I have previously written about the Kitchen Debate, an iconic moment in both television and photographic history. In documentary Contacts, Elliott Erwitt, the photographer of the most famous image of the Kitchen Debate remembers how events unfolded.
The time is 1959. The scene is the American Industrial Fair in Moscow. The characters are the vice president of United States who plans to run for president and the chief of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev. The situation is massive crowds and bedlam as two politicians will from exhibit to exhibit, Nixon boasting about American accomplishments and Khrushchev fielding the gibes and then joining into the asinine argument.
By sheer luck, I guessed correctly where they would turn up next: which was at a display of a modern kitchen behind a barrier. I rushed to it to have an unobstructed view as they approached the rail. Luck was with me. With a direct view and no one to push and shove, I circumnavigated Nixon and Khrushchev, finding my best range. From then on, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
But how pictures can lie. The illusion is one of Nixon standing up to the Soviets, where the reality is an argument about cabbage soup versus red meat.
A kitchen of a suburban model house — cut in half to be viewed easily — was an unlikely place to make history, but on July 24th 1959, vice-president Richard Nixon and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did just that at an impromptu debate (made through interpreters) at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.
This was the first high-level meeting between Soviet and American leaders in four years. With two political heavyweights arguing for their respective ideologies, the debate was historic yet its contents banal. Khrushchev stressed the communism’s focus on “things that matter” above luxury while Nixon extolled America’s household appliances which give the event its title, “The Kitchen Debate.” Then, Nixon started his carefully prepared speech on American abundance and Soviet drabness.
Back home, the event was denounced as a political stunt: “an exchange that emphasized the gulf between east and west but had little bearing on the substantive issue,” wrote the New York Times. However, what the American people saw was the above photo by taken by Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt captured the moment when Nixon poked his finger at Khrushchev, who didn’t have the slightest idea of what Nixon was saying. Americans assumed that Nixon had silenced the Soviet premier and “won” the debate. Nixon acquired the image of a tough forceful statesman, one which carried him all the way to the Republican presidential nomination the next year (postcards featuring the image were a campaign must-have) and eventually to the White House in 1968.