What Missile Gap?

In 1960, Kennedy campaigned hard against the Republican negligence that had allowed the Soviet Union to overtake the United States in producing missiles. Once in office, however, JFK learned that there was no missile gap—which gave him an opening to negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength.

Nikita Khrushchev was widely considered to have bested the young American president at their summit meeting in Vienna in June 1961; only later did Kennedy gain the upper hand.  (Associated Press)

There is a constant outcry in America that we have no long-term plan for dealing with the central problem of Soviet-American relationships or, more broadly, of relationships between the United States and the communist orbit. From the right comes the demand that the president declare that our goal is victory over communism, or a similar generality.

As Kennedy said in his interview with Premier [Nikita] Khrushchev’s son-in-law, “Where we feel the difficulty comes is the effort by the Soviet Union to communize, in a sense, the entire world,” rather than to protect its own national interests. But the communist philosophy is not going to be altered by American semantics; it is only American and allied power and its skillful application that will effect any change in the communist position …

Today, by every intelligence estimate, American nuclear power—and the ability to use it against the Soviet Union—is considerably greater than is the comparable Soviet power. The belief is that this American power unquestionably is the restraining influence on Khrushchev. But, by the laws of weaponry this American advantage will in due course disappear, as Soviet missiles and nuclear-submarine developments proceed.

On the other hand, so this line of reasoning goes, one of the Soviet Union’s biggest assets is its ability to keep secret its military power and other aspects of its national life. In due course, this Russian advantage will decrease. The many U-2 flights over the Soviet Union … produced a remarkable set of photographs, which laid bare manifold secrets …

This, then, is the question posed: What should the United States attempt to do in its relations with the Soviet Union, looking toward the day when both the current American nuclear advantage and the Soviet secrecy advantage disappear? …

The missile-gap controversy

To understand our more immediate plan for dealing with the Soviet Union, one must first glance back at the long argument over the so-called missile gap and what happened to it.

U-2 pictures convinced Eisenhower that the initial assessment of a Soviet preparation for a first strike had been wrong.

So all-consuming has been American suspicion of Communist motives that from the day we first learned of Soviet missile tests by means of the then-secret radar installation in Turkey, the United States government’s assumption was that the Soviets were preparing for a first strike at this country. Intelligence reports, attempting to chart Soviet missile-building capabilities, said that by 1965 (a date later brought forward to 1961) the Russians would have as many as 500 to 1,000 [intercontinental ballistic missiles]. American missile production, resisted by the Air Force bomber chiefs and delayed by weight-yield problems until the invention of the hydrogen bomb, was charted at only about 70, a small number compared with the massive figures assigned the Russians. These figures leaked out, created the missile-gap furor, and were partially acknowledged by President Eisenhower’s Defense Secretary, [Neil H.] McElroy.

The missile-gap controversy first began in Congress some three years ago. While it was evolving into an issue in the 1960 presidential campaign, the U-2 began to bring amazing results. Eisenhower has now stated for the record that Khrushchev had known of the U-2 flights “for several years. Their radar had tracked a number of our planes.”

Responsible officials, including some who were on Kennedy’s side during the election, say that Eisenhower took the risk of tapering off American defenses on the basis of what he was learning from the U-2 pictures and other data the planes collected. Yet Eisenhower was caught in a box; he could not give any such reason while the U-2 was still supersecret, and when the U-2 was caught on May 1, 1960, he at once was put on the defensive both at home and by our allies, as well as by the Soviets.

These U-2 pictures convinced Eisenhower and his aides that the initial American assessment of a Soviet preparation for a first strike had been wrong. The pictures now were read as indicating that the Soviet preparations, like our own, were essentially defensive. These readings also played a part in Eisenhower’s decision to go to the 1960 summit conference, which, ironically, was wrecked by Khrushchev because of the U-2 affair.

When the Kennedy administration took office, all these facts became known to the president and Defense Secretary [Robert] McNamara, and provided the basis for McNamara’s statement to newsmen last February that he had found no missile gap. It was painful, politically, for the new administration to concede this, but it represented the facts.

This does not mean that there has been any alteration of the view that the Communists would risk a nuclear attack on the United States if this country were foolish enough to so weaken its defenses that a punishing American retaliatory attack would be impossible. The aim of both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations was and is to see that such a state of affairs never occurs. But it does mean that the new administration, like its predecessor, believes the defenses are strong and that therefore it is possible to attempt to negotiate with the Communists.