Instant Symposium: The Kitchen Debate, 50 years later

Editorial Staff

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous Kitchen Debate at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. Their clash of ideologies played out among a series of show rooms—including a model kitchen by General Electric—and was broadcast worldwide, quickly becoming a seminal moment in the history of the Cold War. We asked several scholars and historians of this era to offer their thoughts on this important debate, 50 years later:

Melinda Talbot Nasardinov, coauthor of America’s Kitchens (2008)

It seems unlikely that a model kitchen would inspire a boasting match between world leaders in another time or place, however this proves the potency of the modern American kitchen and its assumptions about family life as an image of security and prosperity in the Cold War era. But just as the Soviets saw it differently, despite the gleaming appliances and easy-to-clean surfaces, some American women felt shortchanged by the ideal. In the years following the debate, Peg Bracken’s humorous The I Hate to Cook Book (1960) struck a chord, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) helped millions of women define their frustrations.

Karal Ann Marling, professor of art history and American studies, University of Minnesota
The Kitchen Debate came at the climax of a long series of international trade shows in which the United States waged the Cold War against Russia with freezers, frozen foods, Pepsi, and other consumer goods of all kinds. Khrushchev remained skeptical of the importance of home appliances on the geopolitical stage. But, in the end, Americans seem to have lost the debate. Some fifty years later, the current recession is proof positive that incessant shopping is not a mark of national superiority.

Eric J. Sandeen, director of the American studies program, University of Wyoming
The consumer goods that served as the context for the Kitchen Debate were selected to dazzle with their color and variety, and to pain Soviet observers with their easy availability. This was an American space, and Nixon picked his spot to engage Khrushchev well.  Less known is the debate that was being conducted inside the Kremlin on how to restrain Soviet consumerism and how to design and supply small kitchens in the individual apartments that were then replacing communal dining facilities. The kitchen was important to both sides of the debate.

Sarah A. Lichtman, assistant professor of design history, Parsons The New School for Design
In the debate, Khrushchev condemned Nixon’s glorification of consumption as shallow and lacking in progressive principles. Nixon asserted that the supremacy of capitalism over communism rested not in military strength, but in choice, and in the convenience and availability of the suburban home, replete with modern appliances and consumer goods, and populated by families adhering to traditional gender roles.  Nixon numbered meeting Khrushchev as one of the “major personal crises” of his political life, believing that at stake was nothing less than “world peace and the survival of freedom.”  At the American National Exhibition in Moscow, the displays of goods meant to impress the Soviet government and people (as well as Americans traveling to the exhibition vicariously through the pages of Life) were infused with ideological and symbolic values intended to propagate America’s cultural hegemony. What was for sale was the American way of life, or rather, a version of how the American government wanted the world to see it.

Bess Williamson, PhD candidate in history of American civilization, University of Delaware
The Kitchen Debate has always reminded me that the things we own and the places we live are far from frivolous details.  In their impromptu conversation about a model American house, Nixon and Khrushchev articulated the ideologies of the two great superpowers of the twentieth century.  Nixon touted the washing machine’s potential to relieve household drudgery; Khrushchev rebutted that Nixon was putting too much stock in the power of gadgets available only to the few.  Today, former Soviet republics still struggle to balance economic stability with consumer choice, while we in the prosperous West have come to question the benefits of a household stuffed with gadgets.  In 1959 the debate was resolved by “toast[ing] the women.” Who would we toast today?

Susan E. Reid, professor of Russian and Slavonic studies, University of Sheffield
One of the key issues over which Nixon and Khrushchev competed in the kitchen
debate was the promise of their respective systems-capitalism and communism—to liberate women. The American example claimed to accomplish this through consumer goods for the home, especially through a choice of  “labor-saving” kitchen appliances. Some members of the Soviet public, writing in the exhibition comments book, defended Soviet progress—in which services and collective consumption were supposed to play a part—against the challenge of the American kitchen. “The ‘Miracle kitchen’ was brought here unnecessarily,” wrote one. “We don’t need it because we are striving to free our women from kitchen work entirely.” A Soviet engineer consigned the American “Miracle kitchen” of the future to the dustbin of the bourgeois past. Far from freeing women from domestic drudgery, the American kitchen represented a new form of bondage for them.

To learn more about the Kitchen Debate visit, a research project on Cold War material culture by Professor Eric J. Sandeen, University of Wyoming, and Professor Shirley T. Wajda, Kent State University, and their students.

To see images from the American National Exhibition in Moscow visit the Life Photo Archive on Google Image Search.

Some suggestions for further reading (if you want to recommend another source let us know in the comments below):

Susan E Reid, “Who Will Beat Whom? Soviet Popular Reception of the American
National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959″ in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and
Eurasian History
vol. 9, no. 4 (Fall 2008), pp. 855-904.

Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, eds, Cold War Kitchen: Americanization,
Technology, and European Users
(Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009).

David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, eds, Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970 (London: V& A Publications, 2008).

Image: Nixon and Khrushchev debate at the model kitchen, American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959. Photo by Howard Sochurek. © Time Inc.