'Missile gap' was a term used frequently throughout the 1950s by Americans who believed that the Soviet Union had a huge advantage in the number of nuclear missiles it possessed over the USA, and that it could continue producing them 'like sausages', as in Khrushchev's claim. Along with its twin the 'bomber gap', it was largely responsible for the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960. And, like the 'bomber gap', it was largely illusory.
Some people have attempted to simplistically explain the 'missile gap' as propaganda designed to increase defence spending. The propaganda is thought to have emerged mostly from Republicans and defence contractors, and to be part of a discourse that continues down to this day in favour of militarism in the United States. This theory about the origins of the 'missile gap' is an example of history being used - abused - for current purposes.
The source of the 'missile gap' theory was not propaganda, but ignorance. It was impossible for any knowing deception to be occuring for the mere reason that no-one in the United States really had a damn clue about Soviet missile production or its scale. The CIA had been much surprised by the first Soviet nuclear test, which occured eighteen months ahead of their estimate of when the Soviets would first be able to conduct a test (the window of possibility was years long).
Throughout the 1950s, many Americans were apprehensive about the growing technological prowess of the Soviet Union. Although it was believed to crush individualism and to have created a slave society, it was widely believed that this slave society found it much easier to concentrate on key defence industries. Although consumer goods were impossible to come by in the USSR and living standards were abysmal, the Soviet state was able to pump large quantities of resources into defence spending. So far, American theories about what was going on were correct. However, they hugely misjudged what the results were.
Although the Soviets were putting large quantities of resources into missile production, the results were nowhere near as impressive as imagined - even if the effect on Soviet quality of life was as dire. Soviet propaganda continued to claim that hundreds of missiles were being produced each year, when in reality the numbers were much smaller. However, until the late 1950s the USA had no way of knowing this. Before the era of arms control agreements and when dealing with an opponent whose gut response to everything was to lie, the US had no way of getting credible information. Its gut reaction was fear.
This was perfectly reasonable, insofar as it is the reaction we find throughout human history when anxiety is coupled with ignorance. The result is always exaggeration. Fearing the worse, many in the US began to assail the Eisenhower administration for being too soft on the Soviets and not increasing defence spending. These people included Democratic challenger John F. Kennedy when he campaigned for the Presidency in 1960.
However, by this stage, those at the top of the Eisenhower administration were beginning to catch wind of the truth. Throughout the 1950s, the CIA was increasing its ability to get information from within the Soviet Union. Overflights by U-2 RECON planes had mapped parts of the Soviet Union and the military installations thereupon, and had concluded that the fleets of strategic bombers thought to comprise the 'bomber gap' did not in fact exist. Similar conclusions were being drawn about the 'missile gap'.
The most important asset in the quest to debunk this myth was Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet Colonel in the GRU (military intelligence) who was secretly passing a large quantity of material to the West, starting in the early 1960s. Trained in missile technology, Penkovsky was able to provide a wealth of information on Soviet capabilities in this area. His handlers never mentioned Western estimates of Soviet capabilities to him, but from what he told his handlers it is clear he would have been shocked to hear them. Thanks largely to his spying, Kennedy entered the Cuban Missile Crisis knowing there existed no large preponderance of missiles in the favour of the USSR.
The 'missile gap' teaches us a few things. Although a lot of moaning went on about espionage in the Cold War, especially from the Soviet side, it was desirable for both sides to know roughly the strategic position of the other. To profoundly misjudge the situation of the other, by for instance believing them to be producing a stupendous number of ballistic missiles, meant you would not see their actions in the right context. If Kennedy had entered the Cuban Missile Crisis still believing in the 'missile gap', he might have concluded that he had one last opportunity to make a stand. He may have made too firm a stand.
Misperception and misjudgement are very dangerous in international affairs. War has largely being eradicated from Europe through the use of confidence-building tools such as the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) which limits the size of armed forces and allows for mutual inspection. Fear evaporates in such an environment, and it is one that should be promoted around the world as much as possible. Closed, dictatorial societies cannot expect the free world to be unsuspicious of their activities when they make belligerent noises whilst engaging in questionable activities. If they truly have nothing to hide, they must open themselves up to prove it. Otherwise, fear and anxiety are bound to run away with themselves - justified or not.