Public misperceptions in 1959 and 1960 that the Soviet Union had opened up a dangerous and growing lead over the
The second development was the secret completion in November and public discussion shortly thereafter of a presidentially commissioned review of
The shock of being bested in space by the
In one sense, the Gaither Report’s findings and the January 1959 joint Senate hearings on missile and space activities merely led to a necessary and overdue adjustment in the
Hyping Sputnik and the Gaither Report was very much in the political interests of Democratic contenders for the presidency in 1960. Judging from what is now known about the missile numbers, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) consistently mischaracterized the strategic trend lines. For example, in an October 1960 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, the Democratic nominee said, “The Soviet Union made the great breakthrough in space and in missiles, and, therefore, they are going to be ahead of us in those very decisive weapons of war in the early 1960s.”
In other cases, Kennedy could gain advantage merely by describing the new reality objectively because of its unpleasant shock value to the
The fault in Kennedy’s argument was not so much the inaccurate characterization of the Soviet missile numbers, for the intelligence community had provided him with estimates it later revised downward on the basis of subsequent intelligence collection and analysis. A more serious flaw was that he implied that a new administration somehow could alter the fundamental reality of
Congressional hearings provided an ideal platform for amplifying the general theme that the
CIA projections of Soviet ICBM numbers had been falling from initial estimates in late 1957 of 100 by 1960. By early 1960, the CIA was predicting 36 by the end of the year, based on an “orderly” production rate, reaching 100 by mid-1961. The Air Force intelligence estimate for 1960, which was 500 in late 1957, remained higher than that of the CIA throughout this period. The first Soviet ICBM actually went on “combat duty” in January 1960, and only two had been deployed by the end of the year. The first U.S. ICBM, the Atlas D, had achieved operational capability in September 1959.
Soon after the Kennedy administration took office, the missile gap started officially to evanesce. In a February 1961 press backgrounder on
It now is well established that the number of deployed U.S. ICBMs was never lower than the number of deployed Soviet ICBMs during the period of the alleged missile gap. Instead, it was the
It is impossible to know how much a more accurate
Possible Versus Probable
During the missile gap debate, as with many threat debates since, there was confusion about the numbers being compared. For the most part, the missile gap misperception grew from an “apples and oranges” comparison. The intelligence community projected how many missiles the Soviets could deploy in the future, not how many they would be likely to deploy. This number was only an estimate, less certain than the number planned for
Only in January 1960 did the Department of Defense introduce into its estimates the notion of a probable rather than a possible outcome. In House Appropriations Committee hearings, Defense Secretary Thomas Gates emphasized the change: “Heretofore we have been giving you intelligence figures that dealt with theoretical Soviet capability. This is the first time that we have an intelligence estimate that says, ‘This is what the
The next decades of the Cold War featured many instances of
The virulent impact of worst-case analysis continued into the post-Cold War era. The Rumsfeld Commission’s 1998 report on the foreign ballistic missile threat concluded that several emerging missile states could develop and deploy ICBMs within five years. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat was less alarmist than Rumsfeld’s report and included “most likely” as well as “could” projections, but it still gave pride of place to the worst case, as evidenced in the first two bullets of the NIE’s
• “Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to many parts of the United States in the latter half of the next decade, using Russian technology and assistance.”
When estimates provide a range of possibilities—entirely reasonable from an analytical standpoint—the highest (or lowest) numbers in the range can be emphasized for political reasons. Postmortems on the missile gap myth note that Air Force projections of future Soviet ICBM levels were consistently higher than those of the other services and that Kennedy “chose to believe the Air Force numbers rather than the information he received from Eisenhower administration officials in both open and closed hearings.” It is difficult to reach definitive conclusions about the motives of the Air Force or of the Democratic presidential candidates who relied on Air Force estimates. Nevertheless, the Air Force derived institutional benefits from rendering inflated Soviet missile threat estimates, and the Democrats derived political benefits from relying on them. The synergism between these two fueled the public perception of a gap, which turned out to be bogus.
It is the nature of the intelligence assessment process that those rendering the expert judgments are often the commercial or bureaucratic entities that benefit from the most alarming projections being accepted as reality. To obtain the “best” technical assessments of foreign missile defense capabilities, the government often hires firms that could be the recipients of contracts to develop offensive countermeasures or to establish a parallel program of
An additional source bias in the case of the missile gap and in many subsequent threat assessments is so obvious that it often is overlooked. Potential enemies usually have an incentive to exaggerate their capabilities. After the launch of Sputnik, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bragged that his country’s factories “were turning out missiles like sausages” and greatly exaggerated the size and operational capabilities of the Soviet ICBM force. Asked at the time by his son why he was doing so, he explained that “the number of missiles we had wasn’t so important.… The important thing was that Americans believed in our power.” That potential
Misunderstanding the Numbers
President Dwight Eisenhower commissioned the Gaither Report because he wanted a second opinion on options for improving early warning of a Soviet attack and, in the event of such an attack, reducing the vulnerability of the civilian population. Eisenhower and two consecutive defense secretaries in the latter half of his second term displayed a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the nuclear balance of terror than many of his critics who raised the alarm of an impending missile gap. U-2 reconnaissance flights over
The tendency for politicians to simplify the complicated logic of nuclear issues for partisan purposes did not end with the disappearance of the original missile gap. At the very time when the
It is tempting to dismiss the missile gap as a quaint artifact from an earlier time, an interesting historical example of the negative effect election politics can have on assessing threats. However, it also should be recognized as a phenomenon that has arisen repeatedly since the “cataclysmic peril” of the first missile gap quickly evaporated 50 years ago. During the three remaining decades of the Cold War, the United States often sought to close strategic gaps that the Soviet Union was perceived to be opening, only to discover much later that Moscow had been struggling mightily merely to catch up with the technological advances and superior resources of the United States. The rise and fall of the missile gap myth is a cautionary tale, which should continue to inform efforts to achieve more realistic and sober appraisals of the threats faced today.
Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, where he directs the Realistic Threat Assessments and Responses Project. He previously served as a senior professional staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 25 years.
1. Office of Defense Mobilization, Executive Office of the President, “Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” November 7, 1957. For a highly regarded analysis of the report, see David L. Snead, The Gaither Committee, Eisenhower, and the Cold War (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1999).
2. Chalmers Roberts, “Enormous Arms Outlay Is Held Vital to Survival,” The
3. Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee, Freedom of Communications, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, S. Rep. 994, pt. 3, p. 250.
4. John Kennedy, Congressional Record, 86th Congress, 2nd sess. (February 29, 1960): S3801.
5. Senate Armed Services Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee and Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Joint Hearings on Missile and Space Activities, 86th Congress, 1st sess., 1959, p. 53.
6. Jeffrey T. Richelson, “
7. Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Forces (
8. Robert S. Norris and Thomas B. Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook: U.S.-USSR/Russian Strategic Offensive Nuclear Forces 1945-1996,” January 1997, p. 18.
9. Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris, The
10. Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980) (quoting articles in The Wall Street Journal on February 9, 1961, and The Washington Post on February 7, 1961).
11. Norris and Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook,” p. 18.
12. Edgar M. Bottome, The Missile Gap: A Study of the Formulation of Military and Political Policy (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1971), p. 120 (quoting testimony by Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates before the House Appropriations Committee in January 1960).
13. David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (
14. National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate: Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the
15. See Greg Thielmann, “Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Strategic Arms Reductions,” ACA Threat Assessment Brief, January 26, 2011, pp. 3-4, www.armscontrol.org/system/files/TAB_StrategicMissileDefense_ThreattoFutureNuclearArmsReduction_2.pdf.
16. Daniel Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap” (paper, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy,
17. Richard Ned Lebow, “Was Khrushchev Bluffing in
18. Sergei N. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower (
19. Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap,” p. 2.