Monday, July 27, 2009

Kitchen Debate Anniversary Media Round-up

Here is a round-up of commentary from recent days about the Kitchen Debate, the U.S. national exhibition in Moscow and the "Face-off to Facebook" conference at George Washington University:

New York Times columnist and author William Safire joined us for the day's first panel. His recounting of the Kitchen Debate, which he shared in person with our conference audience on July 23, was printed the following day in the Times here.

Georgetown University's John Brown, who puts together one of the most widely read and respected blogs in the field of public diplomacy, also attended the conference. His commentary is available here.

A Toronto Globe and Mail piece recounts the significance of the Sokolniki exhibition, quoting at length former exhibit designer Jack Masey, who gave a well-received photo presentation on July 23.

There was also coverage on the State Department overseas website,, of the conference and luncheon remarks by Amb. William Burns.

Coverage of the conference in the Russian media was quite extensive, but mostly centered on the Burns remarks and subsequent question and answer session. The Washington correspondent of the English language Kyiv Post commented on the conference more generally on her blog.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Face-Off to Facebook -- All In A Day

Khrushchev, Ruble on Kitchen Debate (courtesy Gregory Asmolov)

The "Face-off to Facebook" conference at George Washington University has come and gone. We would like to thank everyone who attended for their interest and enthusiasm. We were particularly happy to see so many veterans of the 1959 exhibition there in person. For those of you who were not able to join us in Washington this week, we hope you tuned in to at least some of the proceedings via the streaming video on the conference web page.

In the near-term, we will continue to post conference-related material on the School of Media and Public Affairs homepage and on this blog, including video and text from the conference as well as material from the online archive project.

Khrushchev on Modern Art -- "It Appears a Little Boy Made a Puddle"

Former U.S. Embassy Moscow cultural attache Tom Tuch recalls an encounter with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the 1959 Sokolniki Park American exhibition, in which Khrushchev made his negative views on modern art abundantly -- and pungently -- clear.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Diary of A Guide -- Dan Slobin

As cited in an earlier post on the White House visit by the 1959 Sokolniki guides, one of the finest accounts we have of that summer is a journal written -- and recently reconstructed in digital form -- by Dan Slobin.

Dan had an uncanny knack for capturing the voices of Russian exhibit visitors, and Russian acquaintances, in ways that still resonate today. His observations about Russia were the kind that can only come from direct conversation and interaction -- which, after all, was the human currency that made the American exhibition so compelling. He wrote with a light, wry touch. His photographs complement the text beautifully. I would encourage everyone interested in what happened at Sokolniki to read it.

One word of warning -- this is a huge file, and you will want to make sure that your computer is ready to embrace with a great bear hug a file of 80MB. You'll find it here.

Gil Robinson on Kitchen Debate -- "I Tried to Break it Up..."

Gilbert Robinson was one of McClellan's close aides in the organization of the American exhibition at Sokolniki Park, and as a right-hand man to the big boss, he saw a lot of the behind-the-scenes action, often stepping in to fix one or another problem as it came up, first in Washington and then at the exhibition site in Moscow. Gil went on to have a successful career in both business and in government, serving as USIA deputy director under President Reagan.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tom Tuch on Kitchen Debate -- "What Gives With This Guy?!"

Hans "Tom" Tuch was the U.S. Embassy's cultural attache and acting press chief in July 1959 when the American exhibition opened in Sokolniki Park. He was one of the most respected U.S. public diplomats of the Cold War period, and has written extensively in later years about the evolution of public diplomacy. Here he recalls the atmospherics between Nixon and Khrushchev as they argued the merits of their respective "systems" and a candid comment made by the former Vice-President on his way to the model kitchen where their debate was about to resume. We are delighted that Tom will join us as a panelist on July 23.

Jerry and Lois Verner -- "People Had Conversations They Never Had Before"

Jerry Verner was one of the American guides in 1959, assigned to the IBM RAMAC computer stand; the computer provided answers, in Russian, to some 4,000 pre-programmed questions about the U.S. Soviet visitors might ask. Lois, his wife, served as one of the original "Pepsi girls." Jerry went on to a long and distinguished career as a USIA foreign service officer, serving in Moscow later as the Embassy's press chief. Here he comments on how strong the interest of the Soviet public was, and how the Sokolniki exhibition helped fill an information gap in Soviet society.

George Malko -- "We Really, Really Wanted the Vice-President and the Premier..."

George Malko, a screenwriter, novelist and translator who teaches Dramatic Writing at the NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, was assigned to the RCA color studio in July 1959. He describes what he and colleagues did to prepare for the impending visit of Khrushchev and Nixon to the Sokolniki exhibition, and how Malko unexpectedly came to have a speaking role as the two leaders squared off in front of the Ampex videotape camera.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Kendall -- "Not Only Great Publicity, But It Got Me Out of Trouble At Home Too."

John Jacobs -- "My God, This is History!"

John Jacobs was the Sokolniki exhibition’s press officer, and went on to a long and distinguished career as a U.S. Information Agency official. He wrote commentaries for VOA, served as editor of the Russian language magazine “America Illustrated,” directed USIA’s entire exhibit service. We are delighted that he has agreed to join us at our July 23 conference, at age 91. The remarks below were adapted from an email account he provided us earlier this month.
“...As press officer of the show, I was intimately involved in [the Kitchen] debate, and I have some recollections of my own. I have read what Khrushchev and Nixon had to say about it. I know, like the blind men perceiving the elephant, we all saw it differently.

Khrushchev was fascinated by the exhibition and the American technology it showed. If memory serves, he came five times. These visits provided by far the best - and sometimes the only - publicity payback for the exhibitors’ investments. They kept calling me from the states to get him to their booths. The Detroit auto companies were really tough, rude and demanding.

We would usually have but short notice of Khrushchev’s intended arrival. I would run up to the director’s office with my list of publicity-starved exhibitors and work out with him where the Premier should be taken. (My wife Katia, who speaks Russian like a native, ran the Westinghouse exhibit in the model apartment. “Khrushchev is coming in half an hour. Bake some cookies!”)

The night before Nixon toured the show with Khrushchev, the Ampex man, who had a little booth adjacent to the RCA color TV exhibit, pleaded “The RCA guys always get him. We’re a little company. I’m getting no publicity.” I said: “Be ready. We’ll get him to your exhibit.”

And that’s how, just fifty years ago, Nikita Khrushchev found himself in front of the new and then spectacular Ampex video camera seeing how it made instant movies. When it was aimed at him, he dropped his genial guest demeanor and began his “We will bury you” tirade which you can easily see now on the Internet. I was struggling to keep the reporters in order when I suddenly understood what was happening. I turned to Max Frankel, later executive editor of The New York Times, and whispered “My god, this is history!” He said, “You’re goddam right it’s history.”

Khrushchev was a shrewd man. He knew that cameras take pictures and pictures, particularly television pictures, get around. He knew that dominating the American vice president and boasting that Soviet communism would bury American capitalism in one shot would play well with Russian TV viewers. He was very aggressive. (Years later to my great surprise, Nixon told a small group of the show’s alumni I was in , “Khrushchev was the smartest of the world leaders I dealt with.” He really said that!)

From the little Ampex studio Khrushchev and the thundering herd of reporters and officials went to the actual kitchen in the model house. As they entered, Khrushchev pointed at an appliance “What is that?” “It’s a dishwasher.” “Oh yes. We have those.” The debate continued and became in reporters’ notes “the Kitchen Debate.”

On the general subject of public diplomacy, that night, Nixon told our little group of about six that what we were doing wouldn't change world events: national policies and actions are what change world events. But he said, very earnestly and emphatically, what you are doing is extremely important to our country. For that moment I liked him."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sarah Carey -- "The Exhibit Was Just a Vehicle..."

Sarah Carey flunked her Russian language test when she applied to be an exhibit guide in 1959, but still went to Sokolniki on behalf of Pepsi that summer, working in the American Home exposition. The experience, as she related in this recent State Department interview, led her to a lifelong connection with Russia, as an international attorney and most recently as the Board Chair of the Eurasia Foundation. She observes: "The exhibit was just a vehicle. I mean, the exhibit was a platform and you’ve got these bright young kids who had broad liberal arts educations who were allowed to talk freely, and the questions ranged from atheism to space to material wealth..."

Right on Time -- Nixon's Sokolniki Cover

Another contemporary account of the Kitchen Debate worth revisiting is the Time magazine cover story of August 3, 1959. Nixon had appeared on Time's cover previously -- and was to reappear there many times thereafter in the sixties and seventies -- his final appearance did not come until 1994. Except on the occasion of his presidential electoral victories in 1968 and 1972, the hard-charging Vice President was probably never treated better by the Time editors as in this paean to his foreign policy savvy and debating prowess. This type of publicity could not have been better timed for a presidential contender in the year preceding a national election. By September, Nixon had surged into the lead in the presidential polls over his Democratic rivals, including John F. Kennedy.

But this positive PR in what was then the world's most influential news magazine came with its share of ironies. As Bill Safire wrote in his memoir, Before the Fall, "When the story of the kitchen conference was reported in the States, accompanied by the still pictures showing Nixon dominant, the impression was created that Nixon 'won.' Later, when the television tape of the color-studio debate was played -- the first debate, which Nixon really 'lost'-- the impression did not change. People viewed the TV debate with the mental set that the American Vice President 'stood up to the Russians' and the sight of him kowtowing did not cause them to waiver. That meant that the writing press would remain important in the coming Age of Television, influencing viewers' opinions of what they saw. Something to remember. Something that Nixon never agreed with either. 'What's on the tube is what counts,' he would say. 'I've never been able to get anybody in my press operation who understood the power of television.'"

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Illuminating the Dark Side of the Moon: Frankel on Kitchen Debate, Exhibit

No American journalist of his generation had a more illustrious career than Max Frankel, who during half a century at the New York Times covered the big stories including the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate, and who as the paper's executive editor in the eighties and nineties led the Times back to a position of unrivaled journalistic achievement and financial stability.

He was all of 27 years old when he arrived in Moscow, in 1957, determined to make his mark, to "illuminate this mysterious and menacing dark side of the moon and touch sensibilities that might tame the hatreds" of the Cold War, as he writes in his memoir "The Times of My Life." The several chapters he devotes to his years in the Soviet Union are frank and insightful -- well worth reading in their entirety. Frankel has kindly agreed to let us reprint a portion of his memoirs devoted to the Kitchen Debate and the Sokolniki exhibition:
"Indeed, the American way of life was on elaborate display that summer out at Sokolniki Park. More than 50,000 Russians a day trooped through Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome; past large collections of books, paintings, and sculpture; through a model home modestly furnished by Macy's and an RCA color television studio; and, of course, past cars and fashions galore. The main attractions were dozens of Russian-speaking guides, young Americans who spent hours fielding the questions of visitors and the taunts of party agitators. They provided colorful and credible accounts of American life, warts and all, and with their cheerful bearing demonstrated better than any exhibit the charm of speech not burdened by fear.

"The exhibit was intended by Khrushchev to whet the appetite of Soviet consumers. But the party resented the public's enthusiasm. Soon the papers attacked the exhibit as 'untypical' and wept for the unemployed Americans who could never afford these baubles. Instead of showing off robot vacuum cleaners and electric juicers, commentators asked, why not display the harvesters and combines and assembly-line technologies that made America famous? On the other hand, I complained in my coverage that the assembled consumer goods were inadequate props for the guides' responses to questions about family budgets, taxes, schools, and other aspects of daily American life. Why not use TV sets and mousetraps to demonstrate the virtues of competition and markets? Or a copying machine's usefulness in political protest?
"Vice President Nixon came to open the exhibit and let Khrushchev goad him into a sophomoric debate about the quality of Soviet and American missiles and the achievements of our rival social systems. What became known as their "kitchen debate" actually began in the television studio, when Khrushchev pooh-poohed color transmissions while Nixon, still kindly disposed toward a medium that would cost him the presidency one year later, counter punched with a paean to televised democracy. They continued sparring at the kitchen of the Macy's house, mixing boasts and accusations like adolescents comparing sexual exploits. I thought Nixon barely held his own against Khrushchev's crude belligerence; Nixon himself counted this visit as one of his 'Six Crises' in a 1962 memoir: "I felt like a fighter wearing sixteen-ounce gloves and bound by Marquis of Queensberry rules, up against a bare-knuckled slugger who had gouged, kneed and kicked." But Nixon's fellow travelers in the press were predisposed to celebrate every American thrust and parry, and they inscribed his 'victory' in the Great Kitchen Debate in the mythology of American politics. More than that, they made pugilistic prowess at summit meetings one of the necessary attributes of presidential candidates throughout the rest of the Cold War.
"Nixon's need to define himself in combat was already chronic. But his fear of Khrushchev's belligerence was plainly excessive. When Khrushchev taunted that 'your grandchildren will live under communism,' he was just explaining what he had meant by 'We will bury you!' -- the cry that set all America trembling but was nothing more than a morale-raising vow to attend capitalism's funeral after it died of natural causes.
"We were all inflamed by Cold War tensions and by our mutual vulnerability to nuclear attack. And those of us who lived under the constant surveillance of the KGB felt a special antagonism toward the Soviet authorities. But I had also experienced the daily deprivations of Soviet life and recognized the frailty of the Soviet system. I felt sure that Khrushchev's bombast was born mostly of envy and of insecurities greater even than Nixon's. Of course I had no license to psychoanalyze the Soviet leader, and neither the Soviet censors nor the Time's editors would have let me publish my speculations...
"...Like Nixon, most Americans lacked the wisdom to discount more of the Soviet leader's defensive hostility, which beclouded his reformist impulses. Truly sophisticated coverage of the American exhibit would have done more than emphasize the obvious curiosity and consumer delights of Russian visitors; it would have asked why Khrushchev dared to expose his people to the subversive ideas, freewheeling discussions, and shiny baubles of capitalist society. No wonder he felt compelled to brag about his missiles in ways that Nixon and other American leaders took to be threats. More alert analysis would have made an even better story than the kitchen confrontation. It would have confirmed Muggeridge's sly jest about how the Soviet Union's emergence from isolation would in time make the Russians devotees of the "American way of life.
"Permitting the American exhibit in Sokolniki Park was just one more daring effort to shift Soviet priorities toward the production of consumer goods. Khrushchev bragged simultaneously about his few new intercontinental missiles because, it turned out, he hoped that they would let him drastically reduce his standing army and navy and invest the savings in the production of food, clothing and housing. He proclaimed assorted target dates by which the Soviets were going to "catch up and overtake" America in the production of milk and meat and cement and, eventually, comrades, all other good things. "Catch Up with and Overtake America" became the slogan of his regime, and it hung from factory walls, village gates, and urban facades on holidays. As Khrushchev well understood, it was intoxicating news to the ordinary Russian that he was running on the same track with Americans. And never mind the jokes that people whispered in the market.
Teacher to Ivan: Tell about life in America
Ivan: Millions of unemployed. Only millionaires in university. Negroes hang from trees. People very unhappy.
Teacher: Very good. Tell about life in our country.
Ivan: Everyone has job. Schools are free. Discrimination is forbidden. People very happy.
Teacher: Excellent. And what is Comrade Khrushchev's new slogan?
Ivan: We must catch up with and surpass America!

(c) 1999 Max Frankel

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Eisenhower to Guides: "He Warned Us Not to Brag..."

This blog will be devoting a great deal of attention in the days ahead to the role of the 75 American guides who were the heart and soul of the American exhibition in Moscow fifty years ago -- and we at the George Washington University are thrilled that so many former guides and exhibit staff will be able to join on at the "Face-off to Facebook"conference on July 23

Before leaving for Moscow, the newly minted U.S. guides for the 1959 American exhibition at Sokolniki Park were brought down from New York to meet President Eisenhower in the Oval Office. Former guide and retired Berkeley professor Dan Slobin has provided us a witty account of the White House photo-op in his journal of that summer, which is deftly written, wonderfully illustrated with his photos -- in short, thoroughly compelling even half a century after he wrote it. In addition to President Eisenhower, Dan also cites Clarence "Clare" Francis, the then former head of General Foods, who was a leading member of the White House private sector advisory committee for the U.S. exhibition in Moscow and chaired the guides selection panel. We will be drawing from Dan's 1959 journal again, and hope to share it with you in its entirety on this site.

"...Mr. Francis explained the origins of this meeting to us. He had been recently riding with the President up to the Lincoln Center dedication in New York when the conversation turned to Nixon’s forthcoming trip to the Soviet Union for the opening of the American Exhibition. The President expressed his desire to visit the USSR and regretted that he would never have the chance to do so. When Mr. Francis told him that 75 young American guides would have this opportunity, Ike said, “I’d like to meet them!” And so, at a word from the Chief Executive, the arrangements began to bring us to the capital. The simplicity and sincerity of this gesture fitted the impression of the man which I gained from our interview.

He spoke to us kindly, like an old father or grandfather. [2009: This from a third-generation Democrat.] Having entered the Oval Office, I had the impression that the man was kept like some old lion in a cage. He was padded in to meet us, padded out to the Rose Garden with us, and padded back into his cage. The atmosphere of silence and the dignity of the office, the clean rooms and thick rugs, lent a feeling of awe and importance to the event.

We filed in and shook the President’s hand, and then stood in a semicircle around his desk and waited for him to speak to us. He told us he had called for us to see what we were like and to wish us Godspeed. He looked amazingly like the Herblock cartoons—old, tired, the wrinkled face with a broad smile. He warned us not to brag—that we should realize that we do not represent a perfect society. And then he said that he had also called us all together because he had never seen so many people in one room who all spoke Russian. Then he singled out the four Negroes in our group, whom he had greeted especially warmly when we had entered, and asked each one how he had come to study the Russian language. Then, referring to the range of sizes of the guides, he remarked on a man of over six feet who weighed, “let us say 200,” and “a little girl of maybe 90 pounds.” He called her forward and asked her how much she weighed!

The President seemed rather embarrassed about the “mementos” which he gave to us: wallet-size pictures of himself that were wrapped in plastic “so they won’t wear out in your wallets—but you can throw them away if you like.” Then he invited us to come out into the Rose Garden to be photographed with him—giving “rabid Democrats” the opportunity to stay behind.

(c) 2009 by Dan I. Slobin

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Yale Richmond on the Kitchen Debate -- In Russian Life

The current July/August 2009 issue of "Russian Life" magazine carries an excellent article by Yale Richmond on the Kitchen Debate, the Sokolniki exhibition, and the significant role cultural, educational and informational exchanges played in the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Yale is the author of a number of highly regarded books, including Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain; From Nyet to Da; Understanding the Russians, and, most recently, his memoir Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey. Special thanks to Yale, and to "Russian Life" magazine Editor and Publisher Paul Richardson, for allowing us to reproduce this article here, all rights reserved Russian Life magazine.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Former Guide -- and Current U.S. Ambassador -- John Beyrle on Exhibits

My colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and in the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs have put together a fascinating collection of interviews of former U.S. exhibit guides from the seventies and eighties, along with still photos of past exhibits which give a good idea of what "typical" U.S. exhibits of that era looked like. Among the former guides who are interviewed is the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle.

While GWU's 50th anniversary conference will focus primarily on the first of the U.S. exhibits in the U.S.S.R., this month in fact marks the beginning of what was a long-term program of traveling U.S. and Soviet exhibitions over three Cold War decades. The U.S. exhibitions reached many millions of Soviet citizens, not just in the Russian Federation, but in the capitals of the then Soviet republics. Cumulatively, the grassroots impact of the U.S. exhibit program was considerable; more on this topic in the days ahead. Winona State's Tomas Tolvaisas, who will join us a panelist on July 23, has interviewed dozens of former U.S. exhibit guides and written extensively about the impact of the U.S. exhibitions in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mr. McClellan Goes to the Fair

Photo: Courtesy Dan Slobin

Harold C. “Chad” McClellan was, by all accounts, the right man, at the right time, in the right place. President Eisenhower chose McClellan to serve as the general manager of the American exhibition in Moscow, reportedly commenting at a meeting “If anyone can do it, Chad McClellan is that man.”

McClellan was already a widely respected business leader and government executive when he was called upon by the White House to lead the U.S. effort. A past president of the National Manufacturers Association, and head of the Old Colony Paint and Chemical Company, McClellan was Assistant Secretary of Commerce in 1958, with wide-ranging responsibilities including for international trade fairs.

As Amb. Gilbert A. Robinson, a former Commerce aide to McClellan, commented recently, “He was an incredible negotiator...Time and again, I saw him stand up to the Soviet pressure, to go ahead and be correct when he needed to and he got them to cooperate. Without the cooperation of the people who wanted the exhibition to succeed, it never would have been done.” McClellan, he emphasized, “was the kind of public servant that you really wanted, whether Democrat or Republican...”

Later, as a top figure in the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, McClellan played an important part in bringing the Dodgers to the West Coast and in spearheading the “Management Council for Merit Employment and Training,” an innovative private sector economic recovery effort in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots.

In his unpublished 1969 memoir of the Moscow exhibition, entitled “Russia Goes to the Fair,” McClellan wrote:

“...The role I carried in managing the Exhibition proved to be the most exciting, difficult and frustrating experience of my life; yet it was in the end the most rewarding. During the fifteen months in which I was engaged with the project, every single day offered some element of surprise and trouble. Time and again there were crises to be met which made the ‘Perils of Pauline’ seem to me mere bedtime stories.”

McClellan’s role was vital. His memoir is a key component of the historical record about the preparations for the Sokolniki exhibition (including the behind-the-scenes politics of building governmental and private sector support in the U.S.) as well as the challenges of finishing in time for the high-profile, high-stakes official opening on July 24.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Khrushchev Remembers -- "A Lot of Propaganda"

Photo: Tony Pell (c)2009 AP
In contrast to Richard Nixon's account, Nikita Khrushchev recalled the Sokolniki exhibition and his debate with the U.S. Vice-President differently. In the English language edition of his memoirs, Khrushchev stressed that the American exhibition had come up short, asserting that the U.S. organizers "were obviously not serious about displaying American life and culture; they were more interested in drumming up a lot of propaganda."

"Everything was laid out attractively to impress the public," Khrushchev acknowledged. "But it was all too showy and promotional. The objects being exhibited didn't really have anything to offer to our people, particularly our technological personnel, our Party members, and our leadership," he went on. "One should realize that we were quite demanding in our attitude here: for us, the major consideration was the usefulness of a product or an item. In this regard, the American exhibition was a failure."

Khrushchev recalled the debate in the model kitchen beginning prosaically enough, with the Soviet leader commenting on how he thought an automatic lemon squeezer on display was pointless since any person could squeeze a lemon faster by hand. "To this," Khrushchev wrote, "Nixon disagreed, and he tried to bring me around to his way of thinking, arguing in that very exuberant way of his."

But the Soviet premier made it clear that he was more than ready to counter Nixon's verbal thrusts. "I responded in kind," he related, adding "I have my own way of being exuberant in a political dispute." "The debate began to flare up and went on and on," Khrushchev continued. "The newsman pressed around us with their tape recorders going and their microphones shoved into our faces. After a while I put a direct question to him: 'Mr. Nixon, you've brought all this wonderful equipment here to show us, but have you really put it into widespread, practical use? Do American housewives have it in their kitchens?' To be fair to him, Nixon answered honestly that what they were showing us hadn't yet come onto the market. At that point people burst out laughing..."

Like Nixon, however, Khrushchev recognized that the showdown between the two men was about far more than a lemon squeezer. "...What we were really debating was not a question of kitchen appliances but a question of two opposing systems: capitalism and socialism."