The Kennedy Promise
As no one would deny today, his standard was the only sensible one: it would have been the height of folly and of wastefulness to enter into a race based on a calculation of how many missiles Russia would be capable of producing if it decided to produce as many as it could. But even the most serious newspapers scoffed at Thomas Gates in language which must today make them blush. 'No longer, presumably,' wrote the Washington Post, 'need we worry about the lethal power of the big bruiser next door with the club, once we are told that his heart is pure.'
Nothing that Dwight Eisenhower said—calling on his long experience—could stem the hysteria. Yet it is his words which today seem wise. 'The real test,' he told a Republican audience, 'is to provide security in a way that effectively deters aggression and does not itself weaken the values and institutions we seek to defend. This demands the most careful calculation and balance, as well as steadfastness of purpose, nor to be disturbed by any noisy trumpeting.' But the trumpeting continued, and it could be heard most loudly wherever John Kennedy was campaigning. No matter that Dwight Eisenhower warned that excessive military spending could damage the very values and the very institutions which it was intended to secure; even Walter Lippmann countered by talking of 'the prospective world struggle,' in which 'we shall surely lose if we tell the world that, though we have the richest economy in all history, our liberal system is such that we cannot afford a sure defense and adequate provision for the civil needs of the people.' This was the current orthodoxy; and it was wrong.
A week later, at a press conference, Dwight Eisenhower returned to the attack. When asked if Russia's technical gains would not give it even a psychological advantage, he replied by expressing his faith in the ultimate victory of freedom and democracy because 'in the long run, men do learn to have the same belief in liberty,' and he added: 'I believe that there is just as much of the seeds of self-destruction in the Communist system as they claim is in ours.' Time was so struck by this reply that it asked various public figures for their comments. Amongst them was Arthur Schlesinger, who merely retorted with the theme of John Kennedy's campaign: 'The reason we are falling behind lies in the lack of purpose in our national life.' Yet Dwight Eisenhower had again and again denied that the United States was falling behind. In wholly understandable syntax, he had declared: 'What you want is enough, a thing that is adequate. A deterrent has no added power, once it has become completely adequate.'
Neither Dwight Eisenhower's assurances nor his faith would satisfy Walter Lippmann. 'Mr. Eisenhower is mistaken,' he announced. 'It is he who lacks faith in our system. It is he who is saying that our system of liberty is so fragile that it is not tough enough and durable enough to keep up the pace in the great contest of national power.' The language of the New Frontier was catching on: 'purpose in our national life...the great contest of national power.' A mood and a candidate were beginning to commune; yet, as soon as Robert S. McNamara became Secretary of Defense, almost his first pronouncement was to confirm that the 'missile gap' was not a threat to American security. In a televised interview on 7 June 1962, Walter Lippmann said of the supposed gap: 'We were the victims, in part, of mistaken intelligence. Well, we now know that isn't true. That never existed. The Soviets never built the missiles that they were supposed to be able to build.' But this was exactly the calculation which Dwight Eisenhower had made, and which Thomas Gates had explained at the time. The fault was not mistaken intelligence but mistaken political judgement on the part of almost everyone except the President and his Secretary of Defense.
'No one would listen to President Eisenhower's denials and assurances,' admitted Walter Lippmann again, in the issue of Newsweek of 21 January 1963; for he had not listened to them himself. We must ask ourselves why the American people would not, in 1960, listen to the sanity of their President; what it was in their mood which made them respond to so misleading a challenge as the alleged 'missile gap'; why they did not have Dwight Eisenhower's faith both in their country's political system and in its technological capacity. For it was in this atmosphere of crisis, generated during 1960, for which there was no warrant, that the politics of expectation, leading to the politics of confrontation, were conceived; in the end to rule a decade.