The Missile and Bomber Gaps: The Grand Deceptions of the 1960 Presidential Campaign by Gregory Hilton

Today in 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower gave his farewell address. The best known portion is when the departing President warned “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
For almost 50 years that quote has been used by liberals in their attempts to cut the defense budget and to stop national security programs. Eisenhower was planning to use the term “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but in a move he later regretted, was talked out of it by his brother.
Eisenhower was a strong advocate of defense modernization programs, and the real target of his speech was Capitol Hill, not the Pentagon. In those Cold War days, America was spending 9% of its GDP on defense programs, which is almost three times the level of our spending today. National security was ranked as the number one concern of the American people, and everyone was aware of the statement of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, “We will bury you.”
The tone of the farewell address was motivated by Ike’s anger at the Democratic Party. In three days John F. Kennedy would be inaugurated and Eisenhower was still stung by criticism aimed at his defense programs. Democrats had campaigned in 1956, ’58 and ’60 on non-existent gaps in defense programs. During Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election campaign the focus was on the “bomber gap.”
This shifted to a “missile gap” in 1958 when the Democrats won 16 Senate seats, and the charge was repeated with more vehemence during the 1960 presidential campaign. Unfortunately the Republican president did not provide any information to rebut these claims. To do so he thought would reveal closely guarded intelligence secrets.
The missile gap can now be seen as the grand deception of the 1960 campaign. It was fueled by the launch of the Soviet space satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957. This 184 pound satellite instantly became a symbol of Soviet pre-eminence in outer space. It was a major topic in the U.S. and shattered public confidence in our technological superiority. “The national ego had not been so affronted since Pearl Harbor,” Ben Pearse of the New York Times wrote of the national trauma.
Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) frequently mentioned Sputnik during his campaign to “Get America moving again.” Kennedy said Eisenhower was “putting fiscal security ahead of national security. Surely our nation’s security overrides budgetary considerations.” Kennedy said Eisenhower had always made insufficient appropriations for defense.
JFK often repeated the same theme, “The nation is 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. . . We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival.”
It was also an effective issue for him during the presidential debate, and he quoted the controversial 1957 Gaither Report of the President’s science advisers on the vulnerability of American defenses. Kennedy claimed the USSR had 50 ICBMs while America only had 10, and just 5 of them were operational at any time. He said the gap would be enormous by 1961 when the Soviets would have hundreds of new missiles.
Nixon later said he could not effectively respond to JFK because the information was classified. Kennedy had no inside information about a missile gap, and his source was right wing syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop. We now know Alsop’s figures were bogus.
Many Americans thought a Soviet attack was only a matter of time. Khrushchev arrived in the United States on September 19, 1959 for an uninvited and unwelcome twenty-five-day visit. He addressed the United Nations General Assembly, taunted UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and pounded a shoe on his desk in the General Assembly.
Senator Stuart Symington (D-MO), the former Secretary of the Air Force and the Democrats leading spokesman on defense said, “A very substantial missile gap does exist and the Eisenhower Administration apparently is going to permit this gap to increase.” President Eisenhower responded “The bomber gap of several years ago was always a fiction, and the missile gap shows every sign of being the same.”
In his book, “Who Ever Believed in the ‘Missile Gap’?”: John F. Kennedy and the Politics of National Security,” Christopher Preble argues that because of the missile gap rhetoric, senior Soviet military figures believed JFK was a dangerous extremist. They thought he was trying to justify a pre-emptive American attack, and this led to the Soviets placing nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962.
Talk of a bomber gap began in 1954 with the first reports of the USSR “Bison” jet bomber. On May 1, 1955, western observers at the annual May Day parade were awestruck as several formations of 10 new Bison’s thundered overhead. We now know these formations were an illusion.
It was the same pack of 10 bombers circling out of sight and then flying over Red Square six times. Americans were told 600 of these bombers existed, but Bison production was halted in 1963 with the construction of 93 aircraft. The Soviets were not pleased with the capabilities of the Bison and most of the planes were converted into refueling tankers.
In April of 1957 the Soviet Union unveiled the Bear bomber, and once again, rhetoric about a gap was intensified. U-2 intelligence flights had begun on July 4, 1956, and President Eisenhower had convincing proof that there was no gap. The same information was relayed to the Congress, but Democrats were not about to abandon an effective campaign issue. They were supported by defense and aerospace companies which wanted to keep production lines open. Their lobbying was successful and the U.S. response to the 93 Bison bombers was the construction of over 2,500 bombers for the U.S. Air Force.
The United States had a huge lead over the Soviet Union in those days, and the balance would not shift until the mid-1970s. It was known from the outset that these gaps were false, but they were effective political tools.
The campaign rhetoric was not necessary after Kennedy won, and at his first press briefing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said “The Russians probably have no more intercontinental ballistic missiles than the U.S.” He would later confirm that there never had been a bomber or missile gap. The debate finally ended in October 1961, when members of the Kennedy administration declared that the United States possessed overwhelming military strength in the number of bombers and missiles.

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