Kitchen Debate

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In 2009, William Safire—former speech writer for President Nixon—recalled in his New York Times piece “The Cold War’s Hot Kitchen,” the gaggle of reporters and general pandemonium surrounding the 1959 debate between then Vice President Nixon, and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, which has become known as the Kitchen Debate. Safire wrote this piece on the Debate’s 50th anniversary, only months before he passed away.

It is easy in hindsight to think the Kitchen Debate was a staged event; especially knowing how thoroughly planned exchanges between international leaders are today. However, the Kitchen Debate was far from a rehearsed and calm exchange. Safire’s inside look at the entire event is shared in his story; from guiding the Vice President to the American House, to Elliot Erwitt talking his way past the Soviet guards to capture the iconic photos seen above.

It would be a mistake for readers today to downplay the importance of the Kitchen Debate and the direct exchange that occurred between Nixon and Khrushchev. The eventual victory of the U.S. over the Soviet Union at that time was far from assured. Although it seems misplaced today, Khrushchev’s arrogance and bluster came at the peak of relative Soviet military power over the United States. After all, in 1959 Soviet rockets were more powerful than their U.S. counterparts.

At the end of the piece, Safire explains that more important than the specific words that were spoken, was the emerging dynamic between the U.S. and Soviet Union:

“As madcap as many of the sidelights of that day were, they took place against a tense backdrop. The Soviet leadership, already master of much of Europe and then allied with China, was determined to dominate the world, to spread communism and undermine capitalism; that was no myth, and the ultimate victory of the West over that spread of dictatorship was by no means as certain as it seems in hindsight.

At such a moment, the leadership’s assessment of its main opponent’s will to resist — if necessary, to fight — becomes a major factor in national strategy. Intelligence agencies strain to get such top-level personal assessments right. The shrewd Khrushchev came away from his personal duel of words with Nixon persuaded that the advocate of capitalism was not just tough-minded but strong-willed; he later said that he did all he could to bring about Nixon’s defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign.

After John F. Kennedy won, the new president had a June 1961 summit meeting in Vienna with Khrushchev, and gloomily told the Times reporter James Reston afterward that “he just beat the hell out of me.” Assessing Kennedy as a soft touch, Khrushchev put up the Berlin Wall and then shipped Soviet missiles to Cuba; it took that nuclear confrontation to show the Russian that his personal assessment of Kennedy’s will was quite mistaken.”