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

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