A display celebrating The American Way of Life opened at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in the late summer of 1959, giving Russians their first real taste of the American consumer goods promoted by David Reisman in his parody The Nylon War.
Llewelln Thompson, the US ambassador to Russia said the display
. . . endeavors to make the Soviet people dissatisfied with the share of the Russian pie which they now receive, and make them realize that the slight improvements projected in their standard of living are only a drop in the bucket compared to what they could and should have.
There was just one problem with Thompson’s description. By the time of the exhibition, the US consumer goods highlighted by Reisman had become defensive rather than offensive weapons.
The USSR: Leader in Cold War Technology
In the ten years since Reisman’s spoof was published, the USSR had become the established leader in Cold War technology. The nation had successfully tested a ballistic missile, detonated a hydrogen bomb, and launched the first artificial orbital satellite, Sputnik!
In fact, the Soviets had sponsored their own display at the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture earlier that same summer. A replica of Sputnik hung over the entrance of Manhattan’s New York Coliseum in June 1959, where other installations included a rocket engine, a nuclear particle accelerator, and a scale model of a reactor-powered icebreaking ship.
Later that summer, at Sokolniki Park fifteen minutes from the center of Moscow, the Americans tried to shift the terms of the debate from military hardware to modern housewares.
Splitnik in Moscow
Two furnished model homes were the central attractions at the Moscow Exhibition. The homes were filled with consumer goods. Sewing machines, kitchen appliances, and televisions were supplied by Macy’s Department Store in Manhattan.
Moscow’s Party newspaper complained:
There is no more truth in showing this as the typical home of an American worker than, say, the Taj Mahal as a typical house of a Bombay textile worker, or Buckingham Palace as the typical home of an English miner.
Maybe the quote held a grain of truth, but for a skilled worker with a federally guaranteed Veterans Administration (VA) mortgage, no down payment required, a similar type home was within reach. And certainly, the cosmetics, clothing, convenience foods, soft drinks, sporting goods, and mail order catalogs on view were widely available. Even the automobile was within reach – the Chevrolet Bel Air convertible was one of the top selling products of the 1950s.
On the opening day of the exhibition America’s Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited an RCA sponsored television display. Visibly annoyed, Khrushev promised:
In another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch up with you, while passing by we will wave back to you.
Khrushchev’s irritation increased when Nixon blurted out “I want to show you this kitchen.”
The Kitchen Debate
Standing near a GE washer/dryer in a kitchen painted a sunny yellow, the two leaders faced off. The legendary Kitchen Debate followed whereby gleaming American home appliances were not just conveniences but ideological machines. As the Washington Post headline read, “U.S. Typical Home Enters Cold War.”
The article noted that, subsequently, citizens of the Soviet bloc would
measure . . . progress through direct comparisons with Western per-capita private consumption, the Achilles heel of economies based on state-owned heavy industries.
The Soviet Seven-Year Plan for 1959-1965 pledged that the Soviet Union would outdistance the United States in productivity, and that by 1980 basic consumer goods would be distributed free of charge.
Eisenhower and Soft Power
The kitchen appliances and stylish accoutrements displayed in Moscow in 1959 were a good example of Joseph Nye’s soft power. Interestingly, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the World War II general and US president at the time of the exhibition, was a strong proponent of soft power initiatives.
Eisenhower rejected as ‘ignorant and uninformed’ the practice of funding rearmament programs without a corresponding budget for foreign aid and cultural diplomacy.
The Last Hurrah?
Soon after – even coinciding with – the celebration of American consumerism in Moscow, Americans were urged by political and cultural leaders to abstain from their postwar buying frenzy. The launch of Sputnik in 1957, along with other Soviet high-tech successes, shocked American educators, cultural critics, and politicians.
In a 1960 commencement address, even President Eisenhower was critical, warning:
. . . freedom is imperiled where peoples, worshiping material success, have become emptied of idealism. Peace with justice cannot be attained . . . where opulence has dulled the spirit.
To some, it appeared that the American Way of Life had become its Achilles’ heel. Educators demanded higher standards and increased funding for public schools. Groups like Moral Re-Armament, an anti communist evangelical movement, urged Americans to build national unity and spiritual discipline by regular church going. And even the Advertising Council (think Madmen and Don Draper) mounted a campaign alerting Americans to the dangers of self-indulgence.
By 1962, however, a focus on the dangers of selfish and immoral spending were dissipating. In fact, the Ad Council’s public service advertising had switched from the dangers of self-indulgence to the threat of communism. There were two conflicting messages: national survival depended on sacrifice and vigilance, and ‘things go better with Coke.”
Seventy years later, the winner of the global marketplace battle is clear. In fact, it’s time for me to take a break. I think I’ll have a Diet Coke and reminisce.
A Few Ending Comments
Splitnik, the home on view in Moscow, was a prefabricated tract home donated by All-State properties, a New York developer based on Long Island. The home had 1,144 square feet and sold for about $13,000, including the lot. This home brings back memories of the first home my husband and I purchased in 1969 for $14,700. Located on a residential street in sunny San Diego, our mortgage was also VA with no down payment required. In later years, though, the story was quite a bit different.
According to Robert J. Gordon in his 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth:
those who owned homes between 1960 and 2005 experienced enormous gains that provided a cushion of home equity against which they could borrow and that also provided income for retirement if eventually they chose to downsize. Those caught by the housing bubble of 2001-6 experienced the wrenching opposite experience of watching positive home equity rapidly sink “underwater” (i.e. turning into negative home equity).
The American Way of Life indeed.
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons
Sputnik: Steve Jurvetson (Flickr)