"Who Ever Believed in the 'Missile Gap?": John F. Kennedy and the Politics of National Security

Article excerpt

In a meeting on December 5, 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his senior military advisers met to discuss the proposed budget for the Department of Defense for fiscal year 1964. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, anticipating criticisms of the budget, pointed to a controversy from the late 1950s based on "a myth" that "was created by ... emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon." President Kennedy replied with self-deprecating humor, calling himself a "patriotic and misguided man" who had been "one of those who put that myth around." (1)

Both men were speaking of the myth of the missile gap--a presumed imbalance between the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union and the United States that appeared to threaten U.S. security. (2) Two related questions--"what did John Kennedy know about the missile gap?" and "when did he know that the missile gap was a myth?"--have stirred considerable controversy among scholars. (3) Combining research from archival materials with a fresh look at evidence from published sources, this article demonstrates that John F. Kennedy believed that a missile gap threatened U.S. security in the late 1950s.

From late 1957 through early 1961, President Eisenhower repeatedly asserted that there was no missile gap, and that the United States' nuclear deterrent forces were vastly superior to those possessed by the Soviets. (4) But even as respected a figure as Eisenhower, a man with a particular acumen for judging Soviet intentions, was unable to defuse a growing sense of crisis as contradictory statements by military leaders, politicians, and prominent journalists crowded out the president's arguments. In the words of Arnold Horelick and Myron Rush, the myth of the missile gap resulted from a sustained effort "to deceive the West regarding the pace and scope of the Soviet Union's program for building and deploying ICBMs." (5) John F. Kennedy's belief in the missile gap demonstrates the effectiveness of the Soviet Union's campaign of deception, but it also reveals a degree of self-deception on the part of, especially, Air Force intelligence analysts, scholars, journalists, and politicians, who were inclined to believe the worst.

This article will also consider how Kennedy's belief in a missile gap affected the formulation of national security strategy during the first year of his presidency. Convinced that a missile gap loomed over the horizon, Kennedy, first as a senator and then as a candidate for the presidency, called for closing the gap by spending much more on defense. In the first few weeks of his presidency, in early 1961, President Kennedy was told by members of his own administration, men whom he trusted, that there was no missile gap. His secretary of defense confirmed these findings in early February 1961. Kennedy refused to declare the missile gap closed, however. Instead, the Kennedy administration pressed on with its promised defense build-up that was deemed necessary to rectify the potentially destabilizing inferiority posed by the missile gap, but which was unnecessary once the gap was proven illusory.

Senator John F. Kennedy and the Origins of the Missile Gap

In August 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Then, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first man-made earth-orbiting satellite. With its Cold War adversary's technological prowess on public display, the United States seemed to be marching in place--or going backward. Journalists, politicians, and military leaders began to speak of a "missile gap"--a perceived strategic deficiency brought on by the Soviet Union's gains in the field of rockets, missiles, and nuclear weapons. The apparent decline of American nuclear weapons technology relative to that of the Soviet Union threatened the very foundation--the nuclear deterrent--of the United States' national security strategy. …