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Diplomacy in Postwar Suburbia

Defrosting Soviet-American Relations

On 27 January 1958, the Soviet Union and the United States signed a pact designed to promote an international cultural exchange. Both nations, committed to thawing Cold War tensions (and, in doing so, preventing nuclear war), agreed to encourage contact between Soviet and American citizens. By exposing each society to the scientific achievements, political culture, cuisine, art, and athleticism of the other, Soviet and American leaders hoped to promote a better understanding of national differences. Politicians, scientists, writers, scholars, students, architects, technicians, musicians, singers, dancers, and even wrestlers traded visits and served as diplomats working to nurture a friendship between the two hostile superpowers. In addition, the governments planned two elaborate exhibits to open in the summer of 1959, one demonstrating life in the Soviet Union to be held in New York, and an American exposition to be hosted by Moscow.

The Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology, and Culture

In 1959, during the same week in which Americans celebrated Independence Day, the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology, and Culture opened in the New York Coliseum convention center. The showcase covered three floors of the massive building—a structure erected in 1954 as part of a federal urban redevelopment program—and featured examples of advances in Soviet industry, agriculture, science, art, and education. Models of Soviet sputniks, new automobiles, and innovative farm implements were presented as evidence of technological development and economic growth in modern Russia. The exposition also included representations of day-to-day life, such as a furnished three-room apartment, described as a typical residence for the average Soviet citizen.

More than 200,000 Americans toured the exhibits in the first week, pleasing those, such as Soviet artist Konstantin Rojdestvensky, who hoped that Russian progress might "come to the attention of as many Americans as possible."20 But the New York exhibition only confirmed for most visitors the inferiority of Soviet society. "I think the main perspective of this Russian exhibit," one guest remarked, "is to show the average American citizen how lucky he is to be an American." Though visitors arrived curious about life in the Soviet Union, most left unimpressed by the displays and skeptical about the benefits of modernization under a communist government. Others were simply confused and unaware of the international goals that underwrote the showcase. "Where's the price tags on everything," one guest asked. "They don't tell you how much anything costs."21

The American National Exhibit in Moscow

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was quite apprehensive about the American National Exhibit set to open in Moscow's Sokolniki Park on 25 July 1959. Despite approving of the contract between his government and the United States, he and other Soviet officials resented what promised to be an elaborate showcase filled with luxurious consumer wares—markers of the value of material wealth. The American exhibition with its fleet of flashy automobiles, automated home appliances, and color televisions, they speculated, would prove to be an unapologetic appeal by the U.S. for the support of capitalism.

In many ways, the concerns held by the communist government in Russia were justified. As the New York Times reported just weeks before the opening of the Moscow exhibit, "better knowledge of the high material standards prevailing here and in much of the Western world might generate appetites inside the Soviet Union that would gradually force a change in Moscow's economic structure."22 But few anecdotes exemplify American goals abroad during this exchange better than Vice President Richard Nixon's visit to the Moscow exhibit.

"What Freedom Means to Us"

On 24 July 1959, Nixon stood before a crowd of Soviet government officials, citizens, reporters, and television cameramen, and delivered an address to mark the opening of the American exhibition in Moscow. In a speech entitled, "What Freedom Means to Us," the Vice President explained that the kitchen gadgets, the automobiles, and the single-family home they would glimpse in the exhibit illustrated the "extraordinary high standard of living" enjoyed by all Americans. He then joined Premier Khrushchev on a tour of the showcase, which included electric sewing machines, modern lounge chairs, hi-fi television sets, a Disney movie theater, convenience foods, reenactments of leisure activity such as weddings and barbeques, and a Pepsi booth that treated guests to free soda samples.23

Premier Khrushchev seemed unimpressed by the American wares and he scoffed at Nixon's enthusiasm for the displays; "In another seven years," he remarked, "[the Soviet Union] will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you." Capitalism, he warned the Vice President, would continue to stunt progress in the United States.24

The Kitchen Debate

Nixon allowed the Premier's critique, acknowledging Soviet superiority in arms development, but remained enthusiastic about new American consumer products. He teased his host about commanding the conversation and led him to the suburban "ranch"-style home exhibit. They paused before a model of a kitchen fitted with shiny new appliances, including a panel-controlled washing machine. "This is the newest model," Nixon bragged, explaining that the mass-produced unit would make life easier for American housewives. He added that "any steelworker could buy this house," with all its modern conveniences and luxuries, for an affordable price.25

Khrushchev was unconvinced by this claim. "[In the Soviet Union] you are entitled to housing," he noted, asserting the superiority of the communist system. "I was born in the Soviet Union. So I have a right to a house. In America, if you don't have a dollar, you have the right to choose between sleeping in a house or on the pavement." American society, he argued, was not nearly as "free" and "classless" as Nixon seemed to imply.26

But the Vice President had the final word in the debate. "To us, diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different houses, is the most important thing," Nixon pronounced. "We don't have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference." He reiterated his argument that "freedom" derived from the right to choose—that is, the right to select among various consumer brands, styles, and colors and the right to elect government leaders.27

Despite Khrushchev's sharp criticism of capitalism, Nixon prevailed in the debate. By focusing on post-war abundance and the prosperity enjoyed by all families in the United States, he managed to convince many in the international community and—more significantly for Nixon—most Americans that capitalism bred true freedom. When, in January 1960, Nixon secured the Republican nomination for the presidency, the New York Times remarked that the Vice President's strong performance in Moscow boosted his political reputation and assured him lasting success as a national leader.28

Fairweather Friends

Like Nixon's political career, however, the harmony between the U.S. and the Soviet Union proved fragile and, ultimately, short-lived. Though the international community encouraged and praised the Soviet-American cultural exchange agreement, the plan failed to produce any lasting fellowship. Instead it shed new light on fundamental ideological differences that existed between the two countries. The attitudes of Soviet and American leaders changed little and, thus, bitter political battles continued to rage, threatening to transform the Cold War into a hot war. As one New York Times columnist remarked in July 1959, "Anyone who expected jazz trumpets to shake the walls of the Kremlin would wait a long time."29 By the same token, Soviet citizens who viewed the American exposition found evidence of a stubborn and arrogant allegiance to capitalism.30 These candid observations revealed that mutual suspicion and belligerence were exacerbated, rather than dulled, by the exchanges.

By 1960, the two superpowers were, once again, on the road to military confrontation. And in October 1962, just two years after the Soviet-American exchange pact had expired, Cold War hostilities had reached their peak, with the U.S. and Russia on the brink of nuclear war.

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