Podcast: Irv Gellman on the Behind the Scenes Story of the Kitchen Debate
Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debate in a model of an American kitchen at the American exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park on July 24, 1959. (AP Photo)
Irv Gellman is author of “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961
This summer marks the 60th anniversary of the famous Kitchen Debate between then Vice President Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev.
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, Nixon biographer Irv Gellman talks the behind the scenes story of this historic event.
Dr. Gellman is author of The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946-1952 and the President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to the Nixon Now Podcast, I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at @nixonfoundation, or at nixonfoundation.org.
This summer marks the 60th anniversary of the famous Kitchen Debate between then-Vice President Nixon, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Our guest to discuss this today is historian and Nixon biographer, Irv Gellman. Dr. Gellman is author of “The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946-1952,” and “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961.” Dr. Gellman, welcome.
Irv Gellman: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, some background. Could you give us a background on who was Nikita Khrushchev for our audience? What was he all about and how does he stand in comparison to other Soviet leaders?
Irv Gellman: Nikita Khrushchev had been leader of the Soviet Union. As usual, removing his predecessor and becoming the head of the Soviet Union, and was very much a savvy politician. Not terribly well-educated but very forceful in his position and able to command control of the Soviet government and the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by the alliances he made. And when those alliances failed, he was replaced by somebody as he had replaced others, which basically continues to go on in the Soviet Union to this day.
Jonathan Movroydis: By the mid-1950s, what were Soviet-U.S. relations like?
Irv Gellman: Soviet relations, it was the height of the Cold War. The problem with…was there going to be a nuclear holocaust? The problems that the U.S. had with the Soviet Union in many regards, for example, the Hungarian Revolt in October-November 1956, which ended up slaughtering many, many Hungarian citizens, etc. There were other problems in the Soviet Union but there was also the growth of the People’s Republic of China as another model. So, many people would talk about the Sino-Soviet pact or bloc or whatever.
And much of this was met at the beginning of Eisenhower’s term as president, when trying to figure out how he should treat the Soviet Union and what he should do in relations to the nature of the interaction to basically avoid any kind of hot war and keep it a cold war.
Jonathan Movroydis: In 1957, speaking about cold war and hot war, Nikita Khrushchev…you write that Nikita Khrushchev called for economic warfare on the west. What led to these particular circumstances?
Irv Gellman: Well, the Soviet Union was trying to demonstrate how it had a superior economic system than the United States had. And many of what Nikita Khrushchev was saying was just bluster. But it was enough bluster on both military and economic things that there were people in the United States who became overly concerned with what Khrushchev said and didn’t really examine the fact that in many ways, economically, the Soviet Union was a third world country without having a great deal of economic growth.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the Eisenhower administration’s reaction to this particular bluster? In particular, President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon.
Irv Gellman: Eisenhower was really far more savvy than most of his earlier biographers have given him credit for. He was very, very good in an organizational sense in what he did in World War II as commander of the Normandy Invasion and the invasion of Europe and the downfall of Nazi Germany. What most people don’t give him credit for is really his brilliance in how he handled much of this, and how unflappable he was when people talked about the nature of the Soviet Union catching up to the United States, and how they were going to surpass us, especially the nonsense of this great missile gap which never existed. And John F. Kennedy and Stuart Symington and other people in the Democratic Party talked about the missile gap, and very quietly in Kennedy’s early term, as I said, there wasn’t really one. But it wasn’t something that Kennedy believed. I think honestly, he did believe the spin that the Soviet Union was trying to pull, and didn’t really understand the full nature until he became president.
Jonathan Movroydis: And what was Vice President Nixon’s perspective on all this?
Irv Gellman: Nixon’s perspective was not as subtle and sophisticated as Eisenhower. He really relied very much on the meetings of the National Security Council, etc. But he was very much aware of the United States’ standing. And from Nixon’s standpoint, it was a lot more political. It was far more important that Nixon stress that the Eisenhower government was protecting the United States against Soviet aggression, and that the United States was far superior to the Russians. And he had the inside information to prove that.
Jonathan Movroydis: Your book is called “The President and the Apprentice.” In terms of U.S.-Soviet relations, how did Eisenhower envision…what did he envision Nixon’s role would be on this issue?
Irv Gellman: Eisenhower and Nixon, as they became more comfortable with one another, the president used Nixon to get information and started to have greater respect and trust for Nixon in his abilities to, one, analyze U.S.-Soviet relations from a congressional standpoint. And at the same time, Nixon, the more Eisenhower used him, he gained greater information, greater prestige nationally and internationally. And as most of the historians, and still some historians that misrepresent and just fundamentally get it wrong, there was never any ambivalence in the Eisenhower-Nixon relationship. It was always a very respectful relationship where they had a cordial relationship based on mutual respect.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that Nixon tried to marshal foreign aid legislation to enhance the U.S. position against the Soviet Union. Could you touch upon this a little bit?
Irv Gellman: The whole nature of foreign aid was a major issue within the Eisenhower administration starting at the very beginning. Eisenhower was a real proponent, as was Nixon, in foreign aid. And the idea behind it was that it was far better to spend money on economic aid, sometimes military aid and other types of humanitarian aid throughout the Eisenhower administration. This was in contradistinction to many American legislators then and as is today with why are we spending so much money on foreign aid when we should be spending it domestically to aid citizens within the United States. But it was always the administration’s goal to use this aid to bring nations more in line with “the free world” rather than the communist bloc.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did Nixon play an active role in…as vice president, in the NSC…in NSC meetings?
Irv Gellman: Again, as the relationship with Nixon and Eisenhower grew more and more comfortable, Eisenhower allowed Nixon to chair about 10% of all NSC meetings over the eight years when Eisenhower was president. The nature of those meetings, all of Eisenhower’s meetings, those NSC meetings, his cabinet meetings, those legislative meetings, from Eisenhower’s standpoint were kind of educational so everybody that was in the room, and usually these were major officials in the administration, would understand at least generally what Eisenhower was trying to do. How he was trying to do foreign aid, how he was trying to improve U.S.-Soviet relations, etc. He was very, very good at bringing these people so everybody was on board with what was going on.
Jonathan Movroydis: On October 4th, 1957, the Soviets launched their first satellite, Sputnik, to major concerns in America, that America needed to get its act together in terms of its space program. What was the Eisenhower administration’s reaction to this?
Irv Gellman: Well, the Eisenhower’s administration was split. Eisenhower thought it was basically something that the Russians had done but it wasn’t that big a deal. He didn’t recognize the amount of public outcry that would be in the United States, that the Soviet Union had launched the first satellite. This was something that he had quite big problems trying to convince the American public that it was more of a show than it was of anything substantial.
Again, the nature between what Eisenhower thought and knew, and what Nixon saw in the public and Eisenhower’s opposition, Democratic opposition, and even opposition in the Republican Party was the difference between the actual fact, i.e., the meaning of Sputnik from a military standpoint, and from a scientific standpoint, and from a political standpoint. Eisenhower really didn’t get the extent of the outcry and what it meant.
Jonathan Movroydis: For Nixon, what did Sputnik mean?
Irv Gellman: For Nixon, what Sputnik meant was very simple. That it didn’t matter that Eisenhower and the internal people in the Defense Department or the CIA or the scientific community knew that it did not make the Soviets that much advanced in rocket capability but that the American public saw this as a defeat of the United States prestige. And it would hurt the administration at the ballot box.
Jonathan Movroydis: On November 10th, a year later, in 1958, Khrushchev unilaterally proclaimed that the east and west had to commence talks to end the Four Power occupation. Could you give us a little background on the Four Power occupation? What does this mean and what was Khrushchev seeking to accomplish here?
Irv Gellman: The Four Power Agreement starts at the end of World War II, where the French, the British, the Americans, and the Russians had certain zones within Eastern Europe and especially in Berlin. The Russians controlled East Germany, while the allies, for want of a better term, controlled West Germany. And in some ways, the Berlin situation was divided among the four powers. That lasted during the reconstruction of Western Europe in toto because of the Marshall Plan. The problem was for the Soviets they didn’t have the same pace in Eastern Germany and/or in East Berlin. So you had a real embarrassment for the Soviet Union with a brain drain on people leaving East Germany and East Berlin, to go into West Berlin, because the living conditions were so much better.
The problem that Khrushchev faced was, how do you end this embarrassment? And the way you end this embarrassment is force the west out of Berlin and claim that there had to be some kind of an agreement. It was quite frankly a bluff. You know, Khrushchev was trying to get some kind of advantage of the allies to make certain that he wouldn’t have the continual problems he faced in East Berlin and in Eastern Germany. That was one of the reasons why they built the infamous Berlin Wall.
Jonathan Movroydis: Despite this, were the Soviets eager for improved diplomatic relations with the United States?
Irv Gellman: Again, the split within the Soviet power structure. Some were, some weren’t. Khrushchev I think was looking for some form of more accommodation. But at the same time, his public persona was this champion of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc countries and other nations, the People’s Republic of China, to show that he was standing up against the free world and the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s talk a little bit about Vice President Nixon’s trip to Moscow in 1959. Could you tell us sort of the genesis of that? When did that start to become an idea to have the vice president go to Moscow, and why not the president himself?
Irv Gellman: The nature of the genesis started with major Russian officials coming to the United States in 1959. And there was a Russian exhibit in New York City. And as more Russians came to the United States, and then as the Eisenhower administration lifted some restrictions on travel for Soviets within the United States, there was a building reciprocity for someone in the United States to go to the Soviet Union. Some American officials had gone to the Soviet Union and had talks with the Russians, but nothing on the level of the president or the vice president.
The idea that Eisenhower had was you first sent the vice president over for a number of reasons. The most important reason was to get Nixon’s analysis because Eisenhower trusted Nixon’s analysis on what Khrushchev wanted, what Khrushchev was like, and what the expectations were of a meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev would result in something positive.
Jonathan Movroydis: What do they hope that it might result in?
Irv Gellman: I think that Eisenhower was looking for a relaxation of tensions in the Berlin crisis. That he wanted to find some kind of an accommodation where the Russians would be able to work with the allies and not make the occupation a conflict that could possibly end up as an armed conflict by some miscalculation.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that Secretary John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, gave Nixon advice before the trip. What type of advice was given?
Irv Gellman: Well, he wanted Nixon to be careful and to understand the nature of the Soviet Union and where the Soviet Union was coming from. Again, remember that Dulles as much as anybody was a cold warrior who distrusted the Soviets implicitly, but still saw some kind of opportunity if something could be arranged.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned the reciprocity and the cultural context of Nixon’s visit in 1959. Nixon also conferred with Eisenhower before the trip. You write that Nixon was “not a normal part of the negotiating machinery in the administration, and that Ike suggested that the project, that he project a cordial, almost light atmosphere.” What do you mean by this?
Irv Gellman: What I mean is to show how really tricky Eisenhower was. Publicly he was saying to Nixon, so everybody heard that this was really nothing above normal expectations of a cordial visit. Privately, Eisenhower was telling Nixon that he could bring up just about anything with the Russians and talk to Khrushchev about…just about anything. He also privately told Nixon before Nixon left that he was going to invite Khrushchev to come to the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: When Nixon does go to…as he prepares his trip in 1959, does he…does Nixon expect tense exchanges with Khrushchev?
Irv Gellman: I don’t know if Nixon was expecting tense exchanges with Khrushchev as it finally occurred. I assume that Nixon thought that there would be some form of exchange. Nixon tried to be as skillful and as subtle and as respectful as he could because he was entering another world, i.e. the Soviet Union. And he was dealing with someone who was very facile [SP] in how he dealt with people, Khrushchev, and yet at the same time didn’t have any idea how Khrushchev was going to treat him.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you describe the trip? Nixon lands in Moscow in July of 1959, could you describe what happens when Nixon arrives and what is the atmosphere of Moscow like during that trip?
Irv Gellman: The Soviets tried to…not to play this up. There wasn’t an enormous greeting. In addition to that, Khrushchev has his minions and other people talk about the Captive Nations resolution that Congress passed, which basically was a resolution that said that the Soviets’ occupation of Eastern Europe was anathema and they needed to get out, i.e. they needed to leave Poland, East Germany, etc. because this was something that the Russians had taken over and were trying to influence these people and should not be doing.
Khrushchev used the resolution to give Nixon a hard time, I think, and to try to throw him off stride. Eventually, the continual use of this tactic failed on Nixon because he knew it was a propaganda stunt and nothing that was going to change the nature of the U.S. Congress and what the U.S. Congress was going to do in regard to its opposition to the Russians being in Eastern Europe.
Jonathan Movroydis: From that they went to Sokolniki Park after that debate about the U.S….or the Captive Nations resolution, they go to Sokolniki Park, the place where the American exhibition was taking place. Could you describe the scene there? You know, how was it laid out? What kind of companies were there?
Irv Gellman: Well, there were all kinds of companies. The Kitchen Debate really started the interchange between Khrushchev and Nixon. The real debate that we know as the Kitchen Debate really occurred in the color studio that was done by RCA, Radio Corporation of America, and it was filmed as part of the ongoing discussion between Nixon and Khrushchev over the advantages of the Soviet Union over America, and the advantages of America over the Soviet Union. And Nixon in his exchange with Khrushchev did quite well in what was going on. What Khrushchev did not know and what Nixon did not know was the tape of the…or the film that was done in the studio was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and played very quickly in the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was its immediate impact when it was broadcast back in the U.S.?
Irv Gellman: Well, the immediate impact was stumbling because here was the leader of the Soviet Union giving his view of the Soviet advantages over the United States, and here was the vice president saying, “Yeah, you might have some advantages, but we’ve got a bunch of advantages over you, and our system works very well, and you may say your system works very well, but we’re more than happy to be where we are in our evolution.”
Jonathan Movroydis: It seems like such a small, brief event. Did it have any implications in terms of Cold War politics or the relations between the two countries?
Irv Gellman: I don’t know if it had a long-term bilateral relations, but it certainly helped Nixon within his standing and prestige at home, because here he was matching wits with the leader of the Soviet Union. And quite frankly it helped him immeasurably on the nature of him being experienced and dealing with foreign leaders effectively.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did it help him at all during the 1960 race against President Kennedy?
Irv Gellman: Certainly. The idea that Kennedy had no experience in foreign affairs, has not dealt with foreign leaders, hurt Kennedy I think considerably, although there is no real evidence because of the nature of polling at the time and because of the lack of use of computers, we’ll never know. Because of the sophistication that we have now in computers, and the questions they asked how much of a role this played in the election of 1960.
Jonathan Movroydis: What happened after the debate on the… While still in Moscow, did anything happen following the debate after the two left the exhibition?
Irv Gellman: Well, they went to [inaudible 00:26:54] and they continued to discuss the nature of U.S.-Soviet relations, and Khrushchev took him on a boat ride down Moscow River, talking about that these people look like enslaved people. The nature of Khrushchev did not change as an advocate of his system, and Nixon’s did not change as an advocate of the American system, it was a continuation of what started in Moscow and just continued to go on.
The big change that occurs that is not talked about hardly at all is the wonderful additional information that the intelligence group, there were CIA people on the mission, there were military people on the mission, and Nixon stops in Central Russia and is able to get greater detailed information on what areas of the Soviet Union that had been closed to Americans were able to see. And his ability to be there at that point in time I think really aided the American intelligence community on the aspects of Soviet economic growth, Soviet military growth, what the relationship was in time and space, and pretty much none of this stuff was enunciated at the time because it was basically information that the U.S. intelligence wanted to keep under its own hat.
Jonathan Movroydis: Does this experience in 1959… Nixon returns to Russia in 1972. Does this experience at all, you know, help Nixon in his preparations for his dealings as president with Leonid Brezhnev in 1972?
Irv Gellman: Well, I believe he meets Leonid Brezhnev in 1959 at the Moscow exhibit, I think he’s one of the people that’s with Khrushchev. But of course, it helps him because of the nature of just having a greater feel of how the Soviet apparatus worked, and how you behave in the Soviet Union and what the various leaders of the Communist Party. And the way the dictatorship and/or oligarchy works in the Soviet Union, it was a great benefit for Nixon and what he was doing.
Jonathan Movroydis: Looking back 60 years on, what do you think the legacy is of the Kitchen Debate?
Irv Gellman: Well, I think the legacy of the Kitchen Debate is more than what it has been given credit for. And that is what happened with the televised part of it. But the nature of how Ike used Nixon to create the prelude for a possible meeting between him and Khrushchev to work out some kind of settlement over Berlin, and as happened was Khrushchev visits the United States first in September, and he and Eisenhower meet and, for want of a better word, the Spirit of Camp David where they met to resolve some of the problems with Berlin happened.
But in addition to that, the additional information that the U.S. gets on Soviet capabilities, i.e., what I did not mention was Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine, goes to the Soviet Union and is allowed to examine several nuclear reactors, so he gets more information on Soviet capabilities. And again, the CIA, the military, the nature of what the Soviets we redoing, I think all benefited the United States. And the nature of the cultural interchange I think affected Sino-American relations.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is historian and Nixon biographer, Irv Gellman. Our topic was the famous Kitchen Debate between Vice President Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Dr. Gellman, thank you so much for joining us.
Irv Gellman: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.