A Snapshot from the Cultural Cold War

The official pamphlet of the American Exhibition in Moscow.

By Matthew Kline

The Cold War was a strategic and ideological battle between the superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States that took place in the aftermath of World War II. Pitting Leninist Communism against Western Capitalism, it divided the world into spheres of influence, with a “Third World” battleground from which the superpowers vied for influence. Nowhere was this battle for ideals was more apparent than during the American-Soviet Exhibitions of 1959. Held in New York City and then Moscow, this exchange of cultural, scientific, and educational material between the superpowers represented the first direct contact between American agents and the local population without Soviet media interference and vice versa. While overshadowed by the more tense events in the Cold War such as the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1959 American-Soviet Exhibitions were nonetheless vital in understanding the complex nature of the tenuous nature between the two superpowers.

John Thomas, a Russian-speaking guide working in the RAND Corporation’s Social Science Division, served at the Exhibition in Moscow and left an eyewitness account of his time.  His 100-page account was recently found at Miami’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies among other materials as the Center prepared for a move to new space.  Thomas’s account provides an intriguing, first-person snapshot of the cultural Cold War:  he writes at one point that “it was as if the Soviet people had saved their questions for some forty years and at last had a chance to ask them.”

Thomas worked at the display of voting machines, which he jokingly wrote “might have been considered one of the hardship posts.”  One of the first items that Thomas remarks on is the cordial nature of the conversations between the Americans and the Soviets, a warm surprise to him at the time, particularly after tickets went on general sale, allowing non-elites to visit. Thomas provides details of the American exhibit, including a contemporary kitchen complete with popular food brands and appliances (this kitchen would later feature in the famous impromptu debate held in front of it between Nikita Khrushchev and VP Richard Nixon). U.S. officials wanted to place an emphasis on everyday American life, illustrating to the Soviet people of the lavish lifestyle of the west. Thomas noted the curiosity of the general public, most of them completely unfamiliar with American culture due to Soviet censorship. Swarms of people of all types from across the Soviet Union, from Kiev to Leningrad came to view the exhibition, and by the end of the presentation more than two million people had witnessed it. The wide array of individuals in attendance was highlighted by clothing from all across the Soviet Empire, and the broken Russian speaking abilities of Soviet minorities also attested to the wide makeup of attendees.

Thomas also remarked on the social machinations living under Soviet rule: the Soviet government apparently sent activists to humiliate the guides at an exhibit of the voting machines where he was stationed, ostensibly to discredit the democratic system that was alien to Soviet Russia. Aggressive in nature, this didn’t prove to be the norm as many people came with genuine questions of American society, such as queries about living standards, education, and the image of Russia itself in the United States. The sharp divide in the societies between the two countries was made readily apparent when Soviet citizens discussed passports and the freedom of movement throughout the country, which proved to be much more restricted in the Soviet Union as opposed to the United States. The discussions between the Americans and Soviets during the exhibition illustrated that while they were enemies, both sides had many of the same values and interests, highlighted by the mutual concern of racial discrimination, the dislike of government overreach, and religious interests. Thomas articulates this as much by writing “some non-Russian visitors, such as Kazakhs and Uzbeks, inquired about domination of national minorities by the national dominant group in the U.S.” By the end of the exhibition, both sides were able to put a real face on their adversary unhindered by nationalist propaganda.

Overall, the exhibition was a success, allowing not only the leaders of the two hostile nations to interact on friendlier terms, but also allowing the general public of both countries to learn about their respective cultures. Thomas’ excellent summary of the exhibition also gives us a glimpse of life in the Soviet Empire, how one American encountered it, and how he perceived its more restrictive society. It was also significant for being the first meaningful step at peaceful coexistence, as former Moscow correspondent for NPR Gregory Feifer notes the exhibition “marked an iconic episode of detente at the height of the Cold War.” This sharp contrast between the two superpowers, while successful in beginning the first steps to establishing a dialogue in the Cold War, displayed that mutual understanding would still be far off. Proving this, Thomas concludes his account by discussing all of the ways the Soviets attempted to discredit or dampen support for the exhibition, such as arguing with exhibition guides, criticizing the integrity of the American set-up, and even artificially limiting the ticket sales for the event. While this often-obscured chapter of the Cold War was one of the first real attempts at peace, tensions would still continue to increase before real diplomacy would take hold.


About Stephen Norris