The Kitchen Debate: Khrushchev vs. Nixon

The Kitchen Debate between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon is recognized as a symbol of rapprochement in Soviet-US relations during the Cold War.

Apr 13, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

khrushchev nixon kitchen debate


On July 24, 1959, an American National Exhibition opened in Moscow. The Kitchen Debate between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and American Vice President Richard Nixon represents the most well-known episode of the exhibition. As part of the cultural exchange between the two ideologically opposed powers, the exhibition featured pavilions filled with products from the American consumer industry, describing the daily lives of ordinary Americans. The encounter known as the Kitchen Debate occurred when the two leaders made an unscheduled stop at a model American kitchen, debating their countries’ socio-political aspirations.


Origins of the Kitchen Debate

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USSR Exhibition, New York City, 1959. Source: Socialist Exhibitions


The leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, died on March 5, 1953. The end of Stalin’s rule brought both uncertainty and hope for a momentous change in Soviet Union-United States relations. The President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, trying to seize the opportunity, gave a speech to the American public on April 16, 1953. The speech, titled “The Chance for Peace,” also known as the “Cross of Iron Speech,” highlighted the humanitarian and financial cost of the Soviet-US rivalry. He stated:


“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children.”


Surprisingly, the speech was published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda the following day. Prospects for President Eisenhower’s reset with the Soviet Union were brought to life only after Nikita Khrushchev won the three-year power struggle for the Soviet leadership. Khrushchev had been in service for the Soviet Union for over 20 years, and his demonstrated loyalty to communism and Stalin himself allowed him to be among the high-ranking Soviet authorities.


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With the key goal of consolidating and maintaining power, Nikita Khrushchev distanced himself from Stalin’s brutal policies upon becoming the new Soviet leader. In 1956, he introduced de-Stalinization policies, loosened the central control over media, art, and speech, and introduced a new foreign policy course, the Peaceful Co-existence of Nations. According to Khrushchev, the two superpowers could coexist peacefully despite their ideological differences. This shift in Soviet policies is known as the Khrushchev Thaw.


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US and Soviet flags ripple on the front of the New York Coliseum as the Soviet exhibition opens, 1959. Source: Radio Free Europe


As part of the thawing relations between the two superpowers, in 1958, President Eisenhower and Premier Khrushchev signed the Cultural Agreement and agreed to organize a series of cultural exhibitions hosted in each country. The expos aimed to celebrate the different identities of the two powers and educate the nations about each country’s culture, which would ultimately lead to mutual understanding and the easing of the Cold War rivalry.


First, the United States hosted the Soviet exhibition in New York in June 1959. The Soviet authorities spent $12 million (about $126 million in 2023) to organize an expo in New York City’s Coliseum featuring industrial machines, a new railroad, a luxury airport, and the winners of the Space Race, Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. Besides Soviet music, art, food, and fashion, the American public had the opportunity to explore a Soviet three-room apartment equipped with a traditional Russian kitchen and modern appliances.


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Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon by Elliott Erwitt, 1959. Source: Magnum Photos


However, American society was not impressed with the Soviet Exhibition, as it was all too apparent that no such luxury airport, high-tech railroad, or factory existed in the Soviet Union or could be enjoyed by an ordinary Soviet citizen. Many noted that the exhibition lacked personal interaction. According to The New York Times, one guest sarcastically remarked, “I missed seeing your typical Russian home (dump) and your labor camps (slave camps).” Another person wrote, “I think the main perspective of this Russian exhibit is to show the average American citizen how lucky he is to be an American.”


Just one month later, the United States organized the American National Exhibition in Moscow, aiming to embody everything advanced and better the United States could offer.


The American National Exhibition

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The American National Exhibition, 1959. Source: Library of Congress


In July 1959, the American National Exhibition opened in Moscow. Vice President Richard Nixon, accompanied by President Eisenhower’s younger brother Milton S. Eisenhower and about 80 American guides, traveled to the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon himself guided Nikita Khrushchev to the exhibit. It offered various displays of consumer goods and scientific and technological achievements, represented by more than 450 American companies like Kodak, Levi’s, Ford, General Motors, DixieCup, General Mills, IBM, and Disney. The Soviet citizens were also given the possibility to sample Pepsi-Cola and Betty Crocker desserts for the very first time.


The model of an American house, equipped with modern appliances such as a refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher, was where the famous debate, thus aptly referenced as the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev, took place. The meeting at a model house was part of a series of four meetings scheduled between the leaders during the exhibition, and reportedly, pressure started to build up during the first meeting in the Kremlin.


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A woman demonstrates a model kitchen made for the exhibition, 1959. Source: Library of Congress


At the time, Khrushchev was frustrated with the United States Congress passing the Captive Nations Resolution. The resolution referred to the people of Eastern Europe as the “captive” nations controlled by the Soviet Union. Under the shadow of this resolution, Khrushchev openly criticized the new technological achievements of the United States. He ironically remarked, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?” and soon left the meeting, saying only, “Bye-bye.”


The second visit, planned in a television studio inside the exhibit, was also held under pressure. Each leader advocated for their respective ideologies. Khrushchev praised communism for building future generations and for its capability to achieve greater results in a short period of time. He remarked:


“This is what America is capable of, and how long has she existed? Three hundred years? One hundred fifty years of independence, and this is her level. We haven’t quite reached 42 years, and in another seven years, we’ll be at the level of America, and after that, we’ll go farther.”


The tête-à-tête between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon eventually transformed into a competition of confronting ideologies and culminated during the third encounter, the Kitchen Debate.


The Kitchen Debate

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Photograph shows people looking at a refrigerator and kitchen equipment at a Soviet exhibit located next to the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959. Source: Library of Congress


Vice President Nixon guided Nikita Khrushchev to the exhibition before its public opening on July 14, 1959. When reaching the model kitchen, cut in half for better media coverage, the two leaders engaged in a friendly but heated debate regarding the merits of communism and capitalism.


The model kitchen was part of a $14,000 (about $147,000 in 2023) American house that an average American worker could afford to buy. The model house was specifically designed to portray Americans’ high standard of living, promoting the idea that in a capitalist world, people enjoyed better living conditions. The exhibition focused on consumer goods, like labor-saving modern appliances.


While touring the kitchen, Nixon proudly pointed to a dishwasher, declaring that the American way of life made women’s lives easier. Khrushchev answered, “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism,” implying that these technological developments were intended to trap women in their homes instead of liberating them.


After this remark, a heated discussion followed, comparing the durability of American homes to Soviet ones, discussing technical advancements and how they affect daily life, and generally debating American capitalist consumerism and Soviet communism.


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Khrushchev and Nixon on TV at American exhibit, 1959. Source: Library of Congress


Vice President Nixon’s comments on individual freedom of choice serve as a clear example of the essence of this debate. He explained that the model homes were intended to spark people’s curiosity and allow them to choose the kind of home and lifestyle they wanted for themselves. In contrast to communism, the American government abstained from imposing a certain lifestyle and the consequent decisions. “We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference.” Nixon said. Khrushchev replied, “On politics, we will never agree with you.”


The Kitchen Debate ended with Khrushchev telling Nixon, “You’re a lawyer for capitalism; I’m a lawyer for communism, let’s kiss.”


The Kitchen Debate was covered by three key American televisions. Even though Nixon and Khrushchev had previously agreed to broadcast the tours simultaneously in their respective countries on a later date, the American mass media did not adhere to this promise, as the news would lose its immediacy. The Soviet Union allowed the debate to be broadcast on Moscow Television only on July 27, 1959, late at night and modified according to Soviet censorship.


Results & Legacy of the Kitchen Debate

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“We swore to our husbands, the men – heroes that we will forge weapons day and night, and fulfill the task to help the front,” by Demyan Bedny, 1941. Source: Soviet Art


For Vice President Nixon, the encounter represented a possibility to outline the American high standard of living and the advancements it could offer under capitalist ideology. For Khrushchev, the Kitchen Debate was an opportunity to question these advancements and to illustrate the merits of communism. The debate could be viewed as a rare and tangible example of freedom of speech and expression at the height of the Cold War.


The exhibition did not bear the results the United States hoped for, however. In August 1959, Marietta Shaginian, a Soviet journalist from the Russian newspaper Izvestiia, published an article describing the perfect American kitchen as a “gilded cage,” and “ideologically inappropriate.”


For the Soviets, the ideal American house did not assist women in self-realization but rather compensated the “professional housewife” as she could not find her place in the public arena. And the observation was not too far from the truth. American women were indeed limited in job choices and had opportunities to be employed in a care-oriented career field, as a teacher or secretary, for example. By 1960, only 36% of American women were employed.


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President Dwight Eisenhower greeting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on the steps of Blair House, Washington DC during his visit to the United States, by Marion S Trikosko, 1959. Source: Library of Congress


On the contrary, the Soviet Union portrayed women not in a glamorous fashion but as a “personification of Soviet modernity.” This, too, was largely a part of Soviet propaganda; everyone was expected to participate in the labor force. In the Soviet Union, in 1967, women made up 41% of engineers, compared to 2% in the years following the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917. However, one thing the United States and the Soviet Union shared was the fact that the kitchen was still perceived as a woman’s responsibility.


The Kitchen Debate provided additional incentives for Khrushchev to intensify the “catch up and overtake America” strategy declared in 1957. He ordered the increase in production of refrigerators and vacuums, resulting in its rapid increase in every household, from 4% in 1960 to 11% in 1965 and 65% by 1975. Hence, in a way, the American National Exhibition indirectly contributed to the improved standard of living within Soviet households.


On the American side, the Kitchen debate raised Nixon’s prestige as a public statesman and greatly contributed to his efforts to receive a Republican presidential nomination the following year.


As TIME Magazine reported:


“Within what may be remembered as peacetime diplomacy’s most amazing 24 hours, Vice President Nixon became the most talked about, best-known, and most-effective (if anyone can be effective) Westerner to invade the USSR in years.”

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.