The Kennedy Administration and the First Minuteman Deployment

The president receives a gift from an air force officer
President John F. Kennedy Receives Gift Following Missile Launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California

Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston [JFKWHP-KN-C20666]

The Misleading "Missile Gap"

By the end of the 1950s, many Americans believed their country needed new Cold War policies. They feared for national security in an age of ballistic missiles, and they also questioned the effectiveness of the Eisenhower administration’s policies for halting Communist expansion in the Cold War’s periphery–those areas outside of Europe and the United States. Many observers believed the next great Cold War conflicts would occur in just these regions. Congress asked for hearings in 1959 to review the United States position in the space race, and Democrats subsequently campaigned against Republican Cold War policies, charging that they had allowed the Soviets to get ahead of the United States in missile development, creating a missile gap.

The “gap” represented the difference between the number of missiles it was believed the Soviets possessed and the number of American missiles. Ironically, a missile gap did not exist. In actuality, the Soviets possessed significantly fewer missiles than most Americans believed and Democrats had claimed. Espionage and photographs from U- 2 spy planes proved the deficiencies of Soviet nuclear arms, but the administration could not publicly state this fact without compromising national security and letting the world and the Kremlin know about the American spying capabilities. In the 1960 presidential election, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon had refused to compromise national security by leading a countercharge that refuted Democratic claims of a missile gap, and a new administration took office.

Governing as the Cold War Heats Up

Kennedy promised to improve American Cold War capabilities, including defense. He supported the Minuteman program and the country’s continued development of ICBMs. Kennedy and his administration focused on a new Cold War policy to maximize policy options beyond a massive nuclear retaliation. This new policy became known as “flexible response,” and included creation of new Cold War institutions, such as highly trained combat troops known as Green Berets or Special Forces, and even the Peace Corps.

Kennedy also advocated vigilance towards the Soviets. His refusal to bend to Soviet pressure contributed to the Berlin Crisis of 1961 (when he activated his military reserves in response to Soviet demands that the West evacuate its military presence in the city, a crisis that culminated in Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall) and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, precipitated by Moscow’s planned installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba, only ninety miles from the American coast.

An American quarantine of Cuba, and a secret agreement to dismantle Jupiter missiles in Turkey in exchange for removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, ultimately eased tensions and avoided disaster, though the world stood closer to the brink of nuclear war than arguably at any other time. Each crisis increased nuclear tensions between the superpowers, who wielded destructive power unknown and unimaginable to previous generations. It is in this context that the Minuteman was deployed and played its Cold War role.