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Take that! Richard Nixon, then U.S. vice-president, gives Nikita Khrushchev a poke during their infamous 'kitchen debate.' The Soviet premier scored a few points of his own. (© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.)
Take that! Richard Nixon, then U.S. vice-president, gives Nikita Khrushchev a poke during their infamous 'kitchen debate.' The Soviet premier scored a few points of his own. (© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.)

John Barber

The first crack in the Curtain Add to ...

Barack Obama did not merely deliver speeches during his recent travels to Egypt and Ghana, his newly installed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Judith McHale, told the White House press gallery last week. Instead, she said, the U.S. President had launched an era of "unprecedented engagement with people in Africa and around the world," with an aggressive outreach campaign "designed to reach deep into these countries" and show them "that America listens and wants to engage."

Embassy officials distributed podcasts of Mr. Obama's Ghana speech by bicycle to radio stations throughout Africa, she said. They rented cinemas in Sierra Leone to show videos of it for free. They gathered millions into a Facebook group to discuss it. Using new media and old to rearm a neglected arsenal of "soft power," the Africa campaign was "a model of creative public diplomacy for the 21st century," according to Ms. McHale, a former media executive in charge of reviving the hearts-and-minds file for the Obama administration.

Certainly the timing is auspicious. Fifty years ago today, the same embattled superpower reached deep inside the hearts and minds of its then-enemies with the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, a quickly thrown together mini-expo that detonated like a sapper's bomb inside the well-fortified cultural heartland of the Soviet empire.

Dimly remembered on this side of the former Iron Curtain as the place where Richard Nixon, then Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice-president, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the relative merits of communist and capitalist kitchen appliances, the 1959 Moscow exhibition has entered history as a decisive moment in the Cold War - a struggle that, in the end, turned as much on a deliberate policy of "cultural infiltration" as it did on warheads and moon shots.

Today, serious historians are as likely to attribute Cold War victory to the Beatles as to Ronald Reagan and his "Star Wars" weaponry. But before them all, a remarkable constellation of U.S. cultural leaders - including design geniuses George Nelson, Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames, film director Billy Wilder, producer Walt Disney, photographer Edward Steichen, painters Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell - gathered under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to stun Moscow for six giddy weeks that summer.

Old idea new again

The accomplishment could not be more relevant 50 years later, with the United States once again floundering in its leadership of a worldwide campaign against a new totalitarianism. As a model of successful "public diplomacy," also known as propaganda, the 1959 Moscow exhibition will likely remain unequalled until such time as NASCAR runs its first race in Tehran.

"The exhibition ended a long period of almost total cultural estrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union, and ended it with a smile," Stanley Abercrombie wrote in his biography of George Nelson, the legendary "designer's designer" who led the team of geniuses who programmed the fair.

Recently declassified National Security Council documents describe it rather differently as "the most productive single psychological effort" of the Cold War, a description amply reinforced by the memories of Muscovites who attended.

It had the effect of a "poisoned blanket" that helped to destroy the credibility of communist ideology among the capital's cultural elite, according to Vladimir Paperny, an émigré who was among the 2.7 million Russians who crammed the 10-acre site in Sokolniki Park to get their first view of what they thought was the real America.

"The exhibition was a very significant cultural shock for all the people who went there," says Mr. Paperny, now 65, an architectural historian and graphic designer living in Los Angeles. "All of a sudden, we were exposed to things and themes we had never seen before. It was something that came from a different planet."

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