129. Memorandum From the Secretary of Defense’s Special Assistant (Yarmolinsky) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)0

This is in response to your request for an addendum to our “Missile Gap” memorandum to the President.1 You asked that we focus on precisely what happened in January-February 1961 which led to Mr. McNamara’s background remarks on the non-existence of a missile gap.2 In terms of additional intelligence or a reappraisal of Soviet or U.S. strength, the fact is that nothing happened. As noted in our previous memorandum, the term “missile gap” was an extremely fuzzy one, and it was almost impossible to discuss the subject without saying something which was misleading, or at least sure to be interpreted in a misleading way. In short, there was, and was not, a missile gap in early 1961, depending on whether you included Polaris or not; whether you were worried that the Air Force estimate might be right or not; whether you were thinking of a strategically significant gap or merely a comparison of raw numbers, regardless of the practical significance; and whether you were talking about something now or something we feared was coming. It was under these circumstances that reporters came away from Mr. McNamara’s background briefing with the impression that he had said there was no gap.3

Given the disinclination of the Secretary of Defense to say anything to imply that the U.S. was no longer confident it could defend its vital interests, and taking into account the stories by responsible observers suggesting the contrary, it is not surprising that the Secretary took this line. (See, for example, Richard Rovere’s Letter from Washington for 11 January 1961, which is attached.)4 For, given the confusions in which the [Page 469] whole “missile gap” controversy was immersed, the Secretary could not say anything without being misleading, and he naturally preferred to lean towards the chance of being misinterpreted on the side of confidence in U.S. ability to defend itself.

If we are asked, in a political context, what was the difference between Mr. McNamara denying there was a gap and the Eisenhower Administration saying the same thing, the answer is this: Under Eisenhower, the denial that there was no gap was accompanied by a belief, at the highest levels, that our defense posture was adequate; under the new Administration, the denial was accompanied by an intense awareness that although we were not in immediate great danger, urgent immediate steps were nevertheless needed to improve our defense position. Thus, although there was little difference in what Defense officials said about the missile gap before and after January 1961, there were major differences in what was done about the missile gap and the whole range of defense deficiencies which this term had come to symbolize.5

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Subjects Series, Missile Gap 2/63-5/63. Secret. Marked “weekend reading.”
  2. In a March 4 memorandum to the President, McNamara described the missile gap controversy from 1956 onwards. He stated that comparison of the high side of estimates from NIEs in the fall of 1960 with projected ICBM inventories still indicated a possible 1962 missile gap; that by June 1961 it was “apparent that Soviet ICBM deployment had not proceeded as rapidly as was previously estimated” and that the “most dramatic downward revision in estimates” took place in September 1961. (Ibid.) For the forecasts made in June and September 1961, see Documents 29 and 45. For a formal estimate of Soviet ICBM activity, which was not revised for the remainder of 1960, see NIE 11-8-60, August 1, 1960, in Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. III, Document 111.
  3. Bundy made his request during a telephone call to Yarmolinsky on March 4: “I called him March 4 to say that we wanted more on the immediate period when we said there was no missile gap—Dec 60-Feb 61.” (Handwritten note on memorandum from Yarmolinsky to Bundy enclosing McNamara’s March 4 memorandum cited in footnote 2 above)
  4. See Document 14.
  5. Not attached. The article was published in The New Yorker, January 11, 1961.
  6. In a May 15 memorandum to Bundy, President Kennedy wrote in part: “The report that we got was too superficial. I want to be able to demonstrate that there was a military and intelligence lag in the previous administration that started the missile gap.” (Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, McGeorge Bundy 1962-1963) A May 31 memorandum from Nitze to Bundy encloses a 24-page memorandum by Lawrence McQuade, Special Assistant to Nitze, entitled “Where Did the Missile Gap Go?” With another memorandum to Bundy, dated June 17, Nitze enclosed a 20-page study on public statements made by various participants in the missile-gap controversy. (Both ibid., National Security Files, Subject Series, Missile Gap 6/63-7/63)