TOM PUTNAM: Good evening. I'm Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of Tom McNaught, Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I want to welcome everyone and acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsor Bank of America, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, Raytheon, the Boston Foundation, and our media partners, The Boston Globe and WBUR.
As you may know, this evening's panel is the capstone to a wonderful conference we hosted here today in partnership with the CIA and its Information Management Services and Historical Collections divisions. We want to thank the scholars and panelists who have traveled far to be with us and all of you for joining us this evening.
While this panel will include two speakers we've heard from earlier, we hope this session, while possibly reviewing some points that were made earlier, will offer a fresh perspective. For those of you who are here this afternoon, I hope you won't mind if I recycle a few portions of my earlier remarks.
For many, JFK is seen as the father of the missile gap, for he seized on that narrative, both in his 1958 Senate reelection campaign and in his quest for the Presidency. The notion that the US was falling behind the Soviet Union in terms of military might dovetailed with his campaign claims that the US had grown stagnant during the 1950s, and that it was time to get the country moving again.
"We are losing the satellite missile race with the Soviet Union," he noted, "because of complacent miscalculations, penny-pinching budget cutbacks, incredibly confused mismanagement and wasteful rivalries and jealousies." Once in office, when it was revealed that there was no gap and that, if anything, the US was ahead, he and his military advisors still had to deal with this issue.
I thought it might be interesting and fun at the outset to hear directly from President Kennedy as he discusses the missile gap with Secretary McNamara and others in a secretly recorded taped conversation in the Oval Office. The first voice you'll hear is Robert McNamara, followed by the President. We'll put a transcript on the screen to help you follow along.
McNamara: There was created a myth in the country that did great harm to the nation. It was created by, I would say, emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon. There are still people of that kind in the Pentagon. I wouldn't give them any foundation for creating another myth.
JFK: [inaudible] that missile gap, as ones of those who put that myth around, a patriotic and misguided man [laughter]
As the conversation continues, President Kennedy suggests that it wasn't just generals at the Pentagon and the Democratic opposition who put forth the notion of the missile gap, but the Eisenhower Administration itself. And he concludes on the tape, "I wonder if we could get someone over there to analyze this story of the missile gap, because it's bound to be of historic interest." As I quipped earlier, I hope this is not a measure of federal efficiency, but here we are, 50 years later, following the President's orders.
While JFK was often known for his self-deprecating wit, we know that during these years the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union was no laughing matter. To discuss the missile gap and the historical questions it poses about military intelligence, American politics, and its effect on our foreign policy and US-Soviet relations during this critical period in world history, we have a wonderful panel of experts with us this evening.
Fred Kaplan is a journalist, an author of three books, The Wizards of Armageddon: An Inside History of Nuclear Strategy; Daydream Believers, about American foreign policy in the early 21st century; and 1959: The Year Everything Changed. He also wrote for 20 years for our neighbor, The Boston Globe, first in Washington and then in Moscow, and currently writes for Slate.
Tim Naftali is Director of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, receiving national accolades for the unveiling of a new exhibit there on Watergate and in the process has brought great honor to the Presidential Library system writ large. Tim is the author of a number of books, including One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. He continues to be a frequent visitor to our research room as an independent scholar and an expert on this period in history and this President.
Next – I'm going to skip our moderator, I'll end with her – is Gene Poteat, President of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. And actually, there are a number of members of that Association here, and I wonder if you might stand so we can recognize the former intelligence officers here among us. [applause]
Gene is a retired CIA scientific intelligence officer. Throughout his career, he served abroad in London, Scandinavia and the Middle East. An electrical engineer and physicist by training, his CIA assignments included the Directorate of Science and Technology, where he worked on the U-2 spy plane and Corona satellite programs.
The last panelist on the end is John Prados, a senior research fellow at the National Security Archives at George Washington University. He's the author of 17 books, many of which have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, including Unwinnable War; Keepers of the Keys on the National Security Council; and Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, which also won the John Adams Prize.
And our moderator is Mary Sarotte, a professor of international relations at the University of South California and the author of 1989: The Struggle to Create a Post-Cold War Europe. She's a former White House fellow and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So allow me to end with just two quotes from JFK, the first, a direct comment on the missile gap. He once stated, "To the extent possible, I want to avoid the conflicting claims and confusions over dates and numbers. These largely involve difference of degree. I say only that the evidence is strong enough to indicate that we cannot be certain of our security in the future any more than we can be certain of disaster. If we were to err in an age of uncertainty, I want us to err on the side of security."
And if, as JFK and Robert McNamara suggested, the missile gap was in part a myth, like most myths, it did not die easily. "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest," JFK once reminded us, "but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
We're so pleased to have all of you here with us this evening to take a hard look at the history of the missile gap, its genesis, implications and unraveling, and to tell the full story, uncomfortable truths and all.
Please join me now in welcoming Fred Kaplan, Tim Naftali, John Prados, Gene Poteat and Mary Sarotte to the Kennedy Library. [applause]
MARY SAROTTE: Well, welcome. As someone trained in history, it's wonderful to see such a good crowd turning out in the evening for a historical discussion. It gives me hope. I hope we will live up to your expectations.
The format this evening is going to be somewhat informal. It's going to be more of a conversation than set presentations. So what I'll do is I have a series of questions about the missile gap, topics that are of interest to me and of our panelists. And I'll ask the questions, I'll indicate to one or another of the panelists, but if the other ones feel like jumping in, please feel free to do so. Then after we have a little bit of a discussion up here, we will go to you, the audience, for questions as well. And hopefully we will learn a lot and also enjoy the evening.
So some of us have been here during the day for the full conference, but others have just joined us. For those that have just joined us, to sort of have an introduction to this topic, I thought it might be useful, Fred, if you just talk a little bit about what the missile gap is. What is its significance? Why does it merit all of us being here this evening?
FRED KAPLAN: Well, the missile gap was born in 1957 when there was a CIA national intelligence estimate, as well as several quasi-government reports suggesting that the Soviet Union was way ahead of the United States in missilery and long-range missiles. And in part, it was this psychological thing that you were mentioning, that we were just falling behind generally, that we were stagnant. But there was also a serious strategic point, that what they were estimating was that by 1961 the Soviet Union would have several hundred long-range missiles, while we would have maybe a few dozen and mainly relying on bomber bases. And the danger was, as the Gaither Commission – which was a government-appointed commission – put it, there was this year of maximum danger, which I believe was identified as 1961, where the Soviet Union could actually launch a surprise attack with their missiles and basically disarm us, basically prevent us or reduce our forces to so little that we would not be able to retaliate in strength. That was the danger, that we would essentially fall prey to either a Soviet attack or the blackmail that they could impose upon us by having the ability to disarm us.
Now, it's interesting that – and I'll just make this very quick – this didn't come out of nowhere. In 1956, it was thought that there would be a bomber gap, that the Soviet Union would have many more bombers than we would. They would have 500 by 1961, and we would only have 100 or so. That grew out of an intelligence analysis of looking at how many bombers the Soviets put up in the air at a 1955 aviation show, of looking at the square footage of their bomber factories and having very conservative estimates of how much production they could do.
The interesting thing about the CIA's involvement in this is that they discredited both of them. First, there was a national intelligence estimate that there would be 500 bombers, but over the next few years– and over the next year, the CIA economic branch came up with an analysis -- and I can go into detail on this if anybody wanted me to -- but basically they proved that they could not possibly be producing this many bombers. Nowhere near.
This befuddled a lot of analysts, because everybody thought that the Soviets did want to attack us at some point, or have the ability to attack us. It was rescued in 1957 when they started producing ICBMs, and the bomber gap then became the missile gap. It was like, "Oh, okay, you're right, CIA, they're not producing this many bombers. That's because they've decided to produce this many missiles." And the numbers, 500, stayed exactly the same.
So that was the genesis of it. And the significance, again, wasn't so much just that they're out doing this, it was that they could completely upset the strategic balance of power.
MARY SAROTTE: Since we have someone here with actual experience, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how it looked from your point of view, what problems there were in intelligence collection about what was going on.
GENE POTEAT: It was nothing but problems, as a matter of fact. Since there was a so-called missile gap, it came about simply because we didn't have enough intelligence to help the analysts come up with any conclusions. In other words, we also had an intelligence collection gap at the same time. Would you believe it? The CIA had not a single spy case officer in the Soviet Union in those days. It was long after Gary Powers was shot down before they got the first one in the Soviet Union.
However, President Eisenhower, with the advice of the leading scientists in the United States, came to the conclusion that we had to do certain things. And he called a meeting, and he had the CIA present, chief of staff of the Air Force, and other officials like that, and he gave orders to the
CIA to do three things. He said first, "You got to get spies in the Soviet Union, that's your job." Number two, "We're going to have aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union to see what they've got." And number three, "That plane is going to be vulnerable so you'd better start building imaging satellites to replace the airplane."
And Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, said to the President– no, Eisenhower said, "And I want the CIA to do it. I want you to take the lead and develop these systems." And the Director of CIA said, "That's not our business. We're not in that business. We don't know anything about airplanes or aeronautics or spy satellites, or anything like that. We're not in that business." The President looked at Allen Dulles and said, "You're in that business now. [laughter] And you've got to do it in total secrecy."
That's how it started. As a matter of fact, within a matter of about nine months or less, they had the infamous U-2 flying. They learned fast. They started the satellite Corona at the same time, again, to fill the collection gap. And they did start working on getting spies in the Soviet Union. But I was very lucky at the time. I had a small role in all of these high tech projects. It was a wonderful time to be there, I assure you.
MARY SAROTTE: Well, we've heard from you about some of the problems in intelligence collection. John, perhaps you could tell us a little bit, from your expertise, about the problems in intelligence analysis.
JOHN PRADOS: Yes, absolutely. This information that was coming in from the new technical means was only the beginning. It was at that point that someone had to figure out what it all meant. The problem of the missile gap and the thing that made it so critical for the United States was really the difference between what is knowable and what is not knowable. And in the world of intelligence, the distinctions between knowable and unknowables are crucial. A knowable: you can go out to the T and you can count the number of cars that operate on the T every day.
The unknowable is to say today what is going to be the decision of the T officials on replacing their fleet of cars ten years from now.
The problem with the missile gap was that our intelligence analysts, on the basis of this partial information that the collectors were bringing in, were supposed to be predicting and reporting what was the actual strength of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile forces and what was going to be their strength in out years – next year, two years from now, five years from now. And, in consequence of that, what would be their capacity to attack the United States. These were, at that time, crucial problems.
MARY SAROTTE: Well, of course, when we talk about the missile gap, we have to remember that there were two sides to the story, and so far we've talked a lot about the United States, but fortunately we have Tim with us, who's very much an expert on the Soviet side. So I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about these topics from the Soviet side.
TIM NAFTALI: Imagine if you have all these sets of collection and analytical challenges and you're dealing with a country that doesn't want you to know what they're doing. In fact, not only do they not want you to know what they're doing, they are actively trying to trick you into believing that things are different than they actually are.
Fred mentioned the story of the bomber gap. One of the ways that the Soviets misled US intelligence about how many bombers they had was at the air show in 1955. What they did was they knew all these military attaches from the NATO countries were sitting there looking up, taking notes, and they just took the same bombers and flew them over and over and over again. "Oh, that's 14, 25." It was the same bombers, but they just had a very long loop, and they couldn't see as they left the horizon. They came back and they kept counting them.
So you have a society that is actively doing this. Now, why are they doing this? One of the analytical challenges, of course, includes thinking like the other side. What if you have another side that has decided that, because they're weak, they need to bluff you? And what if you have another side that actually doesn't have the resources that you think they have? And so, they have to make choices.
One of the problems, one of the reasons why American analysts were having these debates was that there were people making the following argument: They hate us. They will work 24 hours a day to build as many missiles as they can. And you can't prove that they can't. Well, in the last ten years, some Russian materials have been opened, and we can see the Politburo discussions of that era. We can see them talking about whether to build a fifth or a sixth floor on the apartment buildings. And the issue is they were having problems because their balconies were collapsing. When Yuri Gagarin, an example of how the Soviets were so far ahead of us in space, when he came back, there was some concern that under the weight of people watching him from their balconies as he went along the boulevards, that balconies would collapse.
So the Russians were making decisions about how to spend their money. And Khrushchev made a decision in late 1959, after visiting the United States, that they were spending too much money on the military and they should spend more on their consumer economy. So he decides to take a risk. He decides to put all their investment into these strategic missiles, which were going to take a number of years to develop, and to start cutting their conventional forces.
At the same time that we're really afraid that we're behind, they're making a decision to be behind. But they had to cover it up. So while we're having this debate in the United States in 1960, and it's an election year, so you can imagine, in election years – this is neither a Republican nor a Democratic comment – we're not always at our best in our national security discussions. At a time when we're in an election year, the Soviets are doing their utmost -- particularly their leader, Nikita Khrushchev -- to mislead us because they are behind. They know they're behind, and they're afraid we'll take advantage of their weakness and do something provocative in the international system.
JOHN PRADOS: Let me just jump in there and add that the Russians had the key advantage of, in fact, a spy. They had recruited an Army colonel who worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a fellow by the name of William Whalen, who had access to the national intelligence estimates that Fred mentioned. So in plotting his strategy to mislead the United States, Nikita Khrushchev had the advantage of knowing what American intelligence was saying inside its hallowed chambers.
FRED KAPLAN: Maybe we should give away the punchline, too, in a way. In 1957, it was estimated – I might be getting these numbers slightly off; there's a chart in the book that you might pick up. It was estimated that the Soviet Union would have around 200 ICBMs by 1961. In fact, come 1961, they had four, four ICBMs.
TIM NAFTALI: But here's the problem. You're President of the United States. Your intelligence community, until they developed satellites, cannot give you a hard number. Your adversary is provoking you over Berlin, which is Hitler's capital captured by the four armies, divided up by the four victorious Allies armies, still run as four occupied zones.
The Soviets are acting as if they're ahead in the game. They're provoking us over Berlin. They're occasionally provoking us in Southeast Asia. They have a very provocative relationship with Cuba. They're not acting like they're behind, and you're President of the United States and you basically have to say they're bluffing. How can a President, without really good intelligence, safely say and politically survive, that a foreign adversary is bluffing. That was the challenge that Eisenhower and Kennedy faced.
MARY SAROTTE: I'm wondering what happened to the spy.
JOHN PRADOS: The spy was eventually caught in the United States in the middle 1960s and sent to prison and spent 20 years in Leavenworth.
MARY SAROTTE: Interesting. Well, this actually segues nicely to what I wanted to talk about next, which is, could you perhaps, Fred, talk about – or anyone else who wants to jump in – how the paradigm and the perception gradually shifts, the realization that it's probably not hundreds, it's probably tens, or even just four missiles we're talking about here. And how hard was it in the minds of policymakers who had so much invested in the older view, how hard was it to change their minds? Did they do that willingly or slowly or reluctantly? How did that happen?
FRED KAPLAN: Well, the technology is what was discussed earlier, that first the U-2 spy plane, but that didn't cover every place. And then satellite, photographic satellites, and analysts who knew how to read the imagery, and it became pretty clear that there just wasn't anything there. It became pretty clear by around the spring of 1961, a few months after President Kennedy who had campaigned, like every other Democrat– this was the Democrats trying to beat up the Republicans for seeming weak and sluggish. Dwight Eisenhower was, at the time, the oldest President who had ever served in the White House. He had a heart attack and a stroke; he wasn't in good shape. 1958, there was a recession. Just everything was going to hell. The Russians are launching rockets into space, and ours are blowing up on the launch pad. Now, it turns out that really wasn't the complete story.
In terms of how it convinced people, the CIA analysts who discovered that there was first no bomber gap and then no missile gap, they had no vested interest to do this. In fact, quite the contrary. It is absolutely true that the Air Force had a vested interest in saying that there were as many missiles and bombers on the Soviet side that they could come up with, because that meant that you needed more American bombers and American missiles. They made those, that was their budget. You needed more so that you could have more when they would attack, and you needed more to attack their stuff, too.
But in the CIA, it was also the case that … Look, everybody thought at the time, everybody in the intelligence community, that the Soviet Union had the objective of threatening our forces, that they were building up a capability not merely for deterrence, but to pose a first strike threat against the United States. Everybody thought this. There was no -- or at least not much -- dispute on this.
As the CIA became more and more aware through their analysis that the Soviet Union really had damn little, first in bombers and then in missiles, there was at first cognitive dissonance, because they were too afraid to say they might only have a dozen. They were saying, okay, 40, 50. If they only had that many missiles, they couldn't possibly pose a first strike threat against us. So they were initially very reluctant even to come to this conclusion.
It was not just, “Oh, they're not ahead of us.” It was, “Well, wait, if they're not ahead of us, then what does that say about what the Soviets' objectives and aims really are?” With the bomber gap, they could get out of it. They could say, "Oh, well, they're building missiles, not bombers." But if they were not even building missiles, what does that say to what their objectives were? It was a hard thing to come to.
MARY SAROTTE: You're nodding heavily. Did you want to jump in?
TIM NAFTALI: Well, I just wanted to say the Soviet material makes it clear, the Russian material, that they were not seeking a first strike capability. They were afraid we were going to attack them.
Now, I'm not saying they weren't ideological. In fact, one of the things about Khrushchev is that he was very ideological. And we can talk about that in a moment. What Khrushchev didn't understand was that by bluffing, he was actually encouraging us to make the strategic balance worse for him. But he, I think, believed he had no alternative because of his sense of the weakness of the Soviet Union.
From our perspective, this kind of behavior was not what we expected from a tyrant. And I think it has a lot to do with how people analyzed Hitler. It was only years later that historians realized that Hitler's generals didn't even want him to do what he did and that if we had actually just sneezed, they might not have moved into some of the countries. In that period, there was this sort of sense of the tyrant, of the more powerful the tyrant feels he is, the more likely he is to challenge you. It's only later we began to realize that actually a lot of tyrants are puffer fish.
They're so afraid, they puff themselves up and make themselves seem a little bit scarier than they actually are.
JOHN PRADOS: Now, I want to dispute, or maybe just put a little nuance on what Fred said there for a moment. And a lot of our common wisdom about the missile gap, this whole idea that it's about programmatic concerns on the American side, the only interests are those of the military services who wanted to generate forces. So you have the Air Force constantly predicting the maximalist Soviet threat, and you have the CIA being more somewhere in the middle, and you have the Army and the Navy at the bottom predicting the least Soviet threat.
I actually discussed these points with Howard Stoertz, who was one of the CIA officers that was responsible for writing many of these missile gap estimates. And he gave me a very interesting perspective, which I thought I would share, and that is this: He attributed the Army and the Navy positions to the fact that those American armed services dated to the foundation of the republic. Somehow they were more mature and they had a deeper vision of where America wanted to go. And, he also pointed out by the way, that the CIA itself did have an interest in what the estimates were – in fact it was mentioned earlier today – because it was making a claim, it was laying a stake to establish its expertise in military analysis, which was not an area– or had been an area actually that was considered a preserve of the military services. So the CIA had a certain interest, even if not a programmatic one.
MARY SAROTTE: Did you want to say something, Fred?
FRED KAPLAN: The thing about the Army and the Navy is kind of nonsense, I think. But no, I wouldn't disagree at all with the other part. I think that's absolutely true. He's right, the CIA in
the mid-'50s had no charter to get into military analysis. That's why the Air Force, which had an interest in the results, was the one doing the analysis of missiles. They got into it because they had a branch that did analysis of economic production in the Soviet Union. They looked at the production rates of bombers, and that's when they – again, I think you're right – completely, as unexpectedly as anybody else, came to the conclusion that they weren't building as many bombers.
CIA also had a scientific and technology branch, and they got into the technical characteristics of the missiles, which is how they came to the conclusion, and again completely unexpectedly, that they weren't building as many missiles as everybody thought.
As far the Army and the Navy, look, the Army wasn't in the long range nuclear game. And they weren't going to get any extra money out of talking about building more missiles. The Navy was about to get into it with the Polaris missile, but at the time a lot of people in the Navy were still, dating back to the early '50s when there was a battle, will our main nuclear force be the B-36 bomber of the Air Force or the supercarrier of the Navy? And the B-36 won. At which point, the Navy became so averse to nuclear weapons that there's some famous testimony in the early '50s where an admiral tried to make the case that nuclear weapons weren't even very effective, that if you stood on one end of the runway at National Airport and blew up an atomic bomb on the other end, you wouldn't be hurt at all. [laughter]
So I think the Army and the Navy had rather ulterior motives. And the fact that they did have ulterior motives, the fact that the Army and the Navy were saying, "Oh, we think the Soviet Union is only going to have a couple dozen nukes by 1961," it wasn't even taken that seriously, because they were thought to have vested interest. It was only when the CIA came into it and presented, especially with the satellites, pretty irrefutable data that everybody started coming around.
MARY SAROTTE: Did you want to say a few final words?
JOHN PRADOS: No, let's move on. [laughter]
MARY SAROTTE: I just wanted to ask our professional here if you had anything you wanted to share on this discussion of how it became apparent that there wasn't a missile gap.
GENE POTEAT: You bet, I've been waiting on that opportunity. [laughter]
MARY SAROTTE: Well, here it is.
GENE POTEAT: First of all, those of us closing the intelligence collection gap referred to all this analysis as analysis paralysis. And you notice that after the collection really got in gear, the analysis began to improve. It began to change, because of the high tech collection and getting spies in the Soviet Union.
FRED KAPLAN: You had something to analyze.
GENE POTEAT: But it was interesting in that the technical collection that the CIA, Johnny- come-lately, got into the business and went on to become probably the leading science and technology, R&D defense establishment in the world, because they created these U-2s beyond belief. They created the A-12 Oxcart, the predecessor to the SR-71, all for collection. It turned out they built these incredible satellites after the Corona. We had real-time, incredibly high resolution KH-11 satellites that could take an ultrahigh resolution picture over the Middle East, or over Russia, and have it in Washington in a few seconds. This was an incredible change, and it changed the way that intelligence analysis was done. It changed the way collection was done. So it's been an incredible change in everything. The equation's more balanced now, for a change. But it was pretty rough going during the period you were talking about.
JOHN PRADOS: Gene is quite right about that, but the problem with the missile gap was what was happening in Russia. If the Russians aren't building missiles, no matter how good the U-2, no matter how good the Corona, it wasn't photographing anything.
So the national estimates had to be crafted by analysts who needed to explain what was going on in the absence of data. And here is the key to the whole problem: In the world of no-observables, the unknowable is king.
TIM NAFTALI: It's difficult to prove the negative.
GENE POTEAT: But it turns out that all of this exotic collection had its special problems, because the Soviets always knew that this collection was under way, and they did everything they could to deceive this collection. So the job was far more difficult than you realized. They did everything they could to keep those satellites from getting good intelligence, and they were fairly effective. So it created a new type of analyst. How do you really, in spite of the deception against you, how do you get the real answer? So it's an amazing, highly difficult problem.
MARY SAROTTE: Do you remember that as real intelligence started coming in, the feeling of realizing, wow, they have much less than we thought? Do you remember those days or weeks or months?
GENE POTEAT: Oh, very. [laughter] Yes. It turns out we were sort of suspicious all along that it wasn't what we were hearing. I think what we felt was that the numbers were so diverse, they were extreme in such a degree. The trick was how do you do that. That was a political problem. Even in light of the collection that got hard answers about numbers and factors and everything, you still could not, in some cases, convince the military services. In spite of that, they would ignore you.
FRED KAPLAN: What you were saying about deception, that they took advantage of this, I mean, there were Air Force generals in Air Force intelligence not just in the early '60s, but through the '70s, who were – this was said in one of the earlier panels – they would have these enormous slideshows with photos. There would be a photo of a medieval tower out in the middle of Siberia. They would say, "See? There could be an ICBM in that tower." Or a picture of an enormous building, out in the middle of nowhere. What is this purpose of this building? There could very well be an ICBM inside that building.
And as John said -- or one of you said -- how do you prove, or how do you disprove a negative. You can't prove that there's not a missile. Now, what you would have to do is say, “Okay, let's say there is a missile. Where's the command control? Where's the supply? There's nothing around it.” So even if you're right, you can't do anything with this ICBM.
But I mean it took years and years of this kind of debate. But in the mainstream -- which is to say the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA, the people in power -- by about March of 1961, it was pretty well understood that there was no missile gap, except maybe the other way around. To the extent there was a missile gap, we were way ahead of them.
Then the question becomes, so why did we start building 1,000 ICBMs? And that gets into rather political things, which may have spurred the Soviet Union to match us in kind. Although others would say they would have done the same in any event.
MARY SAROTTE: Actually, that's something I wanted to pick up on, because you both just mentioned the effects of politics on the understanding and uses of intelligence. I don't know, John, if you want to comment on that?
JOHN PRADOS: Sure. The way that this entire intelligence debate evolved is centrally political. Actually, when the CIA projected a Soviet ICBM in early 1957, they predicted that the Russians might have one or a few missiles able to be fired in 1961. In 1961, someone's already mentioned the number four; the Russians actually had four missiles. That number four never appeared in an American national intelligence estimate, either by the CIA or by any of the armed services.
The collection of data -- the more we collected -- was not necessarily reflected in the intelligence estimates either. The intelligence estimates got more and more sophisticated. In fact, it was mentioned earlier today that certain economic projections and certain sophisticated analytical techniques applied to the national intelligence estimates greatly enhanced their sophistication.
The most sophisticated of those intelligence estimates, the one that appeared in early 1960, was actually the one that triggered the most political controversy. All kinds of figures on both sides of the debate about whether the Russians are coming lined up to take a bead on the intelligence estimates.
Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA at that time, was pulled in to Congress to give testimony before a committee that was chaired by Lyndon Johnson and was examining air and space US missile programs and, of course, found that Russian missile developments were central to their interests. Dulles refused to testify to the Senators about the contents of the national intelligence estimate that they had just completed days before this event occurred.
That estimate happened to predict that the Russians had 35 ICBM missiles. And at the time, the United States had 12 Atlas A missiles. After Dulles refused to testify, the Senator, in this case Stuart Symington, asked him to divide the number 36 by 12. And when Dulles responded, the next day's New York Times reported that the chief of the CIA conceded that the Russians had a three-to-one advantage in ICBM missiles. [laughter] The process -- well, I shouldn't say the process. I should say the conclusions of these estimates were inherently political because of the sensitivity of the question of defense in the United States.
FRED KAPLAN: One thing should be noted.
GENE POTEAT: Can I make a comment?
FRED KAPLAN: Can I just say one thing first? There was no Congressional oversight back then. Congress knew nothing about the U-2. Nobody in Congress, not the chairman of the Armed Services Committee knew anything about any of this. So when you look back in history at … Now, there's the Freedom of Information Act, there's a story from a leak in the New York Times. Nobody knew about any of this stuff. Even Eisenhower was getting pummeled for, "How come you won't face up to the fact that there's a missile gap? You're lying to us. Either that or you're either a knave or a fool." He didn't tell anybody that the U-2 existed, much less that the Corona existed.
The tapes that are in this Kennedy Library -- now, Kennedy never had the slightest notion that these would ever be made public -- things like that were the ownership of the President; he was going to use them to write his memoirs or something. The idea that any of this would have come out in public in 1961 to '63, it wouldn't have occurred to him for a second. So when we're talking about what Congress was doing, what Presidential candidates were doing, they didn't know anything. And in a certain way, they didn't want to know anything.
TIM NAFTALI: Well, don't forget that there was intentional leaking. And the Air Force was leaking …
FRED KAPLAN: Yes, that's true.
TIM NAFTALI: … their estimates, and there was a debate in the press. Joe Alsop and others were leading this debate, and they were leading it on the basis of leaked estimates. And they were the estimates that took the wildest assumptions about Soviet ICBMs.
FRED KAPLAN: Right. Which is why Symington and these guys couldn't understand why Eisenhower was denying this, "How can you deny this?
TIM NAFTALI: That's right. And the problem, as you mentioned, for Eisenhower was how do you deny this without revealing your most secret collection capability.
MARY SAROTTE: Gene? [laughter]
GENE POTEAT: Let me take you outside of this intelligence world for a moment. Before that, I worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories and I was involved in developing American missile guidance systems. And we had our own impressions and thoughts. We were in a deadly race at the time against the Soviet Union, because we thought -- the private industry that I was in thought -- that we were outgunned by the Soviets, and we were working hard to get our missiles up and running and accurate, and so on.
I was at Cape Canaveral working at the time, testing our ICBMs that we had under way. This was in the 1950s. But the industry really believed that we were outgunning, we were catching up for a while. But we were under the influence of the Air Force at the time, because we were working on their contracts to build our ICBMs. So private industry had a completely different view; we had no knowledge.
FRED KAPLAN: You only realized that today? [laughter]
TIM NAFTALI: Eisenhower was so frustrated by this. What is his last famous statement to the country? It's about the military industrial complex. If you want to understand, he knew this. He understood this problem. He knew it very well, and so did Kennedy. After the missile gap was resolved and it was clear that we were way ahead, Kennedy was making the argument to Robert McNamara, his Secretary of Defense, and he said, "Why do we have to buy so many missiles?" And the answer was that it was political. It was, "You don't want to take the risk that tomorrow the Soviets start a major development program, which four years from now results in us being behind." And Kennedy put this question to McNamara about cutting the number, because, he
said, "They don't have as many as we thought." So there were, even when you know the facts, structures in place that pushed our government to build more than it needed.
JOHN PRADOS: Let me just follow up on Gene's comment for a moment here. Those kinds of technical issues converted into political pressure on intelligence. In 1959, for example, CIA perceived Eisenhower's science advisors as some of their enemies in this whole question of interpreting the Russians. A CIA/scientific advisory group under a fellow named Pat Hyland did an investigation of Russian technical capabilities in the missile arena. This was, mind you, at a time when the Soviet Union failed sequentially in three straight lunar shots before they were able to land Lunik on the moon. So it wasn't just American rockets that were blowing up all the time. And the Russian ICBM program was dead for over six months. Yet, there was no downgrading of the size of the Soviet threat predicted in the national estimate crafted before this Russian hiatus and the national estimate that was written afterwards.
MARY SAROTTE: Interesting. I was going to ask you, you started to address the topic a bit, but since we've been talking about the effects of politics on intelligence, I wanted to ask you about the flip side, the effects of intelligence on politics, and particularly on the policy of the Kennedy presidency.
TIM NAFTALI: Well, it's really usually very difficult to know when intelligence matters, but this is not one of those cases. You can see the effect of the revision of assessment. By the way, we've been talking as if all of you know what these are. These national intelligence estimates, they are a consensus – and it's a rough consensus – of the chiefs of all the intelligence services. It was chaired by the CIA, but it still was the community's view. In those days, the head of the CIA was also the director of Central Intelligence. He oversaw the community. So this is the community's view, and they disagreed. When they disagreed, they would put footnotes, or they would have these estimates of, between five and 500. That was a way they could get over it.
So when this suddenly is revised downward, the US government begins to reassess its assessment of the Soviet threat and begins to see the Soviet threat as more subversion than military aggression. So in early 1962, you begin to see the formation of something, a Special Group (counterinsurgency). The US government begins to think more about counterinsurgency. The US government is building more conventional forces in order to have capabilities to participate in developments in the Third World. That's a follow-on to the assumption that, hey, the Soviets are not building a first strike capability. They're going to try to undermine us through their relationships in the Third World. So there's a real effect on our threat perception.
There's also a question of what to do with Khrushchev, and it's one of the imponderables. I don't have the answer. I don't know if anybody can. But the problem was how do you tell Khrushchev that we can call his bluff? You're playing poker, and you know that they're bluffing. How do you tell him in the way that is the most effective in the international system?
If you look at the Kennedy Administration's discussions with itself, nobody came up with the idea of going privately to Khrushchev, which is odd because the Kennedy brothers -- the President and the Attorney General -- had a back channel relationship with Khrushchev and could have sent a message to him without challenging him publicly. But the choice that was made was to make a public speech by the Deputy Secretary of Defense that made clear to the American people and the world that we knew that not only we weren't behind, that we were ahead.
That decision pushed Khrushchev in a way that turned out to be dramatic in 1962. To make a long story short, we know from materials released only eight years ago that Khrushchev went in front of the Presidium – that's the Politburo – and said, "We now know war is possible. They're going to play the game that we've been playing," what he called the position of strength game. What it was was to take military weapons and make use of their political utility, to scare people into making concessions.
The Soviets, even though they didn't plan to launch a nuclear first strike on us, were still aggressive. But what they wanted to do was to get what they wanted short of war. Push us around the world, aid their allies, change the nature of the international system, but without going to war. They now realized that we knew how powerful we were and how weak they were.
Khrushchev, rather than doing what most of us would assume, which was to back off a little bit and to let their strategic programs develop, decided to make 1962 the most dangerous year in the Cold War by putting pressure on us all around the world, because he saw us as an existential threat, that we needed to be, we needed to be deterred. And the only way to deter us was to scare us, and if he couldn't scare us through the myth of the missile gap, he'd scare us by just being active all over the world. And of course, our reaction was to respond. And their reaction was to respond. And the outcome, I believe, was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
JOHN PRADOS: I've often wondered about that end of the Missile Gap Speech, whether it was sort of like answering the Russians in kind for Khrushchev's "We're making missiles like sausages" speech, which he sprang on the United States back in the heart of this missile gap period.
But just to bring the question back to John F. Kennedy, here's what I wonder about him and maybe you have a good thought on this. Kennedy, in his political campaign for the Presidency in 1960, supported a different defense policy than Eisenhower. He was going to go more for conventional weaponry. He was going to deemphasize the nuclear.
Now, that seems contradictory, to me, from Kennedy's simultaneous emphasis on the fact of the existence of a missile gap and how this was such a threat. On the one hand, he's pushing for something that's got to result in more nuclear weapons. On the other hand, he's saying, "What we need is conventional force."
TIM NAFTALI: I was just going to say that I think that Senator Kennedy's, his arguments in the national security field in the campaign are slightly confused. Last year it was the anniversary, and I watched the debates. He's talking about Quemoy and Matsu as a way of saying that the Eisenhower Administration is too provocative. On the one hand, he's arguing that the Eisenhower Administration is not doing what it needs to do to defend the country. On the other hand, it's too provocative. I think that his effort was to say that we can do better on national security. I don't see consistency there.
FRED KAPLAN: Also, Henry Kissinger wrote a book at the time called The Necessity for Choice, which was very influential, and it was part of a whole group of Democratic hawks -- that they now would be called -- calling for … Well, let me back up a minute.
Eisenhower had at least a stated policy called massive retaliation. The idea was if the Soviets, for example, invade Western Europe, or do anything to threaten vital interests in the Western world, we would retaliate with nuclear weapons. And there was a stream of thought among many Democrats at the time, “No, that's really dangerous, especially if they're building their own nuclear weapons. If we retaliate with nuclear, they'll retaliate with nuclear. So we're committing suicide by doing that. We need to build up conventional forces so that we can have a conventional response to a conventional threat.”
At the same time, though, I think Kennedy thought that we were behind in missiles, too. I think as a matter of policy he's saying, “Let's build up a conventional force.” But as a matter of programs, I think he thought, as a Presidential candidate, that we would need to really zoom up our missile program as well. I don't think it was a contradiction; it was addressing two different things.
MARY SAROTTE: So just to give the audience a head's up, I have one more question I wanted to ask the panel, but then we're going to go to you for questions. We'll ask you to please come and speak at the microphones. If you already know that you'd like to ask a question, feel free to come and line up. Please keep them brief so we can get as many questions in as possible. So start thinking about your questions.
Another question I have, and this one is really directed to everyone, is we're talking obviously about a historical case study here, but what can we learn from it today for US policy in the last decade, or even right now? Are there parallels? Are there useful lessons that we can take from this for intelligence collection and policymaking now?
FRED KAPLAN: Well, I think the Iraq weapons of mass destruction case is a very close parallel. You had some intelligence that Iraq was developing certain things, or at least that they were interested in developing certain things. You had interested parties. The entire first and second echelon of the Bush Administration had signed a letter to Clinton in 1998 calling for the military ouster of Saddam Hussein as a great danger. So that's parallel to sort of the Air Force view of, say, the Soviet missile program. And you had some information that could be cobbled together from intelligence information to get there. At the same time, you also had Saddam Hussein bluffing that in fact he was developing weapons of mass destruction. He thought that would deter the United States from invading. He thought it might also deter Iran from reinvading, and that it would bolster his standing among his own people and his own government. There were plenty of people in the Iraqi government, we learned after the fact, who, when the United States said Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction, believed that. Because otherwise, why would we be saying that? So the lessons of both is that you should be a lot more careful in your intelligence analysis and maybe not take for granted what leaders are saying about their own capabilities.
TIM NAFTALI: There are Saddam tapes. The Pentagon has translated and transcribed them. I understand we'll see more of them next year. My understanding is that they show this. He was as concerned. After all, think about it. Tyrants are in a very cruel world. We think that elections are cruel; it's even worse if you're a tyrant. [laughter] And so, there are no incentives to appearing weak.
Now, I remind you, I don't speak for the US government, but there are, of course, current parallels. When we assess Iran and when we assess North Korea, we have to ask ourselves the same question: Does North Korea have an interest in making us exaggerate their power? Do they have an interest in deceiving us about their weakness? Does Iran have an interest in exaggerating its ability to acquire weapons? And then I have a question for all of you, which is, what would you want our President to know to be able to argue to the US military, or to Congress in executive session, "I think they're bluffing?" Because, remember, if you're wrong, the downside risk is enormous.
The beauty of Corona is that it allowed Kennedy …
MARY SAROTTE: You might want to explain what Corona is.
TIM NAFTALI: Sorry, the satellite program that ended the missile gap. The beauty of Corona was that it actually allowed President Kennedy to say, "They're bluffing." The United States had a very good agent in the Soviet Union, Oleg Penkovsky, who in fact had reported – Colonel Penkovsky – that Khrushchev was bluffing. But that was one agent. Human intelligence, however good, it can be dismissed: he's lying, he's a mole, he's a double agent, what have you. But you had these pictures.
What kind of intelligence does the President need to be able to say North Korea's bluffing, Iran is bluffing. That's why this missile gap story is so important for policymakers today. Because it forces you to really scrub your assumptions hard and ask yourself, “Am I asking the right questions? Am I getting the right information? And how much certainty does a policymaker have to have to conclude that the adversary is bluffing?”
GENE POTEAT: A couple of points about bluffing. It turns out that the thing that frightened the Russians, if I can go a little bit beyond the missile and bomber gap. When President Kennedy made his famous speech and said, "We're going to put an American on the moon and bring him back safely in this decade," panic was taking place in the Soviet Union. And what was their response? They created a competition. They were going to go to the moon also. And we had, what, nearly a decade of race to the moon. Guess what? The Soviets had no chance of ever pulling it off. They had been bluffing. Their program could never have gotten to the moon. It was technically impossible. And yet, they continued. And we thought we were in a neck-to-neck race to the moon, and we were not; they had no hope.
As a matter of fact, the Soviets didn't have the technical capability to do it in the first place. What they had, they had stolen every single secret the West had, bar none. But they never learned that you can't live by theft alone. [laughter] You've got to know how to do it yourself. They never learned that lesson.
TIM NAFTALI: Just a quick point on this. When we say bluffing, we also mean prestige. Countries also have self-respect. When Gagarin, the very first astronaut in space, a cosmonaut, a Russian, when Gagarin goes into space, the Soviets were really proud. And just after that, John F. Kennedy, in a back channel message to the Soviets offers a joint space program. Did you know that?
GENE POTEAT: Oh, yes.
TIM NAFTALI: And Khrushchev turned him down. He turned him down because the Russians at that point thought maybe they could compete with us in space. And why lose an area that had such transcendent international prestige value? So bluffing also is not simply these tyrants puffing out their chest and wanting to feel virile and powerful. It's also a matter of national prestige, standing up to the big, strong United States.
FRED KAPLAN: Can I throw in one?
MARY SAROTTE: Actually, John, you have something.
JOHN PRADOS: One of the major lessons of the missile gap as a security problem is a certain paradox. Force without intention is futile, but intention without force is nothing. As an analytical structure, the problem we face today, right now, in identifying what is going on with our adversaries in this kind of war on terror thing bears every kind of resemblance to the issues that these intelligence analysts were wrestling with in the missile gap. There's the same lack of observables. There's the same set of declaratory statements by adversary leaders. There's the same invisibility of the foe. I think we can learn from the missile gap, even today.
MARY SAROTTE: Fred?
FRED KAPLAN: It was a digression.
MARY SAROTTE: Historic moment! Yield to the floor! [laughter] So I actually wanted to add when you were defining Corona and so forth, the sound system, I keep hearing U-2 as YouTube. [laughter] The first time I heard that I thought, wow, this CIA had YouTube in 1959! [laughter]
TIM NAFTALI: 1960.
MARY SAROTTE: 1960.
TIM NAFTALI: They had Flickr, too.
MARY SAROTTE: Flickr.
TIM NAFTALI: But we didn't share that.
MARY SAROTTE: Wow, that's advanced! All right, so this is the audience participation section part of the evening, so I would like to encourage you to come up and ask questions, perhaps tell us very briefly who are you, and ask a question.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Daniel Scinto. I'm from Orange County, California. Now, in 1960/63, early '60s, as you pointed out, we didn't really know what they had. We had some ideas, but we also know that Stalin lied to Hitler; he had many more tanks than what he did. He underreported a number of things to Hitler. We don't know why he did that. Perhaps he was afraid Hitler was going to ask him to do more than he wanted to do.
So you had all that uncertainty. Wasn't it rather a high risk strategy to take, as opposed to calling him up on his back line and divulge what the situation was, what we had, and to resolve this conflict without going public with it, as opposed to taking the risk of rubbing your adversary in the nose and embarrassing him in front of the world and taking the risk that, well, maybe they had more missiles or more power than what he had. Do you think it was rather a reckless approach? I'd like to get all of your opinions about that. Thank you.
MARY SAROTTE: Thank you.
TIM NAFTALI: I guess I don't think it was reckless on the part of the United States government. It was the product of a decision-making process, and they thought about it. I'm suggesting that one of the imponderables is would Khrushchev have acted differently?
The problem for the United States was that Khrushchev's entire national security strategy in 1961 was based on the assumption that we wouldn't really figure out how little they had. And once we'd blown that apart, he had no national security strategy. So he was going to be scrambling.
Given that he did not want to launch a first strike against us – that's quite clear from the evidence that's available now and it's good evidence – was there a way of building on the fact that though he disliked us and he wanted communism to reach all corners of the world, he actually preferred success through political means. He wanted a period of peace, even though there would be tension. Was there a way to build on that to take advantage of the fact that our economy was always going to be better than his economy? I don't know. But I will say that the product of basically putting his nose in it was that he, and he was a very impetuous man, reacted dramatically. And 1962 is the result. There are all kinds of reasons why he did what he did in '62, but the most powerful was that he felt deeply insecure as a result of the fact that we felt less insecure.
JOHN PRADOS: [simultaneous conversation] close to Khrushchev might very well have had potential. The United States and the Soviet Union had previously discussed nuclear test bans, and an underground test ban had actually gained a certain amount of traction in the late 1950s. And there were conversations going on in Geneva about general and complete disarmament. I think though that the key problem on the American side at that point was that John F. Kennedy wasn't willing to go that way. And it wasn't until after Cuba that he was ready to explore what became the Partial Test Ban Treaty. If the Americans had been on board with an arms control initiative in 1961/62, they might have achieved power.
TIM NAFTALI: No, I disagree. Kennedy was on board. He was on board in 1961 for reasons that didn't succeed, but he actually offered the Soviets, through the back channel, a better deal than he was publicly talking to Congress about.
JOHN PRADOS: Right, but your problem is that unless you'd gone to Khrushchev privately, you're not going in that direction. If you're rubbing his nose in …
TIM NAFTALI: Well, no, that's what I'm saying. The decision in '61 … [Simultaneous conversation]
FRED KAPLAN: People in general, and maybe doubly or triply so the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, the first thing that they think about in doing something is not, "Gee, I wonder how the other guy is going to take this. I wonder if I'm going to be intruding on his sensibilities." In fact, it's curious, on the tapes of the Cuban Missile Crisis very early on at one point Kennedy's saying, "Well, you know" – talking about putting missiles in Cuba – he says, "Well, for example, this would be us putting missiles in Turkey. I think this would be a damn dangerous thing." Somebody says, "Well, we do have missiles in Turkey." [laughter] "Yeah, well, but that's different." Which it wasn't. But then what happened, what turned the missile crisis around about day four or so, Kennedy starts musing that maybe he should be looking for giving Khrushchev a way out of this. Why did he do this? Maybe he feels trapped.
Then Kennedy, on day three or four of the crisis, says, "Maybe we should offer him a trade for the missiles in Turkey." Nobody says a word about this. Then later, Khrushchev is offered this deal and he takes it right away, and everybody else around the table is saying, "No, no, no! This will wreck NATO."
Now, there's an interesting question, and I'm wondering if any historian up here or down there knows this. Walter Lippmann wrote a column suggesting maybe a way out of this is to give the missiles, do a missile trade. We do know that Khrushchev read that column, read a translation of that column. The question, which I don't think anybody has answered yet, is did Kennedy leak the idea to Lippmann so that he would write a column, so that it would be read? Was there kind of a complicated game going on here? And I don't think that's been addressed. This is for a panel next year. [laughter]
MARY SAROTTE: People have been waiting patiently.
FRED KAPLAN: Sorry.
MARY SAROTTE: Ma'am, please.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Barbara Perry, and I'm a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center and its oral history program for presidents. My question is about the face-to-face meeting between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961. Could the panel comment about the impact of that meeting on this high stakes poker game?
TIM NAFTALI: That meeting has been misunderstood for a long time. The argument was that Kennedy did badly by engaging in a discussion about dialectics with Khrushchev. Dialectics, Marxist-Leninism. What turned out to be the case is that Khrushchev actually came to Vienna wanting a fight. In fact, there was a discussion before he left Moscow over what gifts to give Jacqueline Kennedy and the President. As you know, when foreign leaders meet the President of the United States there's gift-giving. This Library has, as does the Nixon Library, a lot of very wonderful head of state gifts.
So they gave him a list of the gifts and he approved them. And he said, "Well, you can give gifts even before a war." Because he had already decided to go and harangue Kennedy and pose an ultimatum on Berlin. He'd already decided that. He was angry. He was going to put Kennedy's feet to the fire.
So the fact of the matter is what Vienna did was it shook Kennedy, because he had assumed that he could work through a back channel with Khrushchev. He had tried to set up a series of achievements that could be announced in Vienna, one of which was the test ban. He had sent a secret negotiating … He'd actually offered the Soviets something through Bobby Kennedy to achieve a test ban. The hang-up was the number of on-site inspections in the United States. And he'd offered something to Khrushchev, which was half the public position of the Kennedy Administration. Khrushchev wouldn't bite because he wanted a Berlin settlement, which is something that Kennedy could not give him.
So what happens is it's a rude awakening for Kennedy. The fact of the matter is he did feel badly, and he did say the things that he said to Macmillan and to James Reston, and others. He really did feel beaten up, but there was nothing he could have done. Then in the summer, he bests Khrushchev because he decides not to change the American position on Berlin, substantially. He opts for actually increasing the number of divisions there and that was a way of sending the message to Khrushchev, "I'm just like Eisenhower. I'm not going to bend under your ultimatum."
Now, it is possible that the changes in the estimates that were happening that summer -- because we have an estimate from September, which is the big one, but there's a change in June, that that comes at a really opportune time for the President because he really knows that the United States is ahead. He can actually respond to Khrushchev's ultimatum with firm talk. So I think Vienna mattered psychologically to President Kennedy, but it didn't matter to Khrushchev. What really mattered was Kennedy standing up to him that summer over Berlin.
JOHN PRADOS: The problem with the June estimate is that it's not really that much of a change. In fact, the analysts in drafting that estimate said that, "You know, well, what we're presenting here represents the difference between what we ought to know and what we know we don't know." Basically, language to that effect. And the numbers that they cut down …
TIM NAFTALI: Didn't they cut from 200 to 100? I mean, it was way off, because they only had four.
JOHN PRADOS: No. No. And this is a general question, but this is a distraction, actually. But as a general point, there's a magic number issue connected with all of these intelligence reports. Fred mentioned the number 500. Well, the number 35 is another magic number. Even in the September estimate that takes back the missile gap altogether, the figure for Soviet strategic force that's cited is 10 to 35 missiles. And 35 missiles was what was projected in the middle of 1961. And 35 missiles was what was projected in the middle of 1960. And 35 missiles was what was projected at the beginning of 1960. Magic number syndrome.
MARY SAROTTE: We are getting down to the final ten minutes, and I also want to be sure to give the panelists a chance to have last words of their own choosing, since I've been asking the questions. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to ask all three to ask your questions, and then we will address them. Then we'll have some final words, and call a close to the evening. So if you could start, sir, and then the gentleman in the hat, and then you, sir.
QUESTION: My question would be the politics of World War II with Churchill's Iron Curtain.
MARY SAROTTE: The politics of World War II?
QUESTION: The influence of the World War II era. All of these people -- Khrushchev, Kennedy -- they lived through it: the policy of appeasement against Hitler, the Soviets suffering terribly when the Germans invaded, and then the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. How much of the World War II mentality played into the role of the outcome of the missile gap and the Cuban Missile Crisis? I really think it plays an integral part.
FRED KAPLAN: Not so much the outcome, I would say …
MARY SAROTTE: Hold on, hold on.
FRED KAPLAN: Okay, sorry. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. It seems to me that it may be a useful heuristic analogy to this discussion for today, which would be about global warming. The notion is that if we develop enough evidence that's going to lead to – and it's important, obviously, to get the best evidence and science we possibly can have -- but then that's not necessarily going to lead to the kinds of policies that would be the best policies. Mr. Naftali said, “Yes, they got better information, but there were these structural barriers, similar to today.”
So my question is, please, would any of you address a little bit more carefully what you think those structural barriers were to getting it right before, during and after. Was there a military industrial complex, as Eisenhower mentioned in his final speech? Was it more the military or was it the private business? Or was it both pointing at each other? Was anybody sort of responsible for driving this in terms of their interests in this game?
MARY SAROTTE: And, sir?
QUESTION: First of all, I want to acknowledge the moderator on the panel for one of the best flow of discussions I've ever seen here. When Khrushchev took his shoe off and pounded it on the desk at the UN, I guess it was -- and I can't remember what the reason was -- but did the CIA know he was bluffing at that time? He intimidated the populace quite a bit. Did he intimidate the Administration and the CIA also?
JOHN PRADOS: That was fall, '61, General Assembly, wasn't it?
MARY SAROTTE: I thought we had one more question sneaking in there? No one else?
JOHN PRADOS: There was an attempt to sneak in over here.
MARY SAROTTE: You can sneak one in.
QUESTION: Mel Conti. Gene, I have a question. If you could give us some insight, we did have a good ally during this missile crisis -- British intelligence. What were they doing?
MARY SAROTTE: So the last four questions, then, thank you very much for that. Just to repeat, the influence of the Second World War era and the memories of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and so forth, what role did that play in this era; that was number one. Number two, specifically with regard to the topic of global warming, what structural barriers are there to getting it right? What can we learn from this case? Number three, when Khrushchev did his famous shoe-pounding performance, from the highly intelligent man who complimented the moderator [laughter], what did the CIA know? And then specifically for Gene, what was British intelligence doing?
So who would like to take the World War II question? Fred, you had started answering that.
FRED KAPLAN: Well, I think not so much the settlement of the crises, but the perception of the crises as they were emerging, I mean, all the way to Vietnam and beyond, I think the analogies, the tendency to analogize from recent history -- saying Khrushchev equals Hitler, Ho Chi Minh equals Hitler, not doing anything about this equals appeasement -- you're right, it was what these people grew up with. It was the formative experience of looking at international politics broadly and generally.
TIM NAFTALI: Also, President Kennedy and a number of his senior advisors were arguing for a surgical strike -- however hard that is to imagine -- a surgical strike on the Soviet missiles in Cuba. And one of the most powerful arguments against it was made by Robert Kennedy when he said, "We don't want to be responsible for launching a Pearl Harbor attack." Because it would have been a surprise attack and so, in that sense, the analogy had a restraining effect on American decision making.
JOHN PRADOS: I think we can quickly handle the Khrushchev question. If memory serves me right, the shoe-pounding incident took place in the 1961 General Assembly session.
FRED KAPLAN: '60.
JOHN PRADOS: '60?
FRED KAPLAN: Yeah.
JOHN PRADOS: Okay, in that case, we were still deluded at that time. [laughter]
TIM NAFTALI: What we learned for the first time was whether or not he had a hole in his sock. [laughter]
JOHN PRADOS: But now, the key question is what are the issues and obstacles that stand in the way of understanding
MARY SAROTTE: Structural barriers.
JOHN PRADOS: Structural barriers.
MARY SAROTTE: And your answer is?
JOHN PRADOS: Um, well, a lot. [laughter] Let's start with political constraints. It's clear in the missile gap events that the winds of politics -- both in Moscow and in Washington -- chilled both sides in their selections of actions. Beyond that, there's the data problem. Gene's technical means helped to solve the data problem, but observables -- or the lack of them -- constrains the data problem.
Then there's the analytical problem. You've got these analysts who are facing either a surfeit of data, because we've got tons of U-2 and satellite photography, or a lack of data. And those people are simultaneously buffeted by the pressures within their bureaucracies, the pressures among different government groups, the limitations of their analytical techniques, and their personal ambitions.
FRED KAPLAN: Well, I would add something else. The first budget that McNamara was preparing for the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs were pushing for building 2,000
Minutemen ICBMs. The White House wanted 600. SAC wanted 10,000. McNamara went with 1,000. Kennedy asked him why and he said, "That's all I can get the Chiefs down to."
One thing to recognize about McNamara, he was gutting the Pentagon. He was imposing systems analysis for the first time against a bunch of generals who had before gotten away with doing whatever they wanted just by saying, "There's a military requirement for this." He was eliminating over a dozen redundant systems. He was getting rid of bombers entirely. He was getting rid of an ABM program completely. He thought for the building not to explode, he thought this is as much as I can get them down.
Now, in the next few years, they got 2,000 anyway because they made 550 Minutemen-IIIs, each of which had three warheads that could hit separate targets. So you do the math, 550 times three, plus 450 plus 50, it's a little more than 2,000. So they ended up getting what they wanted.
TIM NAFTALI: One quick story. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy asked the intelligence community, "Is it possible to sneak weapons of mass destruction into the United States?" And they actually used the term WMD. It's a phenomenal national intelligence, a special national intelligence estimate. The President asked for it.
And the intelligence community actually reported some very troubling things. One, in 1963, you could make a nuclear weapon that fit into a suitcase. And indeed, in 1963, they did not have … If you're watching the show Pan Am – I'm not advertising; I did watch the show the other night – you will notice that you could get on to the plane at the last minute without going through any metal detectors; they didn't come in until the 1970s. Anyway, so you could carry a nuclear weapon in a suitcase to the United States, one.
Two, you could create chemical weapons in your apartment in New York City if you wanted to. And three, biological weapons were easy to carry, and there was really no way of determining if somebody had them.
Well, Kennedy's reaction was not to put this entire country on full alert. Why? Because the effect of the whole resolution of the missile gap gave him a certain confidence about what a real WMD threat was. The response was, “Who could do this?” The only country in the world that was capable of producing a very small nuclear device, or of engaging in that biological warfare, or the really important chemical warfare was the Soviet Union. And we knew we'd deterred them, because we were more powerful. So Kennedy got the answer he wanted and realized that as President of the United States, this was an acceptable risk to take.
FRED KAPLAN: And of course, the joke about the suitcase bomb was that the Russians could build a bomb, but not the suitcase. [laughter]
MARY SAROTTE: So, Gene, we have the British intelligence question for you.
GENE POTEAT: All right. Well, it turns out that in the beginning of the CIA, in 1947, it turns out that in the early days, the CIA was manned by former OSS people. The British actually claim, and with some credibility, that they taught the CIA the spying business. However, in the early days after that, it turns out the CIA was more of an analysis organization than they were into the HUMINT, or spying business. And we tended to depend on the British to do the HUMINT spying. They're the ones that set up the operation that brought out Oleg Penkovsky.
And of course, we participated in the debriefings and so on, but it was the British.
However, after Eisenhower made his decision and told the CIA to get into the high tech collection business, things began to change. The British began to depend on the Americans' high technology. They would send this giant airplane to Washington every week, a VC-10 model, to collect all the technology that the US had collected, all the satellite photography, the U-2 equipment, the signals intelligence. So we were shoveling it to them in large volumes, and they became dependent on us. However, eventually it changed. The British, while they were good at the HUMINT business, we caught up and in many ways surpassed them, or at least equaled them.
So it turned out to be a better relationship later on when we became masters of the HUMINT, as well as the British. But we were always the masters of the high technology, and we shoveled it all to them. It's been a good arrangement so far.
MARY SAROTTE: You might want to define HUMINT for the public.
GENE POTEAT: Oh, I'm sorry. Human intelligence, spying, stealing the other guys' secrets. [laughter] Sorry about that.
MARY SAROTTE: Well, I got to pick the questions for most of the night, which was great fun, and the audience got to pick the questions for part of the night. And so, now in the final sort of seconds, I thought I would generously ask the panelists if there was any topic they wanted to raise in closing, anything important they think that we haven't addressed.
FRED KAPLAN: I can say one thing. Addressing that conversation between Kennedy and McNamara that we heard at the beginning, when Kennedy said, "Someday somebody should look into this and see what happened with the missile gap." It actually happened. There is a memorandum that's in the Kennedy Library, in the national security files, called, "But Where Did the Missile Gap Go?" It was written in May of 1963, by someone I've otherwise never heard of named Lawrence McQuade.
JOHN PRADOS: McQuade, he was one of the Rand guys.
FRED KAPLAN: Okay, well, for Paul Nitze, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense. And it went to the National Security Council, because it's in their files. And it's something like a 24- page memo that really traces the line about all the different NIEs, the numbers that changed, why they changed. It's a very historical document.
JOHN PRADOS: It's in the book.
FRED KAPLAN: No, it isn't. The whole document?
JOHN PRADOS: Yes, it's in the DVD.
FRED KAPLAN: Oh, it's in the DVD? Oh, great, I didn't get to that. Okay, it's in there. [laughter] Wait, here's my question. And maybe somebody in the audience can whisper the answer in my ear afterwards. Have we done anything like that since? Did the Bush Administration order a study: What the hell happened to the WMD? Why did we think there were WMDs? Did anybody ask– did the Carter Administration ask, Why did we think the Shah of Iran was going to last? Has anybody done this since?
MARY SAROTTE: Tim, closing thoughts?
TIM NAFTALI: The really interesting question is that governments don't usually have time to do history. And I think the reason Kennedy – and Kennedy asked for the study more than once. He was actually quite impatient, because he asked for it in February '63, and it is in the booklet.
My feeling is that this happened at the same time as the discussion over the fiscal year '64 military budget. I think he was looking for ammunition to argue for a smaller number of Minutemen. Because he didn't ask for it once -- again, in the booklet you'll see -- he asked for it a number of times. He was actually quite impatient. And as I said, generally speaking, Presidents don't have time for history.
MARY SAROTTE: Gene, final thoughts?
GENE POTEAT: Let me bring you up to date and say that all this discussion about analysis paralysis, high tech collection, I think it's in better shape now than it ever has been. If you want an example, look at the raid that brought Osama bin Laden his comeuppance. You had all aspects of intelligence well integrated and running like a well-oiled machine. You had the analysts who spent a year sizing up this place. You had the high tech collection. You had the CIA's predator drones involved. You had paramilitary operations. I think we've come a long way, and many of the problems you've heard here hopefully are being handled better than they were in the past.
MARY SAROTTE: And John, over to you.
JOHN PRADOS: Let me leave you with this: Security dilemmas are perpetual. We had this missile gap. We discovered that it wasn't there. That led us to cut back the Minuteman and to reorganize our military planning on the basis of what McNamara called assured destruction. That, in turn, led to a strategic balance that was identified as mutual assured destruction that many Americans a decade, or a decade-and-a-half, after these events of the missile gap condemned as a sheerly insane approach to defense policy. So in one sense, the decisions made as a result of the missile gap led us right back into a different kind of security dilemma.
MARY SAROTTE: Please join me in thanking our presenters this evening. [applause]