CIA Documents: US Drastically Overestimated Soviet Capabilities

Politicians hyped an inflated threat from the Soviets, just as they do with today's enemies

Declassified CIA documents reveal that the United States drastically overestimated the number of Soviet missiles in the beginning of the arms race in the 1950s and 1960s.

During the so-called Missile Gap period, American politicians and the public believed that the Soviet Union had hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), outmatching the US in bombing capabilities. But over 189 documents were recently released which “showed the Soviets didn’t really have an advantage,” Chief of the CIA’s Historical Collections Division Bruce S. Barkan said.

John F. Kennedy showed himself stronger on defense by hyping this “gap” when debating Richard Nixon for the presidency, and continued to inflate the threat during his term. But one of the documents from Sept. 21, 1961 debunked this theory, providing evidence that the Soviets only had four ICBMs.

During the Eisenhower administration, there was a concern about a “bomber gap,” that the Soviets had more bomber aircraft than the US. The CIA discredited this and by 1957, the bomber gap concept turned into the missile gap.

The government has a record of inflating security threats and parallels can be drawn with today’s supposed threats. Iran is consistently hyped as a major threat, specifically a nuclear threat, despite leaked intelligence that there is no nuclear weapons program. Before the 2003 US invasion, the threat from Iraq too was inflated,  to tragic effect. Similarly, terrorism is recognized by many experts as a much weaker threat than Washington makes it out to be.

Overestimating the Soviet threat during the Cold War not only led to an enormous and unnecessary build-up of arms, it served as the justification for various deadly wars abroad and the loss of civil liberties at home. Today’s threat inflation has similar consequences in both foreign and domestic policy.

Author: John Glaser

John Glaser writes for