This week’s guest post is from Richard Green, an archives technician in NARA’S motion picture department in College Park, MD. He is currently studying history and psychology at the University of Maryland and is looking forward to attending graduate school in the fall of 2013.
On July 24, 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow to attend the American National Exhibition. The exhibition was intended to promote a cultural exchange and friendly competition between the United States and Soviet Union.
In the midst of the exhibition was an American kitchen full of all the latest appliances. As the vice president guided Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev through the American kitchen, one of the fiercest debates of the Cold War erupted.
A portion of the “Kitchen Debate,” as it came to be called, was filmed by the media and quickly broadcast across the world. Yet the political leaders were not arguing over burgers or borsch. Possibly fueled by the recent passage of the Captive Nations Resolution, the argument escalated from washing machines to nuclear warfare.
Universal News issued two releases a week from 1929 to 1967, and were shown in movie theaters prior to the feature film. Before the era of nightly news, the brief clips represented the only way for most people to observe what was happening in the world around them. A typical release was about ten minutes in length and generally contained between seven and ten stories (not all have survived). In addition to the Kitchen Debate, this release featured stories about a beauty pageant, a ski jumping competition without snow, and Fidel Castro playing baseball! More to come about Universal Newsreel later.
Though the participants were unaware at the time, the debate had implications far beyond the Cold War. Most notably, the Kitchen Debate emphasized the use of television as a practical means of communication. In addition to the confrontation in the kitchen, the Nixon-Khrushchev debate continued onto the set of the Ampex exhibit. The exhibit featured the VR1000 two-inch quadruplex videotape recorder, a pioneer in color videotape, which captured the two leaders during their heated exchange.
The videotape recorder was one of the first to allow a live program to be easily recorded and quickly broadcasted on television. This technology forever changed the way that people viewed the world. Ironically, it also led to the demise of newsreels being shown before movies. The Ampex Collection can be found at the Department of Special Collections, Green Library, Stanford University.
When Nixon explained the implications of the color videotape to Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier seemed hesitant to believe that his words could be recorded and translated to the American people so quickly. Nixon says, “Never make a statement here [in the USSR] that you don’t think we’ll read in the United States.” Khrushchev responds, “I doubt it.”
Nixon continues, “This increase in communication will teach us some things and teach you some things too, because after all, you don’t know everything.” Khrushchev feverishly responds, “If I don’t know everything, I would say that you know absolutely nothing about communism! Nothing except fear of it.”
The confrontation further enhanced America’s perception of Khrushchev as an enemy of the United States. Conversely, the debate marked one of the highest points in Richard Nixon’s career. Nixon’s enthusiasm and courage, coupled with his effective use of television, won the hearts of a united American people.
In the upcoming presidential election, Nixon would cite the Kitchen Debate as an example of his fierce diplomacy. Ironically, the Kitchen Debate likely gave Nixon overconfidence in his televised debating skill. Just over a year later, Nixon agreed to debate a young John F. Kennedy and was humiliated in the first televised presidential debate.
The Universal Newsreel Collection was donated to NARA in 1974 and has since become one of the Motion Picture Division’s most popular collections. The Universal collection encompasses an enormous amount of material ranging from national and international events and politics to sports, fashion, and everything in between.
Less utilized, however, are the production files or “Dope Sheets” that accompany each release. These production files are tucked away in the stacks and only used by the most experienced researchers. Yet these sheets can be extremely valuable. Most files also reveal where the footage was originally shot. By tracing its origins, a researcher can gain greater insight into the film itself and possibly resolve copyright issues that may arise.
Some files contain a script for an otherwise silent film. Others include primary documents that accompany the film (I recently stumbled upon a program from the 1949 Indianapolis 500). For example, here is the narration script for the Kitchen Debate story:
We will be talking more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in future blog posts-so stay tuned!
Additional primary sources (both audiovisual and textual) about the “Kitchen Debate” and the American National Exhibition in Moscow can be found at the Nixon Library and the Eisenhower Library including oral histories that feature first hand recollections. In College Park, researchers might be interested in the “Records Relating to the American National Exhibition in Moscow, compiled 1958 – 1959, documenting the period 1940 – 1959” (ARC Identifier 5634735 / MLR Number P 128).