Recent events in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula have sparked wild claims in the blogosphere and mainstream media about the revival of the Cold War. Thinly drawn historical analogies are being used by pundits to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin is initiating an icy, long-term diplomatic standoff with the United States in his aggressive response to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
When we began work on our recently published book, The Kitchen Debate and Cold War Consumer Politics: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin's Press), we had little reason to suspect that Cold War history would be so relevant to contemporary policy debates. The U.S. State Department had hit the "reset" button on relations with Russia, and foreign relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea seemed more pressing. Our central goal was to provide today's college students—the vast majority of whom were born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, largely unperturbed by the threat of "mutual assured destruction"—with a lively and thought-provoking introduction to what was at stake in the Cold War. Zooming in on the 1959 "Kitchen Debate" between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, our collection of primary documents transports students into the heart of the Cold War, shedding light on policymakers’ decisions as well as ordinary citizens' responses to events of the era. Pundits seeking to historicize the Ukraine crisis are implying that the Cold War centered on territorial conflicts. We suggest, however, that some of the most important battles of the decades-long standoff centered on an economic question—namely, whether capitalism or socialism could best satisfy citizens' demands for better living standards.
With events unfolding in strange and unexpected ways in the Crimean peninsula, it seems more crucial than ever to help college students understand why the Cold War started, why it lasted so long, and how it impacted American political culture and domestic policy. In the Cold War, the two superpowers fought a war that could not be "won" with thermonuclear weapons. We were drawn to the 1959 Kitchen Debate because it was here—at the American National Exhibition in suburban Moscow—that Nixon and Khrushchev spoke plainly and forcefully about the fundamental economic competition then being waged between the two superpowers. Although many Americans credited Nixon with a triumphal victory over Khrushchev amidst the gleaming U.S. kitchen appliances and split-level suburban homes, documents from the 1950s also suggest that Khrushchev's confidence about "burying" the U.S. economically was taken seriously by both sides. The Ukraine crisis seems fundamentally different, for although economic concerns undoubtedly play a key role today, the difference between western capitalism and oligarchic capitalism seems unlikely to spark a half-century of irreconcilable conflict.
Shane Hamilton is an associate professor in the history department at the University of Georgia, and Sarah Phillips is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the history department at Boston University.