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Why were consumer goods important symbols of progress for both Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in the Kitchen Debate?
That is a very good question, Dan. I look forward to many more from you!
I’m pleasantly surprised that you’ve asked me, but I’ll run with that. With Ambrose’s biography of Nixon as my guide.
The Kitchen Debate was an impromptu kind of affair, that both Nixon and Khruschev had a blast doing. Nixon was there to defend Capitalism on Communism’s home turf, to assert that Capitalism worked for people—against accusations that it left people impoverished and uncared for. The American Exhibition, with its model kitchen, was in Moscow, to demonstrate on Communism’s home turf that Capitalism worked for people.
The Exhibition tried to prove that through consumer goods. What’s interesting, as you perceptively point out, is that Khruschev did not exactly reject the notion that consumer goods are a good thing for people. He just thought Communism would deliver them more efficiently.
Let me burble up some of the presuppositions of Capitalism working for people, and how Nixon and Khruschev addressed them.
1. People are better off if they are happier.
Some political philosophers may have been in the asceticism business, but Khruschev was not: he did not say anything to contradict that. What had gotten Khruschev’s goat at the start of the Kitchen Debate was the Captive Nations resolution from Congress, saying people were slaves in the Soviet Union. Khruschev hugged a burly labourer, and proclaimed that guy was no slave, and “with men with such spirit how can we lose?” If Khruschev was going to say people’s happiness was immaterial, why bother to assert that their spirit was strong?
2. People are happier if they have more consumer goods.
That was the point of the Model Kitchen being there to begin with. It was the point of Nixon’s speech that evening, opening the American Exhibition: as Ambrose puts it, “It was designed to make everyone wish he or she had been born in the U.S.A.” And he made the explicit link of consumer gods, to affluence for all, to people’s happiness: the statistics he rattled off showed
That the United States… has from the standpoint of distribution of wealth come closest to the idea of prosperity for all in a classless society.
It was also the point of Nixon saying during the Kitchen Debate that the Soviets might be ahead in rockets, but the US was ahead in other things, “color television, for instance.” Khruschev did not respond with “You can shove your opiate of the masses, who needs your jabbering box, we got Shostakovich and Pasternak!” No, he said:
—No, we are up with you on this, too. We have bested you in one technique and also in the other.
—You see, you never concede anything.
—I do not give up.
3. People are happier if consumer goods save labour time for them.
This one, Khruschev did dispute, though in a very old fashioned, patriarchal way. Yes, Nixon went patriarchal first (it was 1959), but Khruschev’s answer does sound like forced asceticism:
—Anything that makes women work less is good.
—We don’t think of women in terms of capitalism. We think better of them.
4. People are happier if they have access to a diversity of consumer goods.
That’s a genuine, and inevitable clash between them. Nixon:
To us, diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have a thousand different builders, that’s the spice of life. We don’t want to have a decision made at the top by one government official saying that we will have one type of house. That’s the difference.
Khruschev said it was inefficient to produce so many types of washing machines or houses, and delivered another sermon on the superiority of Soviet products.
5. Consumer goods are better delivered by Capitalism.
Khruschev started the debate by imagining the Soviet Union catching up with and overtaking the US, and waving at the US from its own fast car. (He mimed the waving. Of course.) So clearly he thought that it was a matter of time until Communism delivered—predicting that they would catch up to the US in 7 years, making it 50 years of Soviet Communism beating 200 years of American Capitalism.
Was he talking about just military tech, or virtue? No. Housing and modcons too. Nixon say says the model home they were being filmed in was worth $14k, and affordable to American workers; his point, after all, is that everyone can be happy under Capitalism. Khruschev disputes that; citing Ambrose’s paraphase,
In Russia everyone had a house. In America, only if a person had dollars did he have a house—otherwise he slept on the pavement. “And you say we are slaves!”
Yes, that Captive Nations resolution *really* got to him.
Khruschev doesn’t say the Capitalist model home is frippery; he says their Soviet homes are better, and he incidentally points to a genuine flaw of consumerism:
— [American houses] will not last longer than 20 years. We put that questions to your capitalists and they said, “In 20 years we will sell them another house.” We build firmly. We build for our children and grandchildren. We use bricks.
He’s not actually wrong there, in principle. (Although no, I’ll pass on living in a Soviet apartment, 20 to a room.) But he’s not disputing people’s entitlement to be happy through modcons.
6. People’s happiness through access to more consumer goods is a better indicator of progress than military prowess.
Jack Kennedy dinged Nixon on that very point in their third presidential debate, later in the year. Trying to out-hawk the Eisenhower Administration. Yes, you have just fallen through the looking glass:
You yourself said to Khruschev, “You may be ahead of us in rocket thrust but we’re ahead of you in color television” in your famous discussion in the kitchen. I think that color television is not as important as rocket thrust.
But Nixon himself stepped back from consumerism being the ultimate metric of progress. As Ambrose paraphrases the speech Nixon gave in the evening of the Kitchen Debate,
Impressive as the material achievements of the United States were, however, they paled beside other, more important triumphs: “To us, progress without freedom is like potatoes without fat.”