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Missile gap? What missile gap?

Missile gap? What missile gap?


Intro: Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.


In 1960 Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy campaigned to succeed Dwight Eisenhower as president. Foreign policy featured prominently due to the Cold War, and historian Christopher Preble called the missile gap a major component of Kennedy’s campaign.


The missile gap was a perception that the Soviet Union would soon have 2000 intercontinental ballistic missiles, enough to launch a first-strike and take out America’s strategic forces. According to Kennedy, we were in a position of “grave peril” that threatened “our very survival as a nation.”


Except that there was no missile gap. The Soviets had no crash program, and Eisenhower called the claim “pure fiction.” The U.S. held a huge advantage in strategic bombers and intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The Soviets never considered a first strike because they knew they would be utterly destroyed.


Unimpeded by knowledge and facts, Kennedy relied on press conjecture for his wild claims. He wasn’t on the Armed Services Committee and admitted he was not privy to classified intelligence. Yet he claimed without evidence that all “knowledgeable and unbiased observers” agreed with him. Only a massive defense buildup could ensure our safety.


The issue turned scandalous when JFK won his party’s nomination and now received national-defense briefings. Eisenhower was right: our nuclear forces were vastly superior, and Russia could not yet hit America with even one ICBM. Yet Kennedy continued to harp on the missile gap through election day.


Just two weeks after taking office, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced, “there is no missile gap,” and Christopher Preble says Kennedy soon joked about it in cabinet meetings. He soon launched a failed invasion of Cuba, and nearly started World War III when the Soviets tried to install nuclear missiles to defend the island. After he publicly admitted the missile gap was false, the New York Times reminded Kennedy that the issue had “played a major part” in his narrow victory.


So, was JFK a prevaricator or just dumb? You decide.


I’m Jeff Gentry


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Best reference:


Preble, C. A. (2003). “Who Ever Believed in the ‘Missile Gap’?”: John F. Kennedy and the Politics of National Security. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 33(4), 801–826.



Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2024 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.

Host of Dumb Ideas the Changed the World
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