Thursday, September 18th, 2014
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1959 / Moscow

If You Can’t Stand the Heat



[Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev enter a kitchen display in the American National Exhibition.]

Nixon: I want to show you this kitchen. It is like those of our houses in California. [Nixon points to a dishwasher.]

Khrushchev: We have such things.

Nixon: This is our newest model. This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installations in the houses. In America, we like to make life easier for women.

Khrushchev: Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism.

Nixon: I think that this attitude toward women is universal. What we want to do is make life more easy for our housewives. This house can be bought for fourteen thousand dollars, and most American veterans from World War II can buy a home in the bracket of ten to fifteen thousand dollars. Let me give you an example that you can appreciate. Our steel workers, as you know, are now on strike. But any steel worker could buy this house. They earn three dollars an hour. This house costs about one hundred dollars a month to buy on a contract running twenty-five to thirty years.

Khrushchev: We have steel workers and peasants who can afford to spend $14,000 for a house. Your American houses are built to last only twenty years so builders could sell new houses at the end. We build firmly. We build for our children and grandchildren.

Nixon: American houses last for more than twenty years, but even so, after twenty years many Americans want a new house or a new kitchen. Their kitchen is obsolete by that time. The American system is designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques.

Khrushchev: This theory does not hold water. Some things never get out of date—houses, for instance, and furniture; furnishings—perhaps—but not houses. I have read much about America and American houses, and I do not think that this exhibit and what you say is strictly accurate.

Nixon: Well, um…

Khrushchev: I hope I have not insulted you.

Nixon: I have been insulted by experts. Everything we say is in good humor. Always speak frankly.

Khrushchev: The Americans have created their own image of the Soviet man. But he is not as you think. You think the Russian people will be dumbfounded to see these things, but the fact is that newly built Russian houses have all this equipment right now.

Nixon: Yes, but…

Khrushchev: In Russia, all you have to do to get a house is to be born in the Soviet Union. You are entitled to housing. In America, if you don’t have a dollar you have a right to choose between sleeping in a house or on the pavement. Yet you say we are the slave to communism.

Nixon: I appreciate that you are very articulate and energetic…

Khrushchev: Energetic is not the same thing as wise.

Nixon: If you were in the Senate, we would call you a filibusterer! You—[Khrushchev interrupts]—do all the talking and don’t let anyone else talk. This exhibit was not designed to astound but to interest. Diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have one thousand builders building one thousand different houses, is the most important thing. We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference.

Khrushchev: On politics, we will never agree with you. For instance, Mikoyan likes very peppery soup. I do not. But this does not mean that we do not get along.

Nixon: You can learn from us, and we can learn from you. There must be a free exchange. Let the people choose the kind of house, the kind of soup, the kind of ideas that they want.

[Both men enter the television recording studio.]

Khrushchev: [in jest] You look very angry, as if you want to fight me. Are you still angry?

Nixon: [in jest] That’s right!

Khrushchev: And Nixon was once a lawyer? Now, he’s nervous.

Nixon: Oh yes, [chuckling] he still is [a lawyer].

Other Russian Speaker: Tell us, please, what are your general impressions of the exhibit?

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About the Author

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, from “The Kitchen Debate.” After a televised exchange between the vice president and premier, this conversation took place in the kitchen of a “typical American home” made for the Moscow exhibition. Elliot Erwitt, who took an iconic photograph of the event, claimed that the writer William Safire “got his job with Nixon as a consequence of my picture. He was doing PR for Macy’s kitchen at the time. Apparently he was instrumental in tracking down my photograph, which was used for a 1960 Nixon campaign poster (mercifully, Nixon lost).”

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G. K. Chesterton, 1908
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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