Conflicting Opinions Regarding the Relative Strength of U.S. and Soviet Missiles, 1960-1962

A prior post reviewed the October 1962 messages between Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev regarding a possible nuclear war that might have been triggered by the Cuban missile crisis of that month. Now we look at their possibly conflicting opinions on the relative strength of the Soviet and U.S. nuclear missile fleets at the time.[1}

 U.S. Opinions on Relative Missile Strength

In the 1960 campaign presidential candidate John F. Kennedy declared that there was a “missile gap” with the U.S. having significantly fewer missiles than the USSR, which often boasted about its missiles. For example, in a campaign speech on August 26, 1960, before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Kennedy said, “the missile lag looms larger and larger ahead.” On September 12, 1960, Kennedy charged that the danger of a Soviet missile attack would grow as the Russians increased their missile lead. Two days later he asserted that “crash [U.S.] programs . . . will eventually close the missile gap.”[2]

On January 12, 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his final State of the Union Address stated, “The ‘bomber gap’ of several years ago was always a fiction, and the ‘missile gap’ shows every sign of being the same.” He backed this up with the assertion, “Tremendous advances in strategic weapons systems have been made in the past eight years. Today many types [of guided ballistic missiles] give our armed forces unprecedented effectiveness. [This includes ICBM missiles (ATLAS, POLARIS, and soon TITAN and MINUTEMAN) and IRBMs (THOR and JUPITER).] The explosive power of our weapons systems for all purposes is almost inconceivable.”[3]

Eight days later (January 20, 1961) in his Inaugural Address President John F. Kennedy did not specifically mention missiles, but did say to “those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”

Ten days later, on January 30, 1961, President Kennedy delivered his first State of the Union Address, in which he stated, “I have directed prompt action to accelerate our entire missile program. Until the Secretary of Defense’s reappraisal is completed, the emphasis here will be largely on improved organization and decision making–on cutting down the wasteful duplications and the time-lag that have handicapped our whole family of missiles. If we are to keep the peace, we need an invulnerable missile force powerful enough to deter any aggressor from even threatening an attack that he would know could not destroy enough of our force to prevent his own destruction. For as I said upon taking the oath of office: ‘Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.’”

In the third week of the Kennedy presidency a kerfuffle on the issue of a missile gap was created. On February 6, 1961, his new Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, told journalists in what he thought was an off-the-record session that there was a positive missile gap in favor of the U.S. This remark was widely reported in the press. [4]

Two days later (February 8), President Kennedy denied the accuracy of any such remark with this statement: “Yesterday McNamara told me that the Defense Department has not concluded any study that would lead to “any conclusion at this time as to whether there is a missile gap or not.” This had been confirmed to the President by the controller of the Department, Charles Hitch, who was conducting “a review of our tactical weapons” that had not been completed.[5]

Finally on February 16, McNamara denied that he had told newsmen the [U.S.] was either behind or ahead of the Soviet Union in the missile race in a letter to Senator Everett Dirksen, who had just called for President Kennedy’s resignation on the ground that he had won the election on false pretenses. McNamara stated, “I have not said with respect to missile power that the [U.S.] is either in a superior or inferior position vis-á-vis the Soviet Union. . . . I have emphasized that, acting on the President’s instructions, we have already begun to move so there will be no such gaps in the months and years ahead.” McNamara’s letter also included three newspaper articles that he claimed corroborated his statements. The Senator then put McNamara’s letter and the articles into the Congressional Record.[6]

 Soviet Opinions on Relative Missile Strength

According to Khrushchev’s son at the 1992 conference, the Soviets during this period threatened the U.S. with missiles the former did not have in order to prevent a U.S. attack. (Blight at 130.) In other words, Khrushchev at the time apparently knew or believed that the USSR was at a disadvantage with the U.S. on missiles and that such an opinion perhaps influenced his negative reaction to Fidel’s suggestion of a USSR missile strike on the U.S.

 Cuban Opinions on Relative Missile Strength

At the previously mentioned 1992 conference, McNamara mentioned his January 1961 [actually February 1961] statement that there was a missile gap in favor of the U.S. Castro, however, at the same conference, said that at the time of the crisis he did not know about McNamara’s statement. (Blight at 126-27, 131-32.) Moreover, Castro, at the 1992 conference, said that at the time he believed the Soviets had more missiles based upon what they said about their missile capability and upon their demonstrated technical prowess in space. (Id. at 257-58.)

Thus, perhaps Castro suggested a Soviet missile strike on the U.S. in the event of an U.S. invasion of the island because he thought the Soviets had a significant advantage over the U.S. on missiles.

Conclusion

I invite comments of agreement or disagreement by those who have done more research on this issue.

============================================

[1] See generally Alexandr Fursenko & Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble;” Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, at 257-315 (W.W. Norton & Co, New York: 1997); Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: the Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (pp. 88-94) (Univ. Cal. Press; Berkeley CA; 1980); James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, The Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse (Pantheon Books; New York; 1993) [ hereafter “Blight”].

[2] Wikipedia, United States presidential election, 1960; Chronology of Two-Year Dispute on ‘Missile Gap,’ N.Y. Times (Feb. 9, 1961).

[3] A journalist at the time reported that when Eisenhower left office in January 1961 he believed that the U.S. was the strongest military in world and “the much advertised missile gap will prove to be . . . fictitious. . . . Many Democrats and a Kennedy task force violently disagree.” Yet, this journalist concluded that “statistical comparisons and available intelligence indicate that President Eisenhower’s opinion [was] based as firmly as possible on factual information.”(Baldwin, A New Military Era? N.Y. Times (Jan. 19, 1961).)

[4] Chronology of Two-Year Dispute on ‘Missile Gap,’ N.Y. Times (Feb. 9, 1961); Blight at 135-36.

[5] Transcript of the Kennedy News Conference, N.Y. Times (Feb. 9, 1961); Raymond, President Awaits ‘Missile Gap’ Data, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 1961).

[6] 107 Cong. Rec. 2177-79 (Feb. 16, 1961); Missile Gap Report Denied by M’Namara, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 1961).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

One thought on “Conflicting Opinions Regarding the Relative Strength of U.S. and Soviet Missiles, 1960-1962”

  1. Duane, good job on this. The “missile gap” is now proven to be a myth but JFK sold it well in the 1960 election. Dave

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