The Duel in Moscow, 1959

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 batting for their respective ideologies, the debate was a historic moment, but the topics were the usual banal talking points. 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 shrugged off 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, which was published widely in international press. 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.

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