By John D. Gresham

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.

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

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

Good information was urgently needed. But once in hand it proved very dangerous indeed.Almost as valuable was a literal gold mine of documents on Soviet missile developments supplied by a deeply planted mole. This spy was a Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) officer by the name of Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Penkovsky had access to almost every technical document on Soviet missile developments, and managed to photograph hundreds of them for British and American Intelligence officers. The most important and productive agent of his time, Penkovsky managed to deliver the operational field manuals for every deployed surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile in the Soviet inventory. The material was collected and classified under the codeword IRONBARK, which appeared on dozens of high-level briefing documents from the early 1960s.

Over the spring and summer of 1961, analysts of Sherman Kent’s Board of Estimates and Art Lundal’s PIC labored over their photos and typewriters, trying to craft the most powerful document possible. While they worked, John Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev had a tense summit meeting in Vienna and then a face-to-face confrontation over the building of the Berlin Wall. All the while, the Kennedy Administration was still operating in the belief of a pro-Soviet missile gap, and treaded lightly as a result. The world seemed on the brink of a third world war as the new document, called NIE 11-8/1-61 went to press. Starting on September 21, copies began to arrive on the desks of senior decision-makers around the country. The results were stunning.

NIE 11-8/1-61 stripped clean the American fears of a missile gap in favor of the Soviet Union, and showed that the United States was, in fact, vastly superior in nuclear striking power. As documents go, it was as powerful and clear a source of information to ever fall on a government desk. Best of all, NIE 11-8/61-1 stopped cold the back channel sniping and controversy about the gaps. Although war hawks like generals LeMay and Powers would continue to advocate for direct confrontation with the Soviets, they would do so as part of a diminishing minority. Within months, the basic nuclear force structure of bombers, ICBMs, and FBM submarines would be set by Secretary McNamara and his “Whiz Kids,” and would essentially remain unchanged until the end of the Cold War 30 years later.

Thus within the U.S. Government, NIE 11-8/1-61 achieved everything hoped of it. Nevertheless, there were two other goals for NIE 11-8/1-61. One was to ameliorate U.S. public fears about the Soviet Union’s imagined nuclear superiority and the other had more to do with foreign policy, that is, suppressing the Soviet use of the imagined missile gap for their own global adventures.

Using NIE 11-8/61-1 as Leverage

During the previous few years Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had used claims of nuclear missile superiority for leverage in his aggressive foreign policy. Several times, his claim of Soviet missiles rolling off production lines “like sausages” had brought fear to Western citizens and politicians, and had turned several crisis situations in places like Cuba and Berlin in favor of the Soviet Union.

The rising tensions in Berlin added to the desire of Kennedy Administration officials to exploit NIE 11-8/61-1 among the public. The difficulty was that the document could not be leaked, or even shown to the press. The existence of satellite reconnaissance and agents like Oleg Penkovsky were among America’s most valuable Intelligence secrets. Revealing such crown jewels even to trusted members of the press was unthinkable to Cold War-era leaders like John Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower. Furthermore, the Kennedy Administration wanted Khrushchev to know that they were sending him a message in the clear, not through some back channel or diplomatic note. After the string of public humiliations they had suffered, the New Frontiersmen wanted a victory that they could get some mileage out of, even if quietly.

What was needed was a public forum to announce the conclusions of NIE 11-8/61-1, though not too terribly public. Because the message needed to be heard and noticed, a senior (though not too senior) Kennedy Administration official would have to deliver the information in the form of a policy speech. This is to say, it needed to be an event where the results would be published and announced, but not raise a great deal of attention from the American public.

Therefore, it was decided that McNamara’s deputy, Under Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick, would convey the news about NIE 11-8/61-1 to the Soviets in a speech to be given to the Business Council at Hot Springs, Virginia. Delivered on October 21, 1961, the speech pulled no punches on the true state of the U.S./USSR nuclear balance. Just to be sure the message was noticed, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was interviewed the following day, with Secretary McNamara adding his own comments later the following week. Within days, the message was understood clearly. American public opinion on the gaps began to calm, and the open hostility from the Soviets over Berlin began to recede. Khrushchev, in fact, having understood the importance of NIE 11-8/61-1, began to change his approach to a number of foreign-policy initiatives.

Good information was urgently needed. But once in hand it proved very dangerous indeed.Thus in the short term, Kennedy Administration officials were able to congratulate themselves on their forceful handling of the gaps crisis, and began to plan for the future. There was, however, going to be one more result—potentially disastrous—from NIE 11-8/61-1.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

For almost a decade, Premier Nikita Khrushchev had walked a political tightrope. That he had done so through bluff and bluster makes the achievement even more impressive in retrospect. Holding in check his own hard-line faction with one hand and promoting Soviet power and achievement overseas with the other, he had used the threat of nuclear ICBM strikes as the ultimate nuclear umbrella for the socialist world. Then NIE 11-8/61-1 stripped that away, and in early 1962 he had more problems than any one man should.

Outnumbered in intercontinental nuclear warheads by more than 10 to one, he faced the prospect of a possible first strike from SAC and the FBM force that was capable of destroying the Soviet Union in an afternoon. Khrushchev also needed to provide some protection for the new regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba, which had been under attack from U.S.-backed expatriate forces and economic sanctions for three years. There was, in fact, a White House-run covert operation (The CUBA PROJECT, also known as Operation MONGOOSE) that had originally scheduled a full-scale U.S. invasion of Cuba for October 1962. Clearly, something had to be done if Khrushchev’s many foreign adventures and domestic agenda were to be sustained.

Khrushchev’s answer to this mass of troubles would be Operation ANADYR, the large-scale deployment of Soviet ground forces and nuclear missiles to Cuba in the summer of 1962. By moving some 60 of the shorter range SS-4/R-12 and SS-5/R-14 missiles to Cuba, the USSR would increase threefold its deliverable warhead count for U.S. targets. In addition, ANADYR would provide cover for the Castro regime, which desperately feared a U.S. invasion.

But the decision to run ANADYR covertly led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and withdrawal of the Soviet ballistic missiles. In the process, both sides very nearly blundered into a nuclear exchange that might have killed hundreds of millions of people. The Missile Crisis badly frightened the leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain, something that haunts survivors to this day. Two years later, Khrushchev would be forced to resign as the Soviet premier, and the Soviet Union would go on an ICBM/FBM building spree, which would only be slowed by the first strategic arms treaties in 1972. The United States would also fulfill the strategic force plans defined after the release of NIE 11-8/61-1, though their nuclear superiority of 1962 would evaporate by the end of the 1960s.

The Legacy of NIE 11-8/61-1

Every year until the demise of the Soviet Union, updated versions of NIE 11-8 would be issued by the CIA, each more accurate and credible. Improved imagery from better CORONA-series satellites and their successors would guarantee that perceived gaps in strategic-weapons capabilities would never again be cause for debate and deceit as they were in the late 1950s and early 1960s. NIE 11-8/61-1 was a milestone document that showed with rare clarity the true balance of power between the Cold War superpowers.

Good information was urgently needed. But once in hand it proved very dangerous indeed.Unfortunately, Khrushchev’s almost desperate Operation ANADYR gambit revealed the dangers of placing an inferior nuclear power into a new public perception of weakness. Strangely, what made NIE 11-8/61-1 so dangerous was not the words and graphics on its 29 pages, but how that information was used in an almost reckless fashion by the leadership of the Kennedy Administration in the fall of 1961. Future presidents and administrations heeded the lesson, avoiding where possible direct debasing of a superpower.

The survival of mankind to the end of the Cold War is perhaps the ultimate legacy of NIE 11-8/61-1 and other documents of its series. In retrospect, it was lack of hard Intelligence on opposing strategic forces that many present-day analysts and historians consider the greatest threat to peace. The views of war hawks like generals LeMay and Powers might have had greater sway if systems like the U-2 and CORONA had not stripped away doubts about actual Soviet strategic-weapons numbers and capabilities.

At best, this would have forced the United States and her Allies to spend much more on their own nuclear forces, draining badly needed finances from other national and private-sector needs. At worst, it might have resulted in the nuclear exchange that was just barely avoided during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this case, the most dangerous document of the Cold War may also have been its most valuable.