Primary Sources

Hist 114 – Primary Source Assignment Due Monday, October 5 by 11pm


This assignment is meant to help you solidify the techniques we’ve been using in class to understand primary source documents. It meets the learning objectives that focus on primary sources and understanding ambiguity in historical thought.


By completing this assignment, you will show me and yourself that you can confidently manage a new historical document and fit it into the story we are constructing about 20th century American history. You will gain graded feedback about how well you are mastering the course material, and better understand what you need to focus on to be successful.


1) Using the techniques we’ve been practicing in the Source Lab modules, read Nixon’s opening speech for the American Exposition. As you read, pay attention to anything that sounds familiar or reminds you of something we read or said in class. Underline the page or highlight on the screen as you go.

2) Then answer the questions on the next sheet. The questions should walk you through thinking about the text and its goals. There are a variety of correct answers – your goal isn’t to guess what I was thinking when I wrote the question, but rather to make sense of the speech by pointing out specific words and phrases that answer the questions.

3) Finally, work on the assignment at the end. You might want to use information you gathered for the worksheet, but you do not have to use all of it. Because it’s an email to a classmate, you don’t need to use very formal academic language – just imagine it’s a classmate you don’t know that well and make sure it’s readable and not too casual.

4) Please submit both your answers to the questions and the email you write in response to the prompt. You will submit as an assignment on Moodle.


What am I looking for when I grade?

1) Understanding the source: Did you spend enough time closely reading the speech to decode its basic meaning?

2) Context: Were you able to link the information in the speech to things we said in class, read in the text, or read in other primary sources?

3) Historical analysis and interpretation: How well can you evaluate Nixon’s credibility? Are you able to use the SOCC framework we discussed (that the questions walk you through!) to come up with an argument about Nixon’s ideas on capitalism?

4) Mechanics: Are your responses clear and understandable? Does it seem like you proofread the assignment before you sent it in?


I am happy to answer questions over email. If you would like to set up a time to meet on Zoom or by phone, contact me as soon as possible.

You are welcome to look back at your notes, the online material from the class, and the textbook to help you. You may do other internet research, but you should not need to in order to complete the assignment.

The source:

The American National Exhibition was an exhibit of American art, fashion, and consumer goods in Moscow in 1959. It attracted 3 million visitors over six weeks. Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice president, gave this speech at the opening of the exhibition, which was televised and broadcast across the US and Russia.

Nixon’s Opening Speech at the American Exhibition in Moscow, July 24, 1959:

I am honored on behalf of President Eisenhower to open this American Exhibition in Moscow. … Among the questions which some might raise with regard to our Exhibition are these: To what extent does this Exhibition accurately present life in the United States as it really is? Can only the wealthy people afford the things exhibited here? What about the inequality, the injustice, the other weaknesses which are supposed to be inevitable in a Capitalist society?

Let us start with some of the things in this Exhibit. You will see a house, a car, a television set — each the newest and most modern of its type we can produce. But can only the rich in the United States afford such things? If this were the case we would have to include in our definition of rich the millions of America’s wage earners.

Let us take, for example, our 16 million factory workers. The average weekly wage of a factory worker in America is $90.54. With this income he can buy and afford to own a house, a television set, and a car in the price range of those you will see in this Exhibit. What is more, the great majority of American wage earners have done exactly that.

Putting it another way, there are 44 million families in the United States. Twenty-five million of these families live in houses or apartments that have as much or more floor space than the one you see in this Exhibit. Thirty-one million families own their own homes and the land on which they are built. America’s 44 million families own a total of 56 million cars, 50 million television sets and 143 million radio sets. And they buy an average of 9 dresses and suits and 14 pairs of shoes per family per year.

Why do I cite these figures? … [W]hat these statistics do dramatically demonstrate is this: That the United States, the world’s largest capitalist country, has from the standpoint of distribution of wealth come closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.


This does not mean that we have solved all of our problems. Many of you have heard about the problem of unemployment in the United States. What is not so well known is that the average period that these unemployed were out of work even during our recent recession was less than three months. And during that period the unemployed had an average income from unemployment insurance funds of $131.49 per month. The day has passed in the United States when the unemployed were left to shift for themselves.

The same can be said for the aged, the sick, and others who are unable to earn enough to provide an adequate standard of living. An expanded program of Social Security combined with other government and private programs provides aid and assistance for those who are unable to care for themselves. For example, the average retired couple on Social Security in the United States receives an income of $116 per month apart from the additional amounts they receive from private pensions and savings accounts.

What about the strikes which take place in our economy the latest example of which is the steel strike which is going on? The answer is that here we have a firsthand example of how a free economy works. The workers right to join with other workers in a union and to bargain collectively with management is recognized and protected by law. No man or woman in the United States can be forced to work for wages he considers to be inadequate or under conditions he believes are unsatisfactory.

Another problem which causes us concern is that of racial discrimination in our country. We are making great progress in solving this problem but we shall never be satisfied until we make the American ideal of equality of opportunity a reality for every citizen regardless of his race, creed or color.

We have other problems in our society but we are confident that for us our system of government provides the best means for solving them.

The Soviet Exhibition in New York and the American Exhibition which we open tonight are dramatic examples of what a great future lies in store for all of us if we can devote the tremendous energies of our peoples and the resources of our countries to the ways of peace rather than the ways of war.

The last half of the twentieth century can be the darkest or the brightest page in the history of civilization. The decision is in our hands to make. The genius of the men who produced the magnificent achievements represented by these two Exhibitions can be directed either to the destruction of civilization or to the creation of the best life that men have ever enjoyed on this earth.

[Source: Bulletin (The Department of State) XLI (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office: August 17, 1959), 227-236. Available online via The Internet Archive (]

Primary Source Assignment Worksheet (answer these first):

1) Source: Who? What? When? Where? Why and who was the audience (tip: there may be more than one audience)?

2) Observe: Summarize the speech in 2-3 sentences. “In his 1959 speech at the American Exposition in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon argues that ….”

3) Contextualize: How does this speech relate to things we’ve discussed in the modules or you’ve read in Foner? A) Name any other primary sources we worked on that talk about similar things as this one and can help

us make sense of it. B) Make a list of 2-3 themes or terms we have talked about that Nixon refers to (things like the Red

Scare, racial discrimination in the suburbs, or fear of nuclear attack – but none of these are the answer to the question!).

4) Nixon claims that the U.S. is getting close to “prosperity for all in a classless society” (paragraph 5). What

evidence does he use to try to prove that all Americans are doing well and becoming middle class? Quote specific information from the speech.

5) Nixon talks about wealth in terms of “a house, a television set, and a car.” Why does he choose these three specific things? Think about our conversations about middle class and suburban life in the 1950s.

6) Why is Nixon working so hard to say that America is basically equal? Who says it isn’t? Who is he arguing against?

7) What does Nixon mean by the “ways of peace” in the last two paragraphs? What is he suggesting the Russians focus on instead of making war?

8) Should we believe him? Can you think of any counterexamples for his claims that America is classless, rich, and happy?

Primary Source Assignment Write-up:

Your classmate missed class for the last two weeks. They asked you to help them understand why we were reading this speech from Nixon. Write them an email (2-3 paragraphs) explaining what Nixon said, why this speech is important for understanding the 1950s, and whether our class would decide to believe what Nixon claims or not – what is his bias? Make sure you quote specific words in the speech to help make your points.