How a Single Document Almost Changed the Course of the Cold War

How a Single Document Almost Changed the Course of the Cold War

Good information was urgently needed. But once in hand it proved very dangerous indeed.

Here's What You Need to Know: The most dangerous document of the Cold War may also have been its most valuable.

Everyone who has ever read a spy novel knows the basic plot line. A scientist has developed a formula, or intelligence operative has obtained secret plans or a roll or film. Whoever possesses the prize will tip the balance of power or an international confrontation in their favor, and both sides fight to the limits of their ability to obtain it. Virtually every spy novelist has used this scenario, from Alister MacLean to Tom Clancy. Unfortunately, though, such stories are usually the subject of an overactive imagination. The reality of the modern era is that very few documents or other pieces of information are so valuable that they are capable of destabilizing the contemporary world order.

Note the word “few.” What follows is the story of the one piece of paper that changed the course of the Cold War, and almost turned it white-hot.

Finding Gaps

The early months of 1961 were difficult for the new administration of President John F. Kennedy. Having come into office with a pledge of directly confronting America’s enemies, the young president was faced with one international crisis after another. The failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was followed by a failed summit in Vienna with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and then by growing problems in Berlin and Southeast Asia. Simultaneously, the Soviet Union was demonstrating a powerful and sophisticated capability for launching men and equipment into space.

These events fed American paranoia about Soviet intentions and weaponry, especially in the area of strategic nuclear forces. Since the mid-1950s, there had been a growing fear among some Americans that there were a series of “gaps” between U.S. and Soviet military capabilities, to the detriment of the United States. Worries first arose when the Soviet Union developed and detonated its first atomic and thermonuclear weapons.

These were followed by fears that the Soviets had built a huge force of strategic bombers, creating the so-called “bomber gap.” Several years later, fears of a “missile gap” developed, when the Soviet Union launched the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, and then the first earth-orbiting satellite (Sputnik-1) in 1957.

Fear of the various “gaps” led the American public to near hysteria, and was a key issue in the 1960 presidential campaign won by John Kennedy. He claimed that the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower (including his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon) had allowed the gaps to develop and done little or nothing to make up the differences with U.S. weapons and systems.

Revelations through the U2 Program

Such claims were practically impossible to prove or deny, but still were there when John Kennedy won the closest presidential election on record in November 1960. However, while Kennedy had won his political battle for position, he now was faced with the challenge of dealing publicly and within the government with the perception that the United States was behind the Soviet Union in the development of many classes of strategic weaponry.

The key to determining if gaps existed involved examining what the Soviet Union actually had behind the Iron Curtain of its borders. As late as 1956, most of what America and her Allies knew about the Soviet Union came from a handful of short penetration overflights, and World War II-era Nazi German maps and photographs.

This all changed in July of that year, when the first of the CIA’s U-2 reconnaissance aircraft began to make deep penetration missions into the Soviet heartland. Within weeks of the first series of U-2 flights, the myth of the bomber gap was exposed, and the need for greater production of American bombers re-evaluated. However, the dispelling of the bomber gap was hardly a popular move within the U.S. military, particularly with the leadership of the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC). Then headed by generals Curtis LeMay and Thomas “Tommy” Powers, SAC was America’s primary strategic strike force.

Both LeMay and Powers were ardent anti-Communists, and had advocated use of pre-emptive first strikes against the Soviet Union and its Allies, in what they felt were the best interests of the United States. These men headed a significant war faction within the American government, who felt that the Soviets must not be allowed to achieve nuclear superiority over the United States.

Thus, when the fear of a ballistic missile gap emerged a few years later, the need to confirm or deny the existence of Soviet ICBM superiority became the CIA’s top priority. Unfortunately, the loss of a U-2 and capture of its pilot (Francis Gary Powers) on May 1, 1960 put a temporary end to that effort. President Eisenhower, badly stung by public embarrassment from the shootdown, terminated the overflights and the program was never restarted.

The U2’s Replacement

Luckily a few months later, the United States began to fly the first of its CORONA-series photoreconnaissance satellites, which redressed the surveillance gap lost when the U-2 overflights of the USSR were canceled. But the early CORONA satellites were unreliable, as well as subject to the limitations of weather and early rocket-booster technology.

Nevertheless, the analysts at the CIA’s Photographic Intelligence Center (PIC) and Board of Estimates labored long and hard to identify possible Soviet ballistic-missile launch sites. They also worked to assess Soviet missile capabilities to strike at the United States and its Allies.

Until the late 1950s, the CIA’s efforts were literal shots in the dark, with the differing opinions of the Air Force, Army, and Naval Intelligence bureaus often taking precedence over the CIA’s more scholarly attempts to find the truth. These guesses were formed into an annual National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which went by the innocuous title of NIE 11. While the quality of the 11-series NIEs improved somewhat with the start of the U-2 overflights in 1956, it took the coming of CORONA and other Intelligence sources to make each a credible document with which to make national policy.

Drafting NIE 11-8/1-61

The story of NIE 11-8/1-61 begins just a few weeks after President Kennedy was inaugurated, when intense discussions broke out about the actual strength of Soviet missile forces and their projected growth in the years ahead. Virtually every senior leader in every department touching on national security required this data for critical decisions that needed to be made quickly. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy needed to know relative U.S./Soviet strategic-missile strengths in order to lay out American foreign policy in the months and years ahead.

Equally anxious, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara wanted to size the new force of U.S. second-generation ICBMs to match that of the Soviet Union. Without detailed knowledge of Soviet strengths and growth trends, however, he would have to depend upon estimates forwarded to him by General Powers at SAC. Powers was pressing for an estimated eventual Soviet force of some 10,000 Minuteman ICBMs, a number 10 times what was eventually built!

The SAC numbers of Soviet ICBM present and projected strength looked to be wildly inflated, but were reflected in the 1960 and 1961 editions of NIE 11-8 (Soviet Long Range Attack Capabilities). NIE 11-8-61 estimated that the Soviet Union had between 50 and 100 R-7/SS-6 Sapwood and R-16/SS-7 Sadler ICBMs operational, and would have three times that many by the end of 1962. Clearly a more definitive estimate would be needed, if the plans and goals of the Kennedy national security team were to come to fruition.

As a result of a series of memos between McNamara and Bundy’s staff, a request went out to CIA chief Allen Dulles to prepare a revised version of NIE 11-8-61 that would make use of every bit of information available. The idea was to produce a document that would be the cornerstone of rationalizing foreign and national security policy within the Kennedy Administration. It also would be used to set the size of the American military in the 1960s, especially the bomber and missile force of SAC and the emerging fleet of Polaris fleet ballistic-missile (FBM) submarines.

An accurate assessment was important if the twin goals of American national security and economic prosperity were to be maintained into the new decade. It was a very tall order for a report that would run only 29 pages including the cover sheet. The job would fall onto the National Board of Estimates and its legendary head, Sherman Kent. As if to make things even tougher, this supplemental, or revised, document would need to be produced within a matter of months.

As luck would have it, the CIA had several new sources of information. The first was the 25th CORONA mission, which was launched on June 16, 1961. When its film-recovery capsule was retrieved after 33 orbits, the analysts at the PIC found the first hard evidence of Soviet ICBM deployments in the Soviet Union. When combined with the previous U-2, CORONA, and other overhead imagery of the Soviet Union, the real status of the Soviet ICBM program became readily apparent.