Richard Nixon and the 1959 “Kitchen Debate”

We usually remember Richard Nixon as the flawed 37th president, responsible for the notorious Watergate scandal. As a result, we often overlook his political successes. Despite his moral opaqueness, Nixon proved to be a shrewd and effective politician, adept in foreign policy, and able to captivate the American people. Going toe to toe with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev on the merits of capitalism might not have been the hallmark of his political life, but it helped gain him notoriety. Nixon’s “Kitchen Debate” with Khrushchev on July 24, 1959 introduced the nation to his talent in foreign affairs and served as a stepping stone in his career.

In 1959, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to establish exhibits in each other’s countries as a means of cultural exchange and understanding. The Soviet exhibit in New York would showcase the accomplishments of communism, while the American exhibit in Moscow showcased the wonders of capitalism. Part of the American exhibit featured a model suburban home with a picture-perfect kitchen. That kitchen would become the arena and namesake of Nixon’s debate with Khrushchev.

Vice President Nixon took Premier Khrushchev on a tour of the exhibit, pointing out all the marvelous appliances and consumer goods American companies had to offer. The two men, sincerely holding their political beliefs, clashed fiercely yet good-heartedly. Khrushchev remarked that the United States had 150 years to develop what the exhibit displayed while the Soviet Union had only been around for 42 years. He added that in seven years, the USSR would reach the level of innovation in the United States and then surpass it. He jokingly jabbed that “We’ll wave at you” as we pass by. Nixon responded calmly and then quipped: “as far as Mr. Khrushchev’s comments just now, they are in the tradition we have come to expect from him of speaking extemporaneously and frankly whenever he has an opportunity.”

Khrushchev later protested that the debate was not on an equal playing field since American cameras filmed it. He worried that his argument would not be translated, and that Americans would hear only what Nixon had to say. In turn, Nixon requested that the Soviet Union air the debate together with the United States to ensure that the Soviet people would hear him. Khrushchev agreed, and the two men shook on the deal. But the American media broadcasted the event immediately while the Soviet government waited two days and gave only a partial translation of Nixon’s comments.

The Kitchen Debate set the tone for Nixon’s future foreign policy triumphs. While standing his ground against the bombastic Soviet leader, in the debate he had focused on bettering relations and exchanging ideas between the two countries, for the benefit of all people. Khrushchev himself conceded that Nixon was “tough minded” and “strong willed.” So began Nixon’s later policy of hard-headed détente. As president, he would make substantial advances in foreign relations. Through policies like the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), Nixon relaxed the Cold War and reduced the chances of a disastrous nuclear conflict. Furthermore, he opened relations with the People’s Republic of China and, with the Paris Peace Accords, ended American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Nixon’s performance in the Kitchen Debate heightened his profile among the American public, made the vice presidency seem like a more important role, and set the stage for his ultimate ascension to the Oval Office. As the journalist Jules Witcover put it, the debate with Khrushchev gave Nixon “near celebrity status.” Previously, he was less popular and an overall liability to the well-liked President Eisenhower and his administration. With his visit to Moscow, Nixon was the first vice president to become a familiar face and strong hand in diplomatic affairs. His new-found public standing helped him become the Republican nominee in the 1960 presidential election. Even in the aftermath of his loss to John F. Kennedy, Nixon maintained his public prestige and came out victorious in the 1968 election.