[image src=”http://www.darrenkrape.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/1959_exhibit_1.jpg” caption=”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.

[image src=”http://www.darrenkrape.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/1959_exhibit_2.jpg” caption=”Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev chats with a guide. Vice President Richard M. Nixon is at left.” align=”right”]

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.

Was the event a success?

Did the Exhibition influence Soviet perceptions of the United States, and, by extension help America reach its policy objectives? Answering these questions, and many others, was the goal of the Face-Off to Facebook conference held last week at George Washington University. Opinions varied among the conference participants, who ranged from Exhibition staff members to representatives of the Moscow public to various academics, but most concluded the event was a qualified success.

William Safire, formerly a Nixon staff member, and now a New York Times columnist, took pains to expose the “gold colored fog” through which we now see the Cold War. At the time, American’s were quite apprehensive of how the conflict was proceeding and there were real concerns that the US could lose the war. In this context, the expo was quite successful in giving the United States a voice in Moscow, particularly when the kitchen debate gave Nixon a unique chance to speak directly for America on Soviet state-controlled television.

Guides to America

[image src=”http://www.darrenkrape.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/1959_exhibit_kitchen.jpg” caption=”A guide demonstrates an American style kitchen” align=”left”]

Many of the speakers and panelists focused on the unique role of the American guides, helping educate visitors about the United States. Barely out of college, these young Russian-speaking men and women discussed a wide range of topics with Muscovites, from the personal to the political. Importantly, they were not given strict talking points, allowing them to speak freely about their own perspectives and opinions, even if they ran counter (and they often did) to established American policy. Indeed, this freedom to speak meant the guides were personally engaging and underscored for the Exhibition visitors America’s willingness to support a multitude of differing voices, something quite unique in Soviet Moscow.

A Russian Perspective

Intriguingly, the conference also included representatives speaking to the Russian perspective. Sergei Khrushchev, son of Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and now a professor at Brown University, spoke both from his personal perspective as a young boy attending the Exhibition and on reactions from other Russian attendees he interviewed. For him and his peers, it was the handouts (pamphlets, books, samples of American drinks and food) that were the most tangible and memorable aspects of the expo. The cars, model American home, and other displays were simply out-of-reach to the average Soviet citizen, and, they assumed, were out of reach to the average American citizen as well. As such, while these items were interesting, Professor Khrushchev argued they were also largely dismissed.

Professor Khrushchev also emphasized the importance of the guides on helping to reframe perspectives on the United States, again speaking to the importance of personal engagement to public diplomacy. For Clay Shirky, a professor from New York University, it was this “convening” function that was the key aspect of the Exhibition, a function long at the core of truly successful public diplomacy programs.

[image src=”http://www.darrenkrape.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/1959_exhibit_glass_pavilion.jpg” caption=”Visitors in the glass pavilion. The Exhibition featured a wide variety of American modern art, from paintings to sculptures.” align=”right”]

Amusingly, the Exhibition also highlighted some areas of agreement amongst the Americans and Russians, most particularly a shared distaste of the modern art. Soviet journalists routinely questioned the artists’ sanity, while American Congressman merely accused them of being, ironically, “card carrying communists”.

In the end, the Exhibition was a remarkable achievement. Considering the vast logistical and political barriers that stood in its way, it is a feat that if even took place. The sheer scope was also a triumph: a vast complex of buildings seen by 2.7 million visitors. More critically, it helped inform Soviet perspectives on the United State while also providing a venue for the historically important debate between Khrushchev and Nixon.

However, as noted by George Feifer, a writer and former guide, whatever progress was made by the Exhibition and related summits, proved short-lived. All the steps forward came crashing down with Gary Powers’ ill-fated U2 flight in 1960. For Feifer, these two events stress the United States’ dangerous, and counter-productive, dependence on military power and the under-emphasis on productive, peaceful public diplomacy.

Later this week, I will post part 2, which looks at public diplomacy in the 21st Century and explores parallels between the 1959 Exhibition and modern PD.

This post has 1 Comment

  1. Ah, those were the days, a simpler time when public diplomacy – a term nobody had heard of in 1959 – seemed to revolve around which system could produce flashier cars, homes, and kitchens, and put them on display. But you do well to point out that in the recollections of the guides about their conversations with Russians, we see the thread of something more subtle and lasting. I am a little skeptical that the guides had no talking points at all, though they would not have been called talking points.

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