Sixty-one years ago, on July 24, 1959, one of the greatest ever pieces of television propaganda was broadcast in both the U.S. and in the Soviet Union. Both sides in this so-called Cold War felt that they had won an impromptu exchange between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon. Both sides were a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Take it away, Nikky and Tricky!
One of the most powerful bits of televised propaganda during the Cold War came at the beginning of the Space Race. The Soviet Union’s successful October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, not only threatened the Collective Manhood of what Pres. Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex, it freaked out the American people. OMG, the Commies have beaten us! They’re going to control our minds and precious bodily fluids with their special satellite rayguns! We’re doomed!
Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern conveyed the Cold War backdrop to this in Dr. Strangelove:
Sputnik also gave us a handy word by which to name things the silent majority didn’t like, such as Beatniks, sickniks, creepniks, etc. It was the Watergate of its era.
In the wake of this competitive jousting, the two “superpowers” came face to face, literally, on July 24, 1959. The two faces were those of Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita “Nyet Nyet” Khrushchev. The occasion was the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow. The U.S. government, in order to burnish its image behind the Iron Curtain, installed an entire middle-class, Levittown-like house and filled it with the latest comforts, conveniences and consumer items available to the American people. The pitch was that this relatively modest house was within the means of any hardworking American. In short, it was intended to show that democracy and capitalism trumps totalitarianism and Communism.
The two “superpowers” came face to face, literally, on July 24, 1959. The two faces were those of Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita “Nyet Nyet” Khrushchev
The American National Exhibition was the response to a similar exhibition installed by Khrushchev’s minions one month earlier in New York, in which the Soviets touted the superiority of their system of state-controlled economic governance.
It fell on Vice President Nixon to give Premier Khrushchev a tour of the model home at the Moscow exhibition. As the tour proceeded, with each person saying something, which was then translated and repeated to the respective party, Tricky and Nicky began trading quips, which grew more pointed and expansive with each massing minute. Much of their discussion took place in the kitchen of this model home, and their increasingly heated discussions became known as the Kitchen Debate. It was one of the first times that two world leaders engaged in a totally unplanned and unscripted conversation in front of millions of people.
Khrushchev mocked American “progress,” insisting that ultimately the Soviet Union would surpass the U.S. Nixon held his own, defending our “way of life” and insisting the two powers find common ground. The two leaders agreed to broadcast their exchanges, recorded on color tape, to each respective country. On July 25, all three U.S. networks broadcast the Kitchen Debate, with all of Khrushchev’s comments translated. On July 27, Soviet Union broadcast it at an obscure hour, late in the night when few people other than insomniacs could watch (no VCR’s back then) and only translated some of Nixon’s remarks. Each side felt they had “won” the propaganda war.
Nixon is masterful in this snippet from The Kitchen Debate:
The irony is that, before this event—which vaulted him into a potential presidential candidate—Nixon was a virulently anti-Communist member of Congress who’d led red-baiting witch hunts in Washington D.C. alongside Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And now here he is cheerfully trading quips with the blustering Nikita Khrushchev.
It pains me to admit this, but Nixon was excellent in this broadcast, good-natured but resolute, respectful but pointed, upbeat and even, dare I say it, inspiring. Watching this footage now, you can sense Nixon’s skill as a politician. And though he would lose the election the following year to a young, far more telegenic Massachusetts Senator, Nixon was not going away.
It pains me to admit this, but Nixon was excellent in this broadcast, good-natured but resolute, respectful but pointed, upbeat and even, dare I say it, inspiring.
Though it’s popular to compare the current White House occupant to the former president–D.T. is regularly referred to as “Fat Nixon” by his haters–it is inaccurate and really unfair. Indeed, even now, a 107 year-old Nixon would be a vast improvement over what we have.