Skip to Content

Missile Gap

“Missile gap” is a phrase used during the Cold War, referring to the theory that the US lagged behind the Soviet Union in terms of its ballistic missile defenses.

Origin of “Missile Gap”

The US and the USSR were engaged in a high-stakes arms race by the 1950s. That race intensified after the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik I in 1957.

Sputnik was the world’s first man-made satellite. On its own, it did not pose any threat to the US or other nations. However, Sputnik was proof positive that the USSR possessed missile technology capable of launching an object into orbit – something which the US did not yet possess. 

With the launch of Sputnik, the US government became convinced that the Soviet Union had the capability to threaten the continental United States with ballistic missiles.

In the same year, a report on US nuclear policies was commissioned, which drew some very pessimistic conclusions about America’s missile readiness compared to that of the Soviet Union. The so-called Gaither Report claimed that the Soviet Union could have a “significant” inter-continental missile capability within two years and that it might be able to strike at America’s Strategic Air Command’s bomber fleet. The report was classified as top secret but some of its contents were leaked to the media, feeding the public perception that America faced an existential threat from Soviet missiles.

The missile gap became a key issue in the 1960 presidential campaign, with the Democratic candidate, John F. Kennedy, arguing that the Republican administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower had allowed the United States to fall behind in the missile race. Kennedy argued that the United States needed to increase its military spending and accelerate its missile development programs to close the gap.

However, after Kennedy was elected, it was revealed that the missile gap was largely a myth. The United States actually had a significant advantage over the Soviet Union in terms of nuclear missiles, with more advanced technology and a larger number of missiles. The Soviet Union had been engaging in a propaganda campaign to create the impression that it was ahead in the missile race, and this campaign was largely successful in convincing the public and policymakers in the United States of the existence of a missile gap.

Kennedy did not publicly refute what he had said, but he joked about his mistake behind closed doors, telling advisors that “a patriotic and misguided man” had “put that myth around.”

American anxiety about the missile gap reached a peak in 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis, an event lasted just under two weeks but resonated in the public imagination for far longer. On October 16, 1962, the president was informed that the Soviet Union was building missile launch sites in Cuba. (This came in response to the Bay of Pigs invasion and to the American decision to install its own missile launch sites in Italy and in Turkey.) In response, Kennedy imposed a naval blockade around Cuba which remained in place until November 20, when the US confirmed that all of the ballistic missile systems had been taken apart.

Behind the scenes, during those tumultuous two weeks, the US and the USSR reached a private agreement under which the USSR would dismantle its Cuban missile sites in return for the US doing the same to its own sites in Turkey.

The concept of the missile gap had significant consequences for Cold War diplomacy and military strategy. It helped to fuel the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and contributed to the tensions between the two countries. It also led to increased military spending in the United States, as policymakers sought to address the perceived threat.

Use of “Missile Gap” in a sentence

  • The missile gap became a key issue in the 1960 presidential campaign, with both candidates promising to address the perceived disparity in nuclear missile capabilities between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a diplomatic dance to try to negotiate limits on their missile arsenals, but the negotiations ultimately failed due to mistrust and the continued belief in the existence of a missile gap.
  • Despite efforts to address the missile gap through diplomacy, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union continued for decades, leading to a costly and dangerous buildup of nuclear weapons on both sides.