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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The American National Exhibition in Moscow 1959: Purpose and Politics

The Kaiser Geodesic Dome, at the American National Exhibition, Moscow 1959 


By Alexandra A. Jopp

One can argue that all exhibitions have political aspects to them; some, though, are more politically driven than others. One such example was the 1959 “American National Exhibition” in Moscow. The International Cultural Exchange and Fair Trade and Participation Act that was enacted in 1956 established a cultural diplomacy program in the United States, and the American National Exhibition was the most ambitious project implemented after the signing of an East-West cultural exchange agreement in 1958. The exhibition, which was held in Sokolniki Park, was perhaps most famous for hosting the impromptu “kitchen debate” between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary of State Nikita Khrushchev, in which the two men argued the advantages of their respective economic and political systems. The exhibition’s official goal was to improve U.S.-Soviet relations, but it seems that the real purpose had more to do with showing the benefits of American life to the Soviet people, who, exhibit organizer George Allen observed, were interested “in anything foreign, but particularly in things American.”[1] I will argue that this exhibition used a combination of expressionist art, consumer goods and machinery to propagandize for freedom, democracy, capitalism and the “American dream.”

In the 1950s, during the early stages of the Cold War, the United States sought to promote its ideals behind the Iron Curtain. This was not an easy task. The 1958 cultural exchange agreement between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., however, gave the United States an opportunity to present its society, lifestyle, and policies to the Soviet people. President Eisenhower had often “envisioned a people-to-people exchange” of exactly this type.[2]
Under the agreement – which was renewed biannually – educational, technical and cultural connections between the countries would increase, reaching a high point with the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in July-August 1959. In addition to this event, the Bolshoi Ballet performed in the United States, Benny Goodman played in Moscow and the film “West Side Story” was shown in the Soviet capital. It was at a meeting between Khrushchev President Eisenhower at the presidential retreat in Maryland in 1959 that the decision was made to present a full look at life in each country through an exchange: the American Exhibition in Moscow and the Soviet Cultural Exposition in New York. This was a first for the U.S. government. Unlike many other nations, the U.S. had traditionally opposed making cultural contracts with other countries.[3]
The American exhibition, which was arranged by the United States Information Agency (USIA), opened on July 25, 1959. The public intent of the show as stated in the Official Training Book for Guides at the American National Exhibition in Moscow was, “To increase understanding in the Soviet Union of the American people, their land, and their life, including science, technology, and culture in the United States.”[4] Though there may have been some undercurrents of competition in the Moscow exhibit, the exhibition’s director, Harold C. McClellan, emphasized in a New York Times interview that, “I’m not trying to prove that we’re better than they or that they’re worthless. I’m trying to show them what America is like, to give them some understanding and appreciation – and I’ve been fighting to keep the ‘cold war’ out of this thing.”[5]

The exhibit space covered 400,000 square feet of Sokolniki Park, and, over the course of six weeks, an estimated 2.7 million people attended, more than double the 1.1 million who viewed the Soviet Cultural Exhibit at the New York Coliseum in the summer of 1959. The American exhibition’s displays covered 11 themes of American life: America’s Land and People, America Lives, America Works, America Produces, America Consumes, America Learns, America Explores Man and Universe, America Creates, America Travels, America Plays, and America’s Community Life.[6]
At the center of the exhibition space was an 80-foot-high, geodesic dome, which housed eight exhibitions, including the ones on space exploration, nuclear research, medical research, agricultural research, American labor, chemical research, basic research and education: exhibits that were intended to demonstrated the success of the American educational system.
The displays also included pictures of the 34 American Nobel Prize winners in science between 1943 and 1956, a report on the American-discovered science of radio astronomy, and studies by the National Institutes of Health on the aging process. One of the most popular exhibits at the dome was at its entrance: IBM’s mechanized diplomat, RAMAC 305. RAMAC was a stylish, state-of-the-art computer programmed to answer more than 3,000 questions about American life, values and ideas. Questioners waited in line for as much as two hours to ask RAMAC questions, with the most popular including, “What is the Liberty Bell,” “What is jazz music,” “What is the price of American cigarettes,” “What is American rock ’n’ roll music,” “What new ceramic material is used for cooking and serving food in the United States,” and “What is meant by the American dream.” Though RAMAC had been displayed at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, this marked its first exhibition in a communist society.[7]
Notwithstanding the long lines to talk to RAMAC, the computer was not the most popular exhibit. The Soviet people were most interested in American automobiles – 22 cars representing the latest 1959 models from Detroit’s leading automakers were included in the exhibition. Other popular displays included color television, a book exhibit, a fashion show, a recreation of the interior of an American house and an exhibition of contemporary American art.
The art and consumer goods exhibits were grouped together and shown in a 4,000-foot-long glass pavilion behind the dome.  Edith Halpert and Richard McLanathan organized the American contemporary art exhibit, with the selection of works made by Lloyd Goodrich, Franklin C. Watkins, Theodore Roszak and Henry Radford Hope. President Eisenhower had the final say on what pieces would be included. The exhibit included about 50 paintings and 25 sculptures from 1930-1959. The artists included many of the country’s best-known painters, such as Pollock, Weber, Davis, Sheeler, Marin, and the regionalists Benton, Curry and Wood. Among the sculptors were Zorach, Laurent, Smith, Roszak, de Creeft and Calder.  Thus, the selection included works of early New York realists, American scene painters and American founders of modern art, including abstract expressionism. “The committee feels justified in saying that it is the broadest, most balanced representation of recent American painting and sculpture so far shown abroad by our government,” Goodrich said.[8]
About 10,000 to 20,000 people visited the art exhibit each day.[9] This relatively small collection was carefully chosen to serve as an expression of American “democracy” and “freedom.” There is some irony here, since in the 1950s, many artists were persecuted for communist ties during the Red Scare.
Art had an important role in communist revolutionary activity in Europe between the wars through “socialist realism,” a movement in which communist officials tried to “dictate form as well as content to those artists who were Party members.” [10] This approach was formulated in 1932 by Stalinist apparatchiks, and it covered all spheres of artistic activity – literature, drama, cinema, painting, sculpture, music and architecture.
Helena Lewis affirms the main principles of socialist realism: “It was to be a historically truthful and concrete depiction of reality with a thematic emphasis on the coming of the revolution.”[11] It was also important for artists to make their works consistent with the themes of socialist ideological reforms and the education of workers in the socialist spirit. As British art critic Herbert Read said, “Socialist realism is nothing but an attempt to stuff intellectual or dogmatic objectives into art.”[12]
Some American and European artists during the interwar period claimed the revolutionary mantle and asserted that their principles were compatible with the ideas of Marx and Engels. Lenin, though, “rejected the possibility of any kind of liberation” and insisted that, “Today, literature, even that published ‘legally,’ can be nine-tenths party literature. It must become party literature.”[13] The repression that began with Lenin grew even worse under Stalin, with some writers and artists being killed for failing to demonstrate the proper revolutionary spirit. Later, Khrushchev, faced with new, unorthodox artistic expressions, would take it upon himself to redirect the artists of his country toward socialist realism. Young poets reciting verse in Mayakovski Square and artists abandoning realist forms for incomprehensible abstractions confused and worried Khrushchev and his comrades. Upon viewing the abstract works in the American exhibition, Khrushchev is reported to have said that, “People who paint like that are crazy, but people who call it art are crazier still.”[14]
Art and politics have long overlapped, and not just in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, anti-surrealist sentiment emerged in the art world and took the form of concrete art or hard-edged abstraction (the Cercle et Carré group). Many of these artists were also anti-fascist; some were anarchists and some were aligned with the Communist Party. What is interesting, though, is that there does not seem to be a correlation between political philosophy and the style of artistic expression.
In the 1950s and 1960s, abstract expressionism swept away all before it. Much has been written about abstract expressionism as being representative of American freedom and being used as a diplomatic tool in the Cold War. Some young Russians were familiar with the Ashcan school and many American artists including Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler and others. “You in America have inherited the leadership, and you represent freedom and the future,” one Russian reviewer wrote. In the Soviet Union, all art that did not adhere to the rules outlined by the Supreme Soviet and was not in the category of socialist realism was repressed, and those young Russians who were exposed to American abstract art saw in those works the possibility of new ideas.
Lenin said that art should stand next to the proletariat since, “Art belongs to the people. It must with its widest stretching roots go out into the very thick of the broadest masses. It must combine the feelings, thoughts and will of the masses and uplift them.” In his view, then, art and culture must be synonymous, and it should be impossible to separate either from the people. Given this, a government that seeks to control its people – as the Kremlin certainly did – would, obviously, consider controlling the production of art to be crucial.
American art in the 1940s and 1950s came under its own political pressures, as Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others claimed to have uncovered communist sympathizers throughout the United States, especially in the art and entertainment communities. Conversely, Soviet abstract artists of the late 1950s and early 1960s – who did not follow the state-mandated rules of socialist realism – were thought by the communist regime to have ties to capitalistic and materialistic American influences.[15]

Perhaps because of the political nature of the works of art displayed, Khrushchev had little good to say about the exhibition.
“The show was not successful because the attitude of the organizers was not serious,” he wrote. “The exhibition was purely propaganda and does not meet our guidelines of economic, technical and party cadres. We treated it meticulously ... In my view, there was nothing that we could practically use.”[16] Khrushchev was, apparently, not impressed by the IBM computer, the color television, the Polaroid camera, the American model home stuffed with domestic appliances including a microwave and dishwasher or the American automobiles. He also, however, wrote, on the page following the previous comment: “I saw many interesting things ... The Americans wanted to show how comfortable life in America is, seeking to impress Russians. In part, they succeeded. There were many new products that were worth bringing them into the everyday life of the Soviet people.”[17]
What is the reason for this contradiction? The negative reaction to the show was almost certainly political; Khrushchev would surely have been reluctant to praise unequivocally a rival that Soviet doctrine held was inferior in all aspects to the communist regime. Concerns about showing the Soviet people American wealth and success likely also explains the lack of coverage of the exhibition in the Soviet press and the tight control maintained over exhibition tickets: visitors were selected by the government and no tickets were made available to the general public. At the same time, though, Khrushchev probably could not help but be intrigued by the wonders of everyday American life. In his improvised speech at the opening of the exhibition, in fact, he actually admitted feeling some jealousy.
 It should also be remembered that Pepsi was first advertised in Russia by Nikita Khrushchev during the show. Nixon, skillfully playing the role of a host, invited Khrushchev to try a Pepsi. The photograph of the Soviet leader holding a cup with the Pepsi logo was on the covers of many Soviet newspapers and magazines. That fateful moment in the history of the brand is considered a birth date of Pepsi in Russia. Free glasses of Pepsi, dispensed from a kiosk between the glass pavilion and the model home, were consumed at the rate of 10,000 per hour for the 42-day duration of the show. Though it allowed Pepsi to be distributed, the Kremlin, however, strictly forbade the distribution of free red lipstick made by Koti.[18]Lipstick was seen as a much greater threat than Pepsi: Whereas soda was immediately consumed, the lipstick would had been visible to everyone.
In touring the exhibit, Khrushchev skipped past the voting machine – dismissing it by saying, “We are not interested” – and expressed little wonder at the RAMAC 305, telling Time magazine, “To shoot off the rockets, we have computers, and they are just as complicated as this.”[19] But he seemed to be struck by the model home, particularly the kitchen.
While Khrushchev and Richard Nixon viewed the room’s features, the two men got into a debate in which appliances became representatives of each nation’s success, power and political and economic philosophy. The full debate was shown on American TV, but Soviet papers published only an incomplete transcript of the exchange. At one point, Nixon observed, “Isn’t it better to be talking about the relative merits of our washing machines than the relative strength of our rockets? ... Isn’t this the kind of competition you want?”[20] Khrushchev abruptly changed his tone in response. Nixon recalled: “At this, he gave the appearance of turning angry and, jamming his thumb into my chest, he shouted: ‘Yes, that’s the kind of competition we want, but your generals say they are so powerful they can destroy us. We can also show you something so that you will know the Russian spirit. We are strong, we can beat you.”[21] Historians can debate whether this aggressive reaction resulted from true pride in the Soviet system or was false posturing driven by jealousy.
The exhibition contradicted some of the most dearly held tenets of Soviet dogma, such as the supposed impending collapse of capitalism and the characterization of the U.S.S.R. as a “worker’s paradise.” Khrushchev insisted that all new Soviet apartments had facilities similar to those found in U.S. homes, but the Soviet exhibition in New York included only mockups of Soviet apartments that did not really exist, at least not for the average person. Kremlin officials were accustomed to having American nuclear weapons pointed at them, but washing machines, dishwashers and microwaves presented a whole new – in way, more dangerous – threat.

Model homes, automobiles and color TVs were important Cold War propaganda items that offered tangible and compelling support for claims of the superiority of the American economic system. Although official U.S. government policy held that displays of consumer goods were intended to inspire businesses in underdeveloped countries to produce devices suitable for the vast American market and to open new markets for American companies in nations still recovering from World War II, these displays also seem calculated to arouse jealousy and dissatisfaction among people on rival nations.
The items on display in Moscow – the model home, the fancy cars, the pretty clothes – all came from the everyday experience of Americans. They were not abstractions or constructs. They were the very definition of “the good life” in the United States in the 1950s. The Moscow Exhibition was “an American Showcase,” a business journal concluded. It was also a shopping center on a grand, international scale. And what was for sale was nothing less than “the American way of life.”[22]
Meanwhile, the he picture of America that had been carefully constructed by Soviet ideologists – one in which the working class was oppressed and the bourgeoisie were bathed in gold – melted before Khrushchev’s eyes. What he saw at the show did not make sense to him, and the reality somewhat traumatized him. From the Soviet perspective, private life in general, and consumer comforts in particular, had been somewhere on the far periphery of the interests of the state (if they were ever in its scope). As a result, Khrushchev’s attack on abstract expressionism actually extended to the entire exhibition. One sculpture in the art exhibit was especially disturbing to him: a sculpture of a woman. Speaking of the avant-garde construction, he exclaimed: “I am not artistically eloquent enough to describe what I was exposed to: a woman-monster, without form. It was simply impossible to look at.”[23] In response to questions by American journalists, he said, “What would the sculptor’s mother’s reaction be? This man is probably a pervert. I think he is probably crazy, because a person who sees nature in a conventional way, cannot depict a woman in such a way.”[24] This critical theme extended to the entire art exhibit: “It seemed to me that the show had a negative effect on the majority of visitors, and was repulsive. Of course, there were also fans of such art. In every society and at every stage of its development, all sorts of new ideas are produced: the progressive and the other with distortions. Perhaps it is the latter that were liked by individual visitors.”[25]
Art was not the only thing that Khrushchev did not understand. For example, in the model American kitchen, he decided that an electric juice maker was a useless thing, because, in his mind, a few drops of lemon juice could have been squeezed into a cup of tea without it. While Khrushchev never admitted it, the exhibition as a whole had a huge impact on him. He walked by the American car exhibit with his eyes wide open, thought he suddenly informed those who were present that “we will be making automobiles for America.”[26] In his memoirs, however, he described the exhibition as “useless.”
Despite all of this, in Moscow in the summer of 1959, there arose a new atmosphere change, of the birth of something new and significant. It grew out of the “Khrushchev thaw” and gave hope to the masses of educated people in the country. These people wanted to speak to their American counterparts and learn more about them. They were familiar with U.S. achievements in science and American abstract art and were open to “new ideas,” but they had long been oppressed and persecuted.
To his credit, though, Khrushchev’s vision of communism came with the idea of peaceful coexistence, and the ice of the Cold War melted somewhat. In 1960, Khrushchev met with Eisenhower in Paris and praised the American president for his wisdom and love for the world. Such a step was unprecedented for a Soviet leader. Two weeks later, however, the U.S.-Soviet talks broke off following the U-2 spy plane incident. The American plane was shot down by the Soviet Union and pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured. This incident became one of the single biggest conflicts in the Cold War. However, even this did not stop Khrushchev from substantially reducing Soviet armed forces. Both leaders, Khrushchev and Eisenhower, personally knew war and deeply hated it. The personal attitudes of the two men had a crucial role in bipolar relations and made the American National Exhibition – and all of its resulting effects – possible.


[1]Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture and the Cold War 1945-1961 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997): 161-2.
[2] Yale Richmond, Cultural Exchange and The Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003): 14.

[3]Hans N. Tuch, "Remembering Sokolniki Park," Speech (Moscow: Whirled View, July 23, 2009)
[4] Dorothy Tuttle, "Official Training Book for Guides at the American National Exhibition in Moscow," USIA (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 25, 1959): 11.
[5]  Barrie Robyn Jakabovics, Displaying American Abundance Abroad: The Misinterpretation of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow (New York: Barnarad College, 2007):
[6] Tuttle, Official Training Book, 9.
[7] James Schwoch, Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-6 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008): 95.
[8] Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon, Making American Art (London: Routledge, 2009): 83.
[9] Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon, Making American Art (London: Routledge, 2009): 83.
[10] Helena Lewis, "Surrealists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists: Theories of Art and Revolution in France between the Wars ," Art Journal 52, no. 1 (1993): 61-68.
[11] Helena Lewis, "Surrealists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists: Theories of Art and Revolution in France between the Wars ," Art Journal 52, no. 1 (1993): 61-68.
[12]  Sang Hun Lee, New Essentials of Unification Thought: Head-Wing Thought (Tokyo: Unification Thought Institute-Japan, 2005).
[13] Robert Short, "The Politics of Surrealism, 1920-36," Journal of Contemporary History 1, no. 2 (1966): 3-25.
[14]  Monroe C. Beardsley, "On Art and the Definitions of Art: A Symposium on the Definitions of Art," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20, no. 2 ( 1961): 175-187.
[15] Gretchen Simms, The 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow and the Soviet Artistic Reaction to the Abstract Art, Dissertation (Vienna: Kunstgeschichte, 2007).
[16]  Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 2010).
[17] Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 2010).
[18]  Karal Ann Marling, As seen on TV: the visual culture of everyday life in the 1950s (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998).
[19]  Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 2010).
[20]Life, Kitchen Talk in Moscow (March 16, 1962): 100.
[21] Life, Kitchen Talk in Moscow (March 16, 1962): 100.
[22] "Made in USA - in Red Capital," US News and World Report, August 3, 1959: 38.
[23] Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 5, 2010).
[24]  Nikita Khrushchev, Time, People, Power: Memoirs., Vol. 3, 4 vols. (Moscow: Moscow News, 1999): 376.
[25]  Nikita Khrushchev, Time, People, Power: Memoirs., Vol. 3, 4 vols. (Moscow: Moscow News, 1999): 375.
[26]  Mark Lipovetsky, Knowing Lemons:” The American Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Memoirs, Vol. 2, prod. Ab Imperio (Boulder, CO, 8 5, 2010).


  1. This was excellent and a tremendous help for a writing project of my own. Thank you for posting it.

  2. I have always been fascinated by the US - Soviet cultural exchanges that started during Khrushchev's late 1950's "thaw". Thank you for providing a splendid summation of the 1959 US National Exhibition, especially in the context of larger US - USSR bilateral relations...

    Well done...!!!

    Best Regards
    Gregory Morrow

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