Visitors stream into the 1959 American National Exhibition. Moscow, USSR
Fifty years ago this month, on a muddy rain-soaked field in Moscow, a glittering pavilion quickly rose and a massive geodesic dome swiftly took shape. After only a few months of hectic construction the 1959 American National Exhibition opened to a curious Soviet public. The exhibit provided a unique window on American life to the millions of people who filed through the event over the next few weeks. The visitors saw examples of contemporary American life, from cars to homes to art. Young American guides, many barely out of college, led the curious Soviet public through both the general American story as well as their own deeply personal stories of life in the United States and, in many cases, how their immigrant families became American citizens.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev chats with a guide. Vice President Richard M. Nixon is at left.
Soon after opening the 1959 Exhibition hosted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who toured the exhibits with then Vice President Richard Nixon. In what became a touchstone of the early Cold War, these cold warriors verbally sparred in the kitchen of the model American home. Both leaders argued for the merits of each country’s unique civil and economic models in front of an inquisitive crowd and, more importantly, rolling news cameras. The “Kitchen Debate” as it came to be known, informed the opinions of the two leaders and provided one of the most compelling unscripted moments of the long conflict.
Beyond the statecraft practiced in front of the cameras, public diplomacy was the chief goal of the Exhibition. The hope was greater understanding brought about by the cultural exchange would lessen tensions between the two great nations, turning enemies into, at least, adversaries. The personal stories of the guides were meant to show the diversity of the country while the various displays sought to highlight the strength of a capitalist economy.