The Kitchen Debate

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” ­- U.S. President Harry Truman

President Truman’s quote was a political metaphor, but this week (July 24) in 1959, political heat was literally generated in a kitchen during a visit to the Soviet Union by Vice President Richard Nixon.

The venue was a prototype American kitchen in the model home section of the American National Exhibition that was being held in Moscow as part of a cultural exchange program between the United States and the Soviet Union.  A year earlier U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had agreed to a series of cultural exchanges between the two nations in order to foster a better relationship through enhanced understanding.  But when Vice President Nixon, who was hosting Khrushchev on a tour of the American exhibition, stepped into the model kitchen and began pointing out the state-of-the-art American home appliances, from toasters to juice mixers to color televisions to built-into-the-wall washing machines, Khrushchev — who was known for his quick temper — became incensed, loudly claiming that Soviet home appliances were as good or better than American appliances.

From there the merits of washing machines and televisions morphed into a debate over who had the better political system, who had better weapons and weapons delivery systems, who was for peace and who was for war, and even who treated their women better.

Their voices rising, and in Mr. Khrushchev’s case fingers pointing, the argument became as heated as a just-out-of-the-oven casserole, and the reporters covering the exhibition, who had expected a run-of-the-mill story that their editors would bury inside their papers or at the end of their broadcasts, quickly began to record Nixon’s and Khrushchev’s every word.

Realizing things had gotten out of hand, both men quickly regained their composure and professed a desire to live in peace and respect each other’s differences.  Nixon even apologized for being a poor host, and both leaders thanked the exhibition hostess for letting them “argue in her kitchen.”  But the story, later dubbed the “Kitchen Debate,” became a hot topic in America, making the front pages of every major paper.

In some quarters the debate was seen as a political boon to Nixon, who had held his ground against the bullying Khrushchev, and as it happened, when Nixon next returned to the Soviet Union in 1972, it was as president.

Unfortunately, while Nixon used the “Kitchen Debate” to promote the superiority of the American kitchen, he would turn out to be a very poor Chef-in-Chief.  In 1974, thanks to his involvement in the political scandal known as “Watergate,” Nixon got his presidency into a lot more hot water than the recipe ever called for.