Military-Industrial Man

In the final draft of his farewell address as president, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the growing in-fluence of “the military-industrial-congressional complex.” At the last minute, he struck out “congressional.” It was not fitting, he thought, for a president to criticize Congress. It may also have seemed to him particularly ungracious, since he was about to be succeeded by one of the loudest congressional drumbeaters for higher military spending, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

For years, Kennedy and his Democratic colleagues Stuart Symington of Missouri and Henry M. Jackson of Washington had bedeviled the Eisenhower administration and Eisenhower personally for weakness on defense, warning first of a “bomber gap” and then of a “missile gap” by which, they claimed, the United States was or was about to become strategically inferior to the Soviet Union.

Both gaps were fictitious. Despite the alarm that followed Russia’s launch of its Sputnik satellite in 1957, there was never a point at which the United States could not have used its far superior bomber force or, later, missiles based in Europe and aboard submarines to annihilate the Soviet Union.

What must have been particularly exasperating to Eisenhower is that he knew that his Democratic critics understood the true state of affairs. On February 16, 1959, General Nathan B. Twining, the Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in closed session (with Kennedy present) that Soviet missile tests had not been proceeding “as rapidly or regularly” as once suspected.

Twining’s and Eisenhower’s sources for this information were the U-2 spy plane flights over Russia and intercepts by the National Security Agency. They did not reveal these sources to the Senate and obviously could not reveal them to the public—but they did tell Congress the fruits of their intelligence-gathering operations. In addition Twining pointed out that the rapidly developing US strategic nuclear force of long-range bombers, Polaris submarines, and intermediate-range missiles based in Britain and Italy more than made up for a potential and theoretical Soviet advantage in intercontinental ballistic missiles. “In other words, general, you don’t accept the theory that there is a missile gap and this is a period of maximum peril,” Kennedy said. “No, I don’t,” Twining replied. He reminded Kennedy that “Congress was convinced that there was going to be a gap in bombers and instead we are way ahead of them.”

Kennedy did not challenge Twining’s assertions, yet both he and Jackson continued to pound away at the missile gap. Then, after election day 1960, the period of maximum peril suddenly ended. In early 1961, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told reporters there was no missile gap.

Robert G. Kaufman, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, tells us:

Kennedy discovered just weeks after taking office…that the missile gap he had run on so effectively, and that Jackson had warned about so ominously, did not exist. The Soviets had serious problems with the development of their …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.