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Reviewed by:
  • John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap
  • John Prados
Christopher A. Preble John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004. 244 pp.

John F. Kennedy and the infamous "missile gap" controversy of the late 1950s and early 1960s are inextricably linked (p. ix), according to Christopher Preble in this study that combines Cold War issues, intelligence, and American politics with a little political economy thrown in for good measure. Preble lays the groundwork competently and with some flair: Dwight Eisenhower's "New Look" doctrine and fiscal restraint were under attack; Kennedy as the prospective presidential candidate embraced an alternative posture of "flexible response" envisaging multi-spectrum warfare; the Soviet Union deceived the United States about its achievements in building nuclear-armed missiles capable of striking the United States; the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other U.S. intelligence agencies were divided in their assessments of the matter; and finally Kennedy made an essentially Faustian bargain, exploiting the "missile gap" issue to promote broadly-ranging defense initiatives that promised employment and earned him votes in the 1960 election.

Much of this ground is well trodden, as Preble acknowledges in remarking that "the literature on the Missile Gap is vast and varied" (p. 12). What Preble brings to the [End Page 141] table is the way he assembles the elements and relates them to his political economy framework, arguing that "we now know" that the New Look did not weaken the United States militarily and "was a politically superior national security strategy . . . because it was mindful of the potentially harmful economic effects of military spending" (p. 16). He criticizes opponents of the administration for having seized the issue to score political points and for having exploired the "revolt of the generals" (p. 44) who objected to Eisenhower's overreliance on nuclear firepower. Prime among these opponents was John Kennedy, who rode the missile gap to the presidency.

Much of this ground is well trodden, as Preble acknowledges in remarking that "the literature on the Missile Gap is vast and varied" (p. 12). What Preble brings to the table is the way he assembles the elements and relates them to his political economy framework, arguing that "we now know" that the New Look did not weaken the United States militarily and "was a politically superior national security strategy . . . because it was mindful of the potentially harmful economic effects of military spending" (p. 16). He criticizes opponents of the administration for having seized the issue to score political points and for having exploired the "revolt of the generals" (p. 44) who objected to Eisenhower's overreliance on nuclear firepower. Prime among these opponents was John Kennedy, who rode the missile gap to the presidency.

Much of this analysis has a great deal to recommend it but has not yet attained full maturity. For example, the electoral politics/political economy argument gives great weight to declining aerospace jobs in California in the late 1950s, but that was a time when President Eisenhower (for strategic military reasons) had already made a series of decisions about deploying a second generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the production of which would favor employment in California. Meanwhile, Kennedy's conventional warfare emphasis and his intention to build more ground forces required employment in places other than California. Such elements seem to contradict Preble's basic argument.

Moreover, Kennedy is represented in some places (e.g., pp. ix, 151) as a fervent believer in the reality of the missile gap but in other places (pp. 96–97, 166) as being uncertain and making a calculated political approach to national security, much as John F. Kerrey, another Massachusetts senator, did in the 2004 presidential campaign. Preble's account of "crafting the historical record" (pp. 175–177) casts Kennedy loyalists as somehow trying to cover up the "missile gap" political maneuver, even though Preble himself presents evidence that Kennedy as president repeatedly inquired, over a three-year interval, whether there really was a missile gap.

The depiction of the New Look as a sensible military strategy is debatable, as Preble is surely aware. His characterization of the strategy as nuclear weapons plus occasional CIA...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-3298
Print ISSN
1520-3972
Pages
pp. 141-143
Launched on MUSE
2008-02-12
Open Access
No
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