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Projected numbers of Soviet ICBM (Program A: CIA, B: USAF, C: Army&Navy)

The missile gap was the term used in the United States for the perceived disparity between the number and power of the weapons in the U.S.S.R. and U.S. ballistic missile arsenals during the Cold War. The gap only existed in exaggerated estimates made by the Gaither Committee in 1957 and in United States Air Force (USAF) figures. Even the CIA figures that were much lower and gave the US a clear advantage were far above the actual count. Like the bomber gap of only a few years earlier, it was later demonstrated that the gap was known to be illusionary from the start, and was being used solely as a political tool, an example of policy by press release.


The Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 highlighted the technological achievements of the Soviets and sparked some worrying questions for the politicians and general public of the USA. Although US military and civilian agencies were well aware of Soviet satellite plans, as they were publicly announced as part of the International Geophysical Year, Eisenhower's announcements that the event was unsurprising found little support among a US public still struggling with McCarthyism.

Political opponents seized on the event, and Eisenhower's ineffectual response, as further proof that the US was "fiddling as Rome burned." John F. Kennedy stated "the nation was losing the satellite-missile race with the Soviet Union because of … complacent miscalculations, penny-pinching, budget cutbacks, incredibly confused mismanagement, and wasteful rivalries and jealousies."[1]

Fact vs. fiction[]

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 11-10-57, issued in December 1957, predicted that the Soviets would "probably have a first operational capability with up to 10 prototype ICBMs" at "some time during the period from mid-1958 to mid-1959." After Nikita Khrushchev claimed to be producing them "like sausages",[2] the numbers started to inflate. A similar report gathered only a few months later, NIE 11-5-58 released in August 1958, concluded that the USSR had "the technical and industrial capability ... to have an operational capability with 100 ICBMs" some time in 1960, and perhaps 500 ICBMs "some time in 1961, or at the latest in 1962."[1]

Beginning with the collection of photo-intelligence by U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union in 1956, the Eisenhower administration had increasing hard evidence that claims of any strategic weapons favoring the Soviet Union were false. Based on this evidence, the CIA placed the number of ICBMs closer to a dozen. Continued (sporadic) flights failed to turn up any evidence of additional missiles. Curtis LeMay argued that the large stocks of missiles were in the areas not photographed by the U-2's, and arguments broke out over the Soviet factory capability in an effort to estimate their production rate.

In a widely syndicated article in 1959, Joseph Alsop even went so far as to describe "classified intelligence" as placing the Soviet missile count as high as 1,500 by 1963, while the US would have only 130 at that time.[3]

It is known today that even the CIA's estimate was too high; the actual number of ICBMs, even including interim-use prototypes, was 4.[4]

Playing for the public[]

In 1958 Kennedy was gearing up for his Senate re-election campaign and seized the issue. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first use of the term "missile gap" in 14 August 1958 when he stated: "Our Nation could have afforded, and can afford now, the steps necessary to close the missile gap."[1] According to Robert McNamara, Kennedy was leaked the inflated USAF estimates by Senator Stuart Symington, the former Secretary of the Air Force. Unaware that the report was misleading, Kennedy used the numbers in the document and based some of his 1960 election campaign platform on the Republicans being "weak on defense".[5] The missile gap was a common theme.

Eisenhower refused to publicly refute the claims, fearing that public disclosure of this evidence would jeopardize the secret U-2 flights. Consequently, Eisenhower was frustrated by what he conclusively knew to be Kennedy's erroneous claims that the United States was behind the Soviet Union in number of missiles. But knowing the truth that America was substantially ahead in missiles, and confident that Americans would not believe that a professional soldier like him would ever leave America vulnerable to an enemy, Eisenhower chose not to publicly refute Kennedy.[citation needed]

Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were made aware of the differing estimates in a CIA briefing by the Director, Allen Dulles, in July 1960.[4] In January 1961 McNamara, the new secretary of defense, and Roswell Gilpatric, a new deputy secretary who strongly believed in the existence of a missile gap, personally examined photographs taken by Corona satellites. Although the Soviet R-7 missile launchers were large and would be easy to spot in Corona photographs, they did not appear in any of them. In February McNamara stated that there was no evidence of a large-scale Soviet effort to build ICBMs. More satellite overflights continued to find no evidence, and by September 1961 a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the USSR possessed no more than 25 ICBMs and would not possess more in the near future.[6] There was a missile gap, but it was greatly in the United States' favour, as it had already deployed substantial numbers of several varieties of land- and sea-based missiles.

The Corona's did more than simply disprove the gap, however. The R-7 requires as much as 20 hours to be readied for launch, meaning that they could be easily attacked by bomber before they could strike. This demanded that they be based in secret locations to prevent a pre-emptive strike on them. As Corona could find these sites no matter where they were located, the Soviets decided not to build large numbers of R-7s, in favour of more advanced missiles that could be launched more quickly.[6]

Kennedy was embarrassed by the whole issue. Kennedy had already admitted as much publicly, The Listener, 19 April 1962 noted "The passages on the 'missile gap' are a little dated, since Mr Kennedy has now told us that it scarcely ever existed."[7]


Later evidence has emerged that one consequence of Kennedy pushing the false idea that America was behind the Soviets in a missile gap was that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and senior Soviet military figures began to believe that Kennedy was a dangerous extremist who, with the American military, was seeking to plant the idea of a Soviet first-strike capability to justify a pre-emptive American attack.[citation needed] This belief about Kennedy as a militarist was reinforced in Soviet minds by the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and led to the Soviets placing nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. (Kennedy was informed the missile gap was "a fiction" in January 1961.)[8]

Warnings and calls to address imbalances between the fighting capabilities of two forces were not new, as a "bomber gap" had exercised political concerns a few years previously. What was different about the missile gap was the fear that a distant country could strike without warning from far away with little damage to themselves. Concerns about missile gaps and similar fears, such as nuclear proliferation, continue.

Popular culture[]

The whole idea of a missile gap was parodied in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in which a Doomsday device is built by the Soviets because they had read in The New York Times that the U.S. was working along similar lines and wanted to avoid a "Doomsday Gap". As the weapon is set up to go off automatically if the USSR is attacked, which is occurring as the movie progresses, the president is informed that all life on the surface will be killed off for a period of years. The only hope for survival is to select important people and place them deep underground in mine shafts until the radiation clears. The generals then worry about a potential "mine shaft gap" between the US and Soviets. In reference to the alleged "missile gap" itself, General Turgidson mentions off-hand at one point that the United States actually has a five to one rate of missile superiority against the Soviet Union. The Russian ambassador himself also explains that one of the major reasons that the Soviets began work on the doomsday machine is that, ultimately, they realized that they simply could never match the rate of American military production (let alone outproduce American missile construction). The doomsday machine only cost a small fraction of what they normally spent on defense in a single year. Missile Gap is also the title of a science fiction book by Charles Stross, which depicts an alternate resolution to the missile gap situation and subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis.


A second claim of a missile gap appeared in 1974. Albert Wohlstetter, a professor at the University of Chicago, accused the CIA of systematically underestimating Soviet missile deployment, in his 1974 foreign policy article entitled "Is There a Strategic Arms Race?" Wohlstetter concluded that the United States was allowing the Soviet Union to achieve military superiority by not closing a perceived missile gap. Many conservatives then began a concerted attack on the CIA's annual assessment of the Soviet threat.[9]

This led to an exercise in competitive analysis, with a group called Team B being created with the production of a highly controversial report.

According to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by 1976 the USA had a 6-to-1 advantage in the number of nuclear warheads over the Soviet Union.[10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "'Who ever believed in the missile gap?': John F. Kennedy and the politics of national security" Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "kennedy" defined multiple times with different content
  2. missile gap
  3. Joseph Alsop, "True Missile Gap Picture Belies Pentagon Response", Eugene Register-Guard, 13 October 1959
  4. 4.0 4.1 Dwane Day, Of myths and missiles: the truth about John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap, The Space Review, 3 January 2006
  5. CNN Cold War - Interviews: Robert McNamara
  6. 6.0 6.1 Heppenheimer, T. A. (1998). The Space Shuttle Decision. NASA. pp. 195–197. 
  7. "Excerpts from the BBC on ABM", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1968
  8. Preble, Christopher A. (December 2003). "Who Ever Believed in the 'Missile Gap'?": John F. Kennedy and the Politics of National Security"". p. 816,819 ). "Wiesner … a member of Eisenhower's permanent SciencE Advisory Committee, … explained that the missile gap was a fiction. The new president greeted the news with a single expletive "delivered more in anger than in relief". … Herken, 140. This quote taken from Herken's interview with Wiesner conducted 9 February 1982." 
  9. Barry, Tom (February 12, 2004). "Remembering Team B". Archived from the original on 14 February 2004. 
  10. "Memorandum of Conversation: J. Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister of Australia, President Ford, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State, et al.". The White House. July 27, 1976. Archived from the original on 2013-07-15. Retrieved 2011-01-03. 

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