On July 24, 1959, the monumental struggle between the U.S. and the USSR in the Cold War all boiled down to two men in a make-believe kitchen.
Food was never more political.
The day before, Vice President Richard Nixon had flown to Moscow in a “cultural exchange” program between the two countries. The stated goal of the exchange was to promote understanding about the cultures of the two superpowers. But there was as much propaganda going on as peaceful cultural exchange. Both countries wanted to impress the other – and the non-aligned countries around the world – with its technological power.
Early on the 24th, Nixon toured the Chaikovsky Street farmers market in Moscow. Then he joined Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on a tour and the official opening of the American National Exhibition. To the surprise of many, the two leaders started a lively argument and debate about the relative merits of Communism and Capitalism. Nixon said that the exhibit reproduced the type of kitchen that almost any worker in America could afford in a $10,000 to $15,000 house – roughly $70,000 to $105,000 in today’s dollars.
Khrushchev responded that Russian workers could afford the same kind of house, but that Soviet houses were built stronger for the long-term.
Nixon stressed that Americans had abundant food and appliances to process and cook their food.
Khrushchev satirically shot back, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life.”
From there the argument heated up to dueling warnings that if either country started a nuclear war, both would be destroyed. Khrushchev pointed out several times that putting missiles on foreign soil was particularly troubling.
At the time, the U.S. had secretly begun installing nuclear missiles in Turkey, very close to Russian soil. The USSR, in return, were developing a plan to install missiles in Cuba, an act the led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
What is ironic is that – according to many historians – it was the Soviet Union’s inability to provide both nuclear weapons and food and consumer goods that led to its downfall. Crop failures in the 1980s and later coupled with an increasingly expensive arms race produced long lines in grocery stores all over Russia and the other Soviet Block states.
In the early 1990s, one after another Eastern European Communist states were overthrown and Boris Yeltsin became the first non-Communist President of Russia.