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Past and Present

Past & Present: The Kitchen Debate


On July 24th 1959, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took the Cold War into the kitchen. Later referred to as the Kitchen Debate, the heated conversation took place in the American exhibition in Moscow, at the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Agreement, a program of mutual, cultural exchange meant to promote understanding and friendship between the two nations. 

The display featured consumer goods and technological wonders provided by over 450 American companies meant to showcase the best of American ingenuity and technical dominance. A similar, but less impressive, exhibition of Soviet achievement had been displayed in New York City a month before.
The climax occurred on the third day, in the kitchen of the model home. The kitchen had a dishwasher, refrigerator, and stovetop range and oven. It had been designed to represent the typical kitchen in a $14,000 home, a home that the average American worker could afford. While the world knew the rhetoric of the Cold War regarding nuclear weapons, Nixon remarked that technology and capitalism could also make the home a better place. Khrushchev responded, calling Americans weak for relying on these labor saving devices. Nixon countered, defending the fruits of the consumer market. As the only day recorded on videotape, this seemingly petty debate eclipsed the other three days of more substantive discussions. In fact, both leaders expressed mutual, increased respect from the four-day event.
Initially, Americans saw the Kitchen Debate as nothing more than a political stunt. But over time, criticism cooled and people began to read between the lines.  The debate over kitchen appliances was seen as a proxy for the divisions between communism and capitalism, authoritarianism and democracy, and the growing divisions between East and West in the early stages of the Cold War.