The Missile Gap

February 11, 2009

There’s an article today in the NY Times on the Kennedy administration’s need to backtrack on campaign claims such as a large missile gap between the US and the USSR (that Kennedy claimed was in the Soviets’ favor). What I find interesting is how common threat inflation is in American politics (Cold War, al Qaeda, Iraq, North Korea, Iran), and how outlandishly absurd some of the claims (and even actual intelligence estimates) can be.

According to the article, written by Richard Reeves, the CIA’s estimate of the number of Soviet ICBMs was off by a factor of 30:

“…during the 1960 campaign, the Soviets probably had only three intercontinental ballistic missiles. At the time, though, the C.I.A. estimated, incorrectly, there were about 90 Soviet ICBMs.”

They were even further off when it came to strategic bombers:

“the C.I.A. estimated…200 bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, although none of those bombers had the range to reach the United States.”

So in reality, the Soviets had only 3 land-based delivery vehicles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States in 1960. The CIA estimated they had almost 300. And even with that greatly inflated estimate, the US had a whopping advantage:

“At the same time, the United States had 108 missiles that could reach Soviet targets and were in the process of deploying 30 more in Turkey. In addition, the United States Air Force had 600 nuclear-ready bombers capable of reaching Soviet targets.”

The United States also had Polaris missiles that could be launched from submarines against targets in the USSR.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s estimate of the US’s relative capability was this:

“the United States could absorb a full-scale Soviet missile attack and still have more than enough nuclear missiles to destroy 100 Soviet cities, kill 100 million Soviet citizens and destroy 80 percent of that country’s industrial capacity in a few hours.”

Yet Kennedy campaigned in 1960 on the claim that “we are facing a [missile] gap on which we are gambling with our survival.”

Interestingly, after the election, Kennedy found it necessary to backtrack on these claims not so much for domestic political purposes but to make sure the Soviets did not take the claims at face value and underestimate the US’s ability to counter a Soviet first strike (even though, in reality, the USSR was hardly in any position to entertain a first strike).

In fact, it seems pretty clear now that by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, two years after the election, the United States had such a dominating lead over the Soviets in terms of nuclear weapons that the Soviets hardly could have seriously entertained initiating a nuclear conflict, and the US was in far stronger position, and the Soviets a far weaker one, than was the received wisdom at the time.

Lessons to be learned?…

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