Kitchen Debate | Elliott Erwitt


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.

Nikita Khrushchev and His Shoe

This is a moment that always puzzled me–Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe at the UN General Assembly on October 13, 1960*. In a response to the Philippine delegate who said that the Soviet Union had ‘swallowed up and deprived [Eastern Europe] of political and civil rights’, the Romanian delegate began shouting at his Philippine colleague. In order to attract the attention of the chair, Khrushche took his shoe off and waved it.

Whether he eventually banged it on the desk was the matter of some debate. A New York Times correspondent reported that he did, while another insisted that he never banged his shoe. A KGB general remembered that Khrushchev banging it rhythmically, “like a metronome.” A UN staffer claimed that the shoe fell off earlier when Khrushchev was entering the Assembly and a journalist stepped on it; Khrushchev, not wishing to make a scene, didn’t put it back on. The staffer said she passed the shoe wrapped in a napkin back to Khrushchev. Viktor Sukhodrev, Khrushchev’s brilliant interpreter, remembered that Khurshchev pounded the UN desk so hard with his fists firstly that his watch stopped, at which point, he took off his shoe and used it. Sir Brian Urquhart, the future Under Secretary General, on the other hand wonders whether Khrushchev ”used one of his own shoes, borrowed one of [Foreign Minister] Gromyko’s, or kept an extra shoe in his briefcase for banging purposes.”

Khrushchev’s granddaughter Nina recounted a different story: Khrushchev removed his shoes because he was wearing new, tight shoes. When he started pounding the table, his watch fell off, and as he was picking it up, he noticed his shoes and used them. John Loengard of Life magazine who was in General Assembly, noted that although Khrushchev “did not bang his shoe on the desk,” but “he certainly meant to do so.” He grinned to delegates from the United Arab Republic who sat across the aisle and mimed (with an empty hand) that the next time he’d use the shoe to bang. I can assure you that every camera in the booth was trained on Khrushchev, waiting for him to use the shoe. He only put it on again and left. None of us missed the picture — which would have been a serious professional error. The event never occurred.”

Not to be outdone, the Internet had produced this fake photo of Khrushchev banging his shoe.

(Most confusingly, the incident was claimed to have also occurred during many occasions, such as Harold Macmillan’s address on 23 September 1960; arguments about Red China’s admission to the United Nations on 29 September and Russia’s invasion of Hungary on 4 October, 1956).

The Fall of the Berlin Wall


Anthony Suau is a longtime Time magazine contract photographer. He has captured a range of subjects, from famine in Ethiopia, wars in Chechnya and Iraq to the transformation of Soviet states after the fall of communism. When his agent sent him to cover the opening of the border between East and West Berlin, he was unsure at first, but his agent convinced him that it would be the ‘story of a lifetime’. It was of the pictures he had taken the above picture of the West Germans trying to climb now-merely-symbolic wall at dawn after hammering at the concrete throughout the night became the most iconic image. In the picture, the West Germans are repulsed by police with a water-cannon. [East German guards used their water cannon for a time, trying to control the crowds but it was no use.] For 10 years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Suau has traveled the lands of the former Soviet bloc, making a photojournal Beyond the Fall.

In August  1961, the Wall went up. The-then President John F. Kennedy’s reaction was subdued at first. Earlier in June, he had met with Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, where Khrushchev threatened Berlin with a blockage unless the American troops withdraw. After Kennedy left Vienna, he thought that war was on the horizon. Thousands had fled to the West in the previous months, and through the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev solved his refugee problem in a way that would not violate American rights. The State Department framed building of the Wall as a success for the West. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said its construction represents a victory for the West because it showed that the Communists had to imprison their own people. The world, however, viewed it differently. It took the fiery editorials in every American newspaper, accused the US of appeasement and outraged cables of ambassadors from Europe to change the official positions of the U.S. government with regards to the Wall.

The next year, Kennedy went to Berlin and gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It was a beginning of American resolve towards the Wall that would culminate with Reagan’s equally memorable speech 25 years later and the subsequent fall of the Wall.


The Man and the Mouse


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Walt Disney with the silhouette of Mickey Mouse, the quintessential American cultural icon he created. Conceived as a replacement for now obscure Oswald the Lucky Rabbit after the latter had been usurped from Disney by the Universal Studios, Mickey Mouse was the animation’s answer to Charlie Chaplin. (Disney was extremely sensitive about his appearance. He would airbrush wrinkles off his promotional pictures when he got older).

Although it debuted in Plane Crazy in May 1928, it is not until Steamboat Wille six months later that Mickey got its cultural prominence. The addition of sound made this parody of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. wildly successful. It has become a true American symbol that in 1959 when Nikita Khrushchev visited Los Angeles for a day during his eleven-day trip to the U.S., he demanded a trip to the Disneyland. However, the Soviet Premier was indignant when the visit could not be made for security reasons.

Kitchen Debate

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.