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Summary & Analysis

The Missile Gap

John F. Kennedy campaigned for president in 1960 by claiming that the Eisenhower administration had allowed the Soviet Union to open up a "missile gap" on the United States. At a 1960 speech in Florida, Kennedy stoked fears of Cold War inferiority. "We are moving into a period," he said, "when the Soviet Union will be outproducing us two or three to one in the field of missiles—a period relatively vulnerable and when our retaliatory force will be in danger of destruction through a Soviet surprise attack—the period of the missile gap."4Kennedy used the "missile gap" issue to position himself as a candidate even more hawkish than his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon (who was himself a staunch Cold Warrior).

Kennedy's charges seemed credible. The Soviet Union had succeeded in developing the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 1957. The ICBM could travel farther than any other previous technology—the test missile soared 4,000 miles across the Pacific—thus making it possible to hit targets from much farther away. The Soviets used one of those missiles to launch Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth.

Americans panicked, fearing that the Soviets' new long-range missiles could hit the US mainland if launched from the Russian coast. The American government raced to develop its own ICBM, the Atlas, and finally succeeded in 1959. American analysts assumed that the Soviets had used their two-year head start to build up a huge stockpile of ICBMs. The American media reported estimates that within a few years the Soviet Union would possess 1,000 ICBMs and the United States only 70.5 In fact, the Soviets had only built a handful of missiles. By the time Kennedy took office in 1961, CIA surveillance revealed that there was indeed a missile gap—but it favored the United States. The Soviets had only 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles to the Americans' 57.

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