for American women. Khrushchev claimed the Soviet Union had them as well, and said “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism" (New-York Historical Society, 2021). Nixon replied “I think that this attitude towards women is universal. What we want to do, is make life more easy for our housewives” (New-York Historical Society, 2021). In his argument, Nixon wanted to emphasize the superiority of American capitalism over USSR by using the example of women living in a comfortable home. However, his use of the words woman and housewife interchangeably, reveals how women were perceived in American society at that time. The reinvented images of 1920s and 1930s, were the Cold War version of the ideal American life, as represented by the middle-class (white) heterosexual nuclear family, with rigid gender roles of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker, set in a suburban home complete with a modern kitchen (Takeuchi, 2016). In the eyes of the West, Soviet women were characterized as graceless, shapeless, and sexless, a description that functioned to discredit communist women and, more importantly, communism itself (Griswold, 2012). In fact, this was an idea that contradicts the concept of freedom since it reinforces gender roles by shaping the consumption habits of the society. On the other hand, Krushchev’s argument reveals the Communist perspective, which encourages women’s employment outside the house.
After the Kitchen Debate, a Soviet journalist Marietta Shaginian wrote that the ideal kitchen was nothing more than a “gilded cage”, calling it ideologically inappropriate since it was designed not to help the working woman achieve self-realization but to compensate the middle-class ‘‘professional housewife’’ for her lack of a place in the public arena (Roache, 2019). In fact, during WW II, women made up about 8 percent of the Russian army and fought as front-line soldiers, pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, and snipers, revealing the impacts of ideology on society (Goldstein, 2011). In 1963, Soviet Union sent the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova. Upon the return of Valentina Tereshkova, Nikita Khrushchev said in a speech in the Red Square whilst standing beside her, “The bourgeoisie always claim that women are the weaker sex. Now here you can see a typical Soviet woman who in the eyes of the bourgeoisie is weak”(Ghosh, 2015), symbolizing USSR's commitment to equality. Certainly, this does not mean that capitalism created gender inequality or that communism ended it, but it demonstrates how both ideologies were successfully imposed on the citizens in order to create the desired perceptions that will maintain continuity in both societies.
Nixon pointed out the opportunity of ordinary American workers to reach the improvements and newest versions of appliances in every aspect of life. Krushchev stated that this is because of Americans’ inability to creating long-lasting inventions by highlighting the transiency of luxury. He said “In Russia, all you have to do to get a house is to be born in the Soviet Union. You are entitled to housing. . . . In America, if you don’t have a dollar you have a right to choose between sleeping in a house or on the pavement. Yet you say we are the slave to Communism” (New-York Historical Society, 2021). Nixon replied “This exhibit was not designed to astound but to interest. Diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different ho
uses is the most important thing. We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference” (New-York Historical Society, 2021). In his statement, Kruschev criticized the lack of equal opportunity that capitalism creates. He explained how born into wealth and born into poverty affects accessing resources while capitalist systems limit people's opportunities to advance in social hierarchy. Leaving this statement unanswered, Nixon moved on with high levels of control in communist systems. He explained how choices and freedom of people are restricted by the state controlling wealth and properties.
When his impressions about the exhibit were asked, Krushchev said “150 years of independence and this is her level. We haven’t quite reached 42 years, and in another 7 years, we’ll be at the level of America, and after that we’ll go farther. As we pass you by, we’ll wave "hi" to you, and then if you want, we’ll stop and say, "please come along behind us." ...If you want to live under capitalism, go ahead, that’s your question, an internal matter, it doesn’t concern us. We can feel sorry for you, but really, you wouldn’t understand. We’ve already seen how you understand things” (New-York Historical Society, 2021). Nixon answered the same question “It’s a very effective exhibit, and it’s one that will cause a great deal of interest. I might say that this morning I, very early in the morning, went down to visit a market, where the farmers from various outskirts of the city bring in their items to sell. I can only say that there was a great deal of interest among these people, who were workers and farmers, etc... I would imagine that the exhibition from that standpoint would, therefore, be a considerable success” (New-York Historical Society, 2021). The words of both leaders indicate that this cultural exhibition served as a propaganda instrument. Krushchev points out the lack of American science and technology in the exhibit, however, Nixon’s statement highlights the influence of this exhibit in the eyes of an ordinary Soviet citizen. The leaders accused each other with being afraid of the ‘ideas’, and in the end, agreed to translate the tape to Russian and English to simultaneously broadcast it in both countries. However, Americans released the tape earlier and in turn, Russians censored a part of Nixon’s speech (Freiberg, 2012, p. 13). The actions of both parties demonstrate their intention to influence the masses, through immediacy and framing. In addition, both leaders shaped the facts according to their interests. In reality, USSR would not offer the same living standard as America since it would clash with the ideology. On the other hand, unlike Nixon's statements , an ordinary American worker would not afford this model house.
Despite some heated exchanges, the debate was mostly amicable but still groundbreaking. The kitchen in which the two superpowers discussed served as a representation of technologically advanced modern life that the 20th century offers. Over a modern kitchen, America and the Soviet Union verbally dueled over whether communism or capitalism prevailed. The distinctive thing about this debate is that neither of the countries mentioned any type of hard power in their disposition such as nuclear weapons, tanks or bombs. Instead, the focus was to prove their superiority through comparing the lives of citizens.
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Figure 1: IIP Photo Archive from Washington, DC, USA. (1959). Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev tour the U.S. National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow, July 1959. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nixon_and_Krushchev_(46792026815).jpg
Figure 2: Sochurek, H. 1959. Richard Nixon makes a point during an argument with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Moscow, July 25, 1959. [Photograph]. TIME. https://api.time.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/nixon.jpeg?quality=85&w=1200
Figure 3: Sochurek, H. 2019. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (2L) pointing finger at visiting U.S. Vice Pres. Richard Nixon (2R) during heated ideological debate beside model kitchen display at American Natl. Exhibition in 1959. [Photograph]. TIME. https://time.com/5630567/kitchen-debate-women/
Figure 4: Lamers, G. 2018. Kitchen Debate. [Cartoon]. soundcloud. https://soundcloud.com/gradje-lamers/kitchen-debate
Figure 5: Bettman. (1959). Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice-President Richard Nixon at the free Pepsi stand in Sokolniki Park, during their famous Kitchen Debate. [Photograph]. gettyimages. https://worldwarwings.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/GettyImages-515578848.jpg