Monday, July 20, 2009

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."

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