In the summer of 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow to formally open the American National Exhibit, a fair sponsored by the United States to show the Soviet people how Americans lived. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev accompanied Nixon on a tour of the exhibit, with a team of journalists and photographers trailing them. The so-called Kitchen Debate was actually an unscripted series of exchanges between the two leaders about the merits and flaws of their respective economies and political systems. (One exchange came during a visit to the model American kitchen featured in the exhibit.)
Nixon and Khrushchev remained in good spirits as they argued; both leaders were mindful that their conversation was being captured using the new technology of color television and video recording. For Nixon, the encounter offered an opportunity to praise American technology, capitalism, and the high standard of living in the U.S. He observed that the debate itself showed the power and importance of free expression. For Khrushchev, the exchange allowed him to question how advanced the United States really was and to praise the communist system. The international attention the Kitchen Debate received showed the significant role that ideas and communication played in the Cold War.
Source: There is no complete record of all of Nixon and Khrushchev’s conversations, and versions vary. The first excerpt below is a transcription from a CSPAN video of the conversation between Nixon and Khrushchev when they met to attend the exhibit; Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, “Kitchen Debate,” July 24, 1959, CSPAN. Available at https://goo.gl/i4SCP5. The second, shorter excerpt is from “The Two Worlds: A Day-Long Debate,” New York Times, July 25, 1959, 1, 3.
Interviewer: Tell us your general impressions of the exhibits.
Khrushchev: In speaking about impressions, it is now obvious that the builders haven’t managed to complete their construction and the exhibits are not yet in place. Therefore, it is hard to comment, because what we see is the construction process rather than the exhibits we’d like to see. But I think that everything will be in place in a few hours and it will be a good exhibition. Regarding our wishes, we wish America the very best to show its goods, products, and abilities, great abilities and we will gladly look and learn. Not only will we learn, but we also can show and do show you what we do. This will contribute to improved relations between our countries and among all countries to ensure peace throughout the world. We want only to live in peace and friendship with Americans because we are the most powerful nations. If we are friends then other countries will be friends. If someone tries to be a little bellicose then we can tug his ear a little and we can say “Don’t you dare!” We can’t be at war. These are times of nuclear weapons. A fool may start this war and a wise man won’t be able to end that war. Hence, these are our guiding principles in policy, domestic and international. We wish you success in demonstrating America’s capabilities and then we will be impressed. How long has America existed? Is it 300 years?
Unknown third party: 150 years of independence.
Khrushchev: Then we’ll say America has existed 150 years and here is its level. We have existed almost 42 years and in another 7 years we will be on the same level as America. And then we’ll move on ahead. When we pass you along the way we’ll greet you amicably like this. [Khrushchev waves his hand.] Then if you like, we can stop and invite you to catch up. The question of social structure and well-being – you want to do that under capitalism? Well, you live as you wish. It’s your business. That’s a domestic issue and it doesn’t concern us. We can feel sorry for you because you don’t understand. Well then, live as you like. I’d like to say what is most important today. We are happy that the Vice President Mr. Nixon has arrived in Moscow for the opening of the exhibition. I personally express gratitude and on my colleagues’ behalf, that Mr. President has sent me a message, which I haven’t read yet, but I believe in advance that he sends warm wishes. I express gratitude to the messenger, and I hope you enjoy your visit . . . .
Interviewer: Mr. Vice President, from what you have seen of our exhibition how do you think it’s going to impress the people here of the Soviet Union?
Nixon: Well I have not had much of an opportunity to see it yet, but I’ve seen a great number of photographers, as of course has the president and the prime minister. I think though that from what I have seen 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 . . . went down to visit a market . . . where the farmers from various outskirts of the city bring in their items to sell. As I was talking to them some of them came up to me and asked where they could get tickets to see the exhibition. I didn’t have any with me at the time, but I made arrangements to have some sent down to the manager of the market. I can only say that there was a great deal of interest among these people who were workers and farmers et cetera. I would imagine that the exhibition from that standpoint will therefore be a considerable success. As far as Mr. Khrushchev’s comments just now, they are in the tradition we learned to expect from him of speaking extemporaneously and frankly whenever he has an opportunity. And I’m glad that he did so on our color television at such a time as this. Of course later on we will both have the opportunity to speak later this evening and consequently I will not comment on the various subjects he raised at this point, except to say this. This, Mr. Khrushchev is one of the most advanced developments in communication that we have, at least, in our country. It is color television, of course. It is, as you will see in a few minutes, when you will see the tape of your speech and my comments in a few minutes, it is one of the best means of communication that has been developed and I can only say that if this competition that you have thus described so effectively, in which you plan to outstrip us, particularly in the production of consumer goods, if this competition is to do the best for our people, and for people everywhere, there must be a free exchange of ideas. There are some instances where you may be ahead of us, for example in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the exploration of outer space. There may be other areas, such as in color television, where we are ahead of you. In order for both of our peoples to. . .
Khrushchev: What do you mean, ahead? No, never. We’ve beaten you in rockets and in this technology we’re ahead of you too.
Nixon: Wait until you see the picture.
Interviewer: It will be interesting for you to know that this program is being recorded on Ampex color tape and it can be played back immediately, and you can’t tell it isn’t a live program.
Khrushchev: Soviet engineers [who] came were impressed by what they saw. I also join the awe of our Soviet engineers. The fact that Americans are smart people is something we’ve always believed and known because foolish people couldn’t raise the economy to the level they have achieved. But we too are not fools swatting at flies with our nostrils. In forty-two years we have taken such a step! We’re worthy partners! So, let’s compete! Let’s compete! Who can produce the most goods for the people, that system is better and it will win.
Nixon: Good. Let’s have far more communication and exchange in this area that you speak of. We should hear you far more on our television. You should hear us far more on yours.
Khrushchev: Let’s do it this way. Of course we can consider television, but with television you can speak here with no one present and then the tape will be put away on a shelf. Let’s do it this way; you speak before our people and we’ll speak before yours. This will be far better. They’ll see and sense us. I’m setting a forum for you for the future.
Nixon: Yes. You must not be afraid of ideas.
Khrushchev: We keep telling you; don’t you be afraid of ideas! We have nothing to fear. We’ve already escaped from that situation, and now we don’t fear ideas.
Nixon: Well then let’s have more exchange then. We all agree on that, right?
Khrushchev: Good. What do we agree to?
Nixon: Now let’s go look at our pictures.
Khrushchev: I agree, but I want to make sure what I have agreed to. Do I have the right? I know that I’m dealing here with a very good lawyer. So, I want to hold up my coalminer’s dignity so the coalminers would say: “That’s our man, he doesn’t yield to an American lawyer.”
Nixon: No question about that.
Khrushchev: [Interrupts Nixon]: You are an advocate of capitalism, I am an advocate of communism! So let’s compete!
Nixon: Yes. All that I can say is that from the way you talk and the way you dominate the conversation, you would have made a good lawyer yourself. But, what I mean is this: . . . the [recording] will transmit this very conversation immediately. And . . . this increase in communication will teach us some things, and will teach you some things too, because after all you do not know everything . . . .
Khrushchev: We are arguing on unequal ground. The camera is yours, you are speaking English and I am speaking Russian. Your English words are being taped and will be shown and heard, but what I am saying is being interpreted only in your ear, and therefore the American people won’t hear what I’ve said. These are unequal conditions!
Nixon: There isn’t a day that goes by in the United States when we can’t read everything that you say in the Soviet Union . . . . I can assure you that you never make a statement here that you don’t think we read in the United States.
Khrushchev: So then let it be so! I’ll catch you on your words. Your words are taped. Translate my words, then we’ll watch the tape with the English translation of what I’ve said to you in Russian . . . I would like that my words should also be translated into English. Do you give me your word?
Nixon: Now we have all of these reporters here. We have,
Khrushchev: [Interrupts Nixon]: No, do you give me your word?
Nixon: Every word that you have said has been taken down, and I will promise you that every word that you have said here will be reported in the United States and they will see you say it on television.
Khrushchev: But I have my doubts. Therefore, I want you, the Vice President, to give your word that my speech will also be recorded in English and broadcast. Will it?
Nixon: Certainly it will. Certainly.
[While inside the exhibit, Nixon and Khrushchev had the following exchange, as reported by the New York Times.]
Nixon [halting Khrushchev at model kitchen in model house]: “You had a very nice house in your exhibition in New York. My wife and I saw and enjoyed it very much. I want to show you this kitchen. It is like those of our houses in California.”
Khrushchev [after Nixon called attention to a built-in panel-controlled washing machine]: “We have such things.”
Nixon: “This is the newest model. This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installation in the houses” . . . .
He explained that the house could be built for $14,000 and that most veterans had bought houses for between $10,000 and $15,000.
Nixon: “Let me give you an example . . . any steel worker could buy this house. They earn $3 an hour. This house costs about $100 a month to buy on a contract running twenty-five to thirty years.
Khrushchev: “We have steel workers and we have peasants who also can afford to spend $14,000 for a house.” He said American houses were built to last only twenty years, so builders could sell new houses at the end of that period. “We build firmly. We build for our children and grandchildren.”
Mr. Nixon said he thought American houses would last more than twenty years, but even so, after twenty years many Americans want a new home or a new kitchen, which would be obsolete then. The American system is designed to take advantage of new techniques, he said.