William Safire: The Cold War’s Hot Kitchen

Roundup: Talking About History

EXACTLY one-half century ago, one of the great confrontational moments of the cold war seized the world’s attention: Nikita Khrushchev, bombastic anti-capitalist leader of the Soviet Union, and Richard Nixon, vice president of the United States with the reputation of a hard-line anti-communist, came to rhetorical grips in the model kitchen of the “typical American house” at the 1959 American exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow.

I was in that kitchen, not because I then had anything to do with Nixon, the exhibition’s official host, but as a young press agent for the American company that built the house. The exhibit was designed to show Russians that free enterprise produced goods that made life better for average Americans. However, my client’s house was not on the official tour.

Instead, “Nik and Dick,” as the adversaries were promptly dubbed, were steered into the RCA color television exhibit, a consumer marvel at the time. This display of technical superiority must have irritated the Russian leader, who noticed the taping going on and demanded “a full translation” of his remarks be broadcast in English in the United States. Nixon, in his role as genial host, readily agreed, expressing a hope for similar treatment of his remarks in Russia.

Khrushchev then promptly denounced a recent proclamation by the United States of “Captive Nations Week” — dedicated to praying for “peoples enslaved by the Soviet Union” — as an example of thoughtless provocation. “You have churned the water yourselves,” he warned the vice president. “What black cat crossed your path and confused you?” Then he wrapped his arms around a nearby Russian workman: “Does this man look like a slave laborer?”...

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