On this day in 1959, at a U.S. Trade and Cultural Fair in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon enters into a heated discussion with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the merits of capitalism versus communism. Since the conversation occurred in the middle of a display of modern American kitchen conveniences, it became known as the kitchen debate.
Although the fair was designed to be a cultural exchange of goodwill with the Soviet Union, the competitive relationship between American capitalism and Soviet communism was immediately evident. When Nixon and Khrushchev unexpectedly met near the kitchen exhibit, they began to spar verbally about whose technology was superior. Khrushchev, who requested that his comments not be censored by the American media, came off as more combative. At first, Nixon remained relatively calm and diplomatic, urging more cultural exchange between the two countries and suggesting that the Soviet Union be more open to non-communist ideas. At one point, Nixon told Khrushchev that he and the Soviets didn’t know everything, to which Khrushchev responded if I don’t know everything I would say that you don’t know anything about communismexcept fear. Nixon also politely but pointedly accused Khrushchev of dominating the conversation and said that he would have made a good lawyer, eliciting hearty laughter from the crowd of press and observers. However, when Khrushchev claimed that American-made capitalist luxuries such as toasters, juicers and automatic dishwashers were too expensive for the American working class, Nixon leaned in, poked Khrushchev in the chest with his finger and declared that ANY American worker could buy one.
The entire discussion was captured for posterity on a tape recorder as well as by television cameras, two advances in technology to which Nixon proudly pointed as examples of America’s economic superiority. Although Khrushchev defended his country’s economic prowess–the Russians were ahead of the Americans in rocket technology at the time–he too acted the diplomat by extending an unprecedented invitation to Nixon to speak to the Russian public on television on August 1. In that speech, which was uncensored, Nixon boldly challenged the Russian people to rethink their commitment to communism.
In 1960, Khrushchev traveled to the United States and met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1972, Nixon, by then president of the United States, made a trip to the Soviet Union. Throughout his tenure in office, he worked to engage the Soviets in constructive dialogue about ending the arms race and the Cold War.