A terrifying fairy tale called “the missile gap,” which had the Soviets surging ahead of the United States in ICBM capability, was roiling Washington. The controversy was another example of the chronic American habit during the Cold War, partly from genuine fear but usually inspired as well by political and institutional motives, of seriously overestimating Soviet military power and technological capabilities. Khrushchev, whose solution to the carefully disguised military inferiority of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the United States was boasting and bluff, had helped to foster it. In August 1957, approximately two months before the shock of Sputnik, he announced that Russia had ICBMs able to reach “any part of the globe.” In November of the following year Moscow claimed to have begun “serial production” of ICBMs. That December of 1958, Khrushchev told Senator and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, who was on a visit to Russia, that the Soviets had a new rocket but no place to test it because it flew 9,000 miles. He asked Humphrey what his hometown was and then walked over to a map of the United States and drew a circle around Minneapolis. “That’s so I don’t forget to order them to spare the city when the rockets fly,” Khrushchev said. On another occasion, he bragged that in Russia “missiles were being turned out like sausages from a machine.”
The Soviet leader had a receptive audience in the United States for these lies. Aroused by Sputnik, Democratic Party leaders accepted the purported missile gap as real and accused the administration of allowing the United States to lapse into a position of strategic inferiority. One of those crying out the loudest was the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who was to make the missile gap one of the central issues in his victorious presidential campaign of 1960. Influential fearmongers like Paul Nitze and chronic alarmists in the press like the Alsop brothers, Joseph and Stewart, who shared a syndicated column, added to the presumed state of peril. Nor were the military services averse to exploiting the situation in order to force an increase in the Pentagon budget. The worst offender was the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence, Major General James Walsh. In November 1959, he predicted that the Soviets would have 50 ICBMs by mid-1960 and “an operational ICBM force of about 250 (185 on launcher) by mid-1961, 500 (385 on launcher) by mid-1962, and 800 (640 on launcher) by mid-1963.” Eisenhower, who knew Khrushchev was lying from the U-2 photography and other intelligence, which, for security reasons, he refused to share with his opposition, attempted reassurance but was simply not believed. (To his credit, Schriever did not join in fostering the scare, although he naturally benefited from the loosening of the budget strings.)
The truth was that by 1959 there was a missile gap. The gap was widening steadily in favor of the United States, not the Soviet Union. Soviet rocket engineers like Sergei Korolev had been ahead through the mid-1950s with soundly constructed medium-and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. After Bennie Schriever and the Schoolhouse Gang got going in the summer of 1954, however, the key in the ignition had been turned and the motor started to reverse positions in the race once it reached the level of an ICBM. With the assurance of a 1,500-pound hydrogen bomb for the warhead by the time the missile was ready, Schriever and company could commence by designing a practical ICBM. They were not forced, as Korolev had been because the Soviet Union was three years later than the United States in acquiring the hydrogen bomb, to begin by designing a behemoth rocket capable of carrying a 5.4-ton fission, or atomic, warhead, and thus to produce a totally impractical ICBM. By mid-1960, when the Air Force’s intelligence chief predicted that the Soviet Union would have fifty ICBMs, it had emplaced the only four of Korolev’s R-7 proto-ICBMs it was ever to deploy at Plesetsk, 600 miles north of Moscow. Khrushchev was to admit years later that the R-7 had “represented only a symbolic counterthreat to the United States.”
There were Soviet ICBMs comparable to the Atlas and its alternative, Titan, on the way in 1959, but they were still in the development stage. Korolev designed one called the R-9, first flight-tested in 1961. It did not find favor with the Soviet military and was never produced in substantial numbers. The missile that was to become the standard Soviet ICBM for much of the 1960s, the R-16, was created by Mikhail Yangel, Korolev’s principal rival as a rocket designer. Its initial flight test on October 24, 1960, turned into the worst disaster in the history of rocketry. Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, the commander of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, came to supervise the launch. He was a career artillery officer, an impatient, bullheaded man who actually knew little about rockets. When there was a last-minute glitch, he refused to allow the launch crew to drain the fuel from the rocket as a safety precaution while making necessary fixes. One of the fuel’s components was nitric acid, flammable and toxic, inflicting severe burns on contact with the skin. A technician accidentally ignited the engines and the rocket burst apart in a mammoth fireball, sloshing burning fuel all over the pad and the surrounding area.
A camera set up to record the launch instead recorded a horror movie of human torches, including Nedelin, futilely attempting to escape. Secrecy was clamped over the catastrophe and the exact number of victims is unclear. The toll of those incinerated was apparently somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred. A Red Army newspaper reported in 1990, the year before the Soviet Union collapsed, that 156 perished. Nedelin’s death was publicly attributed to a plane crash and a coffin supposedly containing his remains was buried with honors in the Kremlin wall. William Taubman, the Amherst College scholar whose splendid biography of Khrushchev won him a Pulitzer Prize, says there was nothing left to put in a coffin. All that remained of Nedelin, he writes, was “a marshal’s shoulder strap and half-melted keys to his office safe.” The calamity did not stop test launches of the R-16 and the ICBM was deployed in 1962. The Soviets were, however, still having trouble with the weapon in October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred and Khrushchev had a total of twenty operational ICBMs to the 160 Kennedy possessed. Preparations to fire the R-16 continued to require several hours rather than the thirty minutes Yangel had posited and that was eventually achieved. “Before we get it ready to launch,” Kirill Moskalenko, a ranking Red Army marshal and friend of Khrushchev from Second World War days, warned in the midst of the crisis, “there won’t even be a wet spot left of any of us.”