The 1958 Brussels Universal Exposition, the first international exhibition since 1939, offered the United States and the Soviet Union a chance to square off in a nonmilitary setting, even as Cold War tensions ran high. The superpowers chose opposite approaches to showcase their societies. The towering Soviet pavilion, which flew in the face of the exhibition's theme "Building the World on a Human Scale," emphasized industrial hardware, capped by the display of three model satellites celebrating the USSR's recent space race triumph, the 1957 launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. The United States, by contrast, focused on technologies of leisure and consumption, such as cars, home appliances, jukeboxes, and a model television studio with color sets.
The U.S. pavilion also included an exhibit called "Unfinished Business," which addressed the ongoing struggle of African Americans for civil rights. Although popular with visitors, protests from Southerners in Congress forced the closure of this exhibit midway through the fair.
Both the American and Soviet exhibits proved popular, but many American policymakers viewed the exhibition as a victory for the Soviets and vowed to display American technological might at the next world's fair. In 1962, America hosted the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle, with the theme "Man in the Space Age" and featuring the Space Needle as its signature building. The United States Science Pavilion, while still focused on the importance of science in everyday applications, contained a vast exhibit from NASA featuring the module that had carried astronaut Alan Shepard on the first American suborbital space flight in 1961 as well as Boeing's fanciful Spaceareum, which offered visitors a simulated space flight.
Although they would inevitably become a stage for ideological clashes, subsequent international exhibitions presented less dramatic confrontations between the superpowers. In the era of détente, exhibition themes focused on peace, international cooperation, and environmental concerns.
In addition to their presentations at official international expositions, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a two-year cultural, technical, and educational exchange agreement in 1958 that included plans for a Soviet exhibition in New York and a U.S. exhibition in Moscow. While the Americans hoped to impress the peoples of the Soviet bloc with its abundant consumer culture, the USSR hoped that the exchanges would facilitate its acquisition of more advanced American technology.
The Soviet exhibition that opened in June 1959 emphasized the Soviet Union's technological expertise, once again prominently featuring models of the Sputnik 1 satellite as well as rockets and even a model nuclear-powered ice breaker. At the same time, the exhibit tried to present the Soviet citizenry as prosperous and benefiting from full employment, rising standards of living, and plentiful consumer goods. However, the drab clothing and rows of household appliances with designs that Americans considered out of date failed to impress many visitors.
The U.S. exhibition that opened the next month in Moscow's Sokolniki Park proved enormously popular, drawing three times as many visitors as the Soviet exhibition in New York. Soviet citizens were treated to many of the same displays that America had offered in Brussels, emphasizing the bounty of Americans' lives. Visitors saw American cars, sampled Pepsi-Cola, and enjoyed makeovers at a model beauty salon (until Soviet authorities put a stop to this). Russian officials rejected the planners' request to distribute cosmetics and model cars to fairgoers.
The roomy, well-stocked, and technologically equipped American home display formed the centerpiece of the exhibition and also provided the backdrop for the famous Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate. When Vice President Richard M. Nixon arrived in Moscow to celebrate the exhibition's opening, he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in a series of arguments that continued throughout their preopening tour of the grounds. Before the cameras of the RCA television studio on display, in the "miracle kitchen" of the model home, and finally at the formal opening ceremony of the exhibition, the two men bantered about which economic system could provide more and better consumer products, while both asserted that they wished to see only peaceful competition between the two nations. In his remarks, Nixon tried to connect consumer choice and product variety to American values, claiming that the lavish robotic kitchen display demonstrated not merely material abundance but freedom and democracy. Khrushchev criticized Nixon's defense of planned obsolescence and superficial product variety and scoffed at what he considered excessive gadgetry, mockingly inquiring if there was also a machine to put food in a person's mouth.
The first U.S.-Soviet exchange agreement became a model for subsequent agreements, which included annual thematic exhibitions in the two countries until 1979. The United States used these opportunities to highlight ongoing American advancements in science, agriculture, education, and other fields, generating huge interest from Soviet citizens. By contrast, the Soviet exhibitions reported disappointing attendance, prompting the Russians to push for reductions in the exhibitions, preferring instead museum and performing arts exchanges in which the Soviets believed that they could more effectively compete.
Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.; Marling, Karal Ann. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.; Richmond, Yale. U.S.-Soviet Cultural Exchange, 1958–1986: Who Win? Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987.; Rydell, Robert W., et al. Fair America: World's Fairs in the United States. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.