Starting in the summer of 1961 the United States flew a number of successful missions of the Corona satellite, which provided details on a number of Soviet sites. In addition there were now materials from Penkovsky documenting Russian difficulties with their ICBM program as well as submarines stuck at port, a lack of bombers on alert, and gaps in early warning coverage. Because this material jarred so much with prior expectations, and Penkovsky’s own reliability was still uncertain, it did not have an immediate impact on estimates. The extent of the US comparative advantage dawned on American officials over the summer. The June National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), providing the official view for the height of the Berlin crisis, remained in cautious mode. Although almost as soon as it was completed analysts suspected it was over pessimistic, it was not until the start of September that the president was informed that earlier estimates of 50 to 100 operational Soviet missiles were “probably too high.” It was the September 1961 NIE that decisively brought down the estimated number of operational Russian ICBMs from between 140 and 200 to between 10 and 25 (still an exaggeration). Important was that the force level would “not increase markedly during the months immediately ahead.” It described the problems the Kremlin had with its first-generation ICBMs, too cumbersome to be deployed in any number.
Should Khrushchev, in the throes of using nuclear intimidation to weaken Western resolve on Berlin, be told that the Americans knew just how boastful his claims had been? The Soviet leader had habitually inflated his country’s relative strength. Some deflation might be in order. On the other hand, there was a risk that the uncomfortable news would appear threatening and lead to a surge of Soviet activity in an effort to catch up, while also revealing to Moscow the quality of American intelligence. Unofficially the news soon leaked. Joe Alsop, the leading promoter of the “missile gap” thesis, reported on the drastic reduction of the figures at the end of September. On 11 October Kennedy was asked at a news conference whether the United States had done enough to convince the “leaders of the Soviet Union that we are determined to meet force with force in Berlin.” He replied by recounting all that had been achieved on the American side since the start of the year: 14 percent more on the defense budget, increases in nuclear delivery vehicles and their alert status; more nonnuclear forces, including two extra divisions. He said nothing, however, about the Soviet side.
Even this claim goaded Khrushchev. A week later, when speaking at the Twenty-second Party Congress, he went out of his way to deny American strength.
We believe today that the forces of socialism, all the forces that stand for peace, are today more powerful than the aggressive imperialist forces. But even if one agreed with the President of the United States that our forces are equal—he said this quite recently—it would plainly be unwise to threaten war.
His theme was that the aggressive Western nations (“imperialist Americans” in league with “revanchist and militarist Germans” and so on) had required the socialist bloc to step up its own military efforts. The response he announced, however, was hardly modest: The current nuclear test series was to end that month with a 50-megaton bomb. This was, as one of the scientists involved later acknowledged, more about intimidation than military need. It could have been boosted to 100 megatons and then “would have generated a gigantic, fiery tornado, engulfing an area larger than…the state of Maryland.” No rocket could actually carry such a weapon. This was a time when the most the Soviet strategic rocket forces could accomplish was one launch against four “hostage cities”—New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Before the test, Washington had taken the propaganda war a step further. On 21 October Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, in a deliberately dry presentation, enumerated American nuclear strength—six hundred strategic bombers, six Polaris submarines, dozens of intercontinental ballistic missiles—and then continued:
The destructive power which the United States could bring to bear even after a Soviet surprise attack upon our forces would be as great as—perhaps greater than—the total undamaged forces which the enemy can threaten to launch against the United States in a first strike. In short, we have a second strike capability which is at least as extensive as what the Soviets can deliver by striking first.
To ensure that the message got back to Moscow there were briefings for NATO allies, complete with pictures, that were almost certain to be picked up by the KGB.
The party congress had already been a difficult one for Khrushchev, as he had denounced domestic critics and argued publicly with the Chinese, who had walked out. Now the United States was challenging his central strategic claim. When details reached the congress, the planned speech of Defense Minister Marshal Rodion Malinovsky was brought forward to 23 October. Malinovsky repeated Kennedy’s description of the American buildup and then mentioned Gilpatric’s speech: “What is there to say to this latest threat, to this petty speech? Only one thing: The threat does not frighten us! (stormy applause).”
While American warheads were only 5 megatons, Russian warheads had yields ranging from “20 to 30 to 100 megatons” and could be delivered anywhere. The American “madmen” had better recalculate
Kennedy’s main recalculation, given Khrushchev’s reliance on his testing program, was that he could no longer delay authorizing preparations for U.S. atmospheric tests. A National Security Council (NSC) committee urged their resumption by the start of April 1962. Kennedy agreed, but only if reductions could be made in the number of tests, the duration of the series, and the amount of radioactive fallout generated, and he still reserved judgment on the final decision to test. The disappointment this caused among the liberals in the White House was reflected in a powerful memo from Schlesinger. If it was the case, as was continually asserted, that the United States was “ahead” in the technology, then it was hard to explain why the United States would suddenly become weak if it desisted from further tests. As a clincher, Schlesinger added a Gallup Poll: American opinion was evenly divided on the matter, but there had been a real swing against resumption compared with the commanding majority four months earlier (during the height of the Berlin crisis). Bundy urged the president to reconsider, although every other senior figure in the administration wanted the testing. The NSC staff now provided the only opposition. In January Carl Kaysen produced a paper demonstrating the virtues of proposing a ban only on atmospheric tests, which would both sustain the nuclear standoff and put the onus back on Moscow. John McNaughton in the Pentagon was already coming to a similar conclusion. The new ideas neither stopped the resumption of testing nor led to immediate modifications of Western proposals for a comprehensive test ban, but they planted the seeds of a thought.
Another issue for reappraisal was the size of the American missile force. The developing missile gap in reverse had been sufficiently striking for Kaysen to raise the question as to whether the United States was now aiming too high, with numbers having been based on an exaggerated NIE. Was there a risk that this might influence adversely a future Soviet buildup? He continued to argue from this point that the proposed missile force was too high, although with limited effect. Enthoven’s analysis also supported the view that the relatively small number of large cities in the Soviet Union meant that adding extra nuclear weapons soon reached a point of diminishing marginal returns. In the end—at a meeting in November—ICBM numbers were set at 1,200 (they were cut in 1963 to 1,000). This was half the number the air force was seeking, though about 50 percent higher than McNamara and Kennedy thought really justified, but the minimum sustainable politically. The fact that this decision was accompanied by public assertions of American nuclear superiority—from Kennedy at a press conference on 8 November (“[W]e… would not trade places with anyone in the world”) and then McNamara in a magazine interview (“[W]e have nuclear power several times that of the Soviet Union”)—indicates that Kennedy was not expecting to be criticized for excess. He acknowledged this in early 1962, blaming the congressional demand for more weapons. “I don’t think such sentiments can be rationally defended, but there it is.”