Midway through Eisenhower’s second term, as Richard M. Nixon would write in his 1962 post-vice-presidential book Six Crises, “on the domestic front, the first signs of the 1958 economic recession were becoming obvious. At the same time, it was equally apparent that we would have to find more money to bolster our missile program. We were having serious budget problems: the fiscal 1958 budget was $71.8 billion, the highest in peacetime history, the government had borrowed up to its legal debt limit, and we had to prepare the fiscal 1959 budget with still higher defense spending.”

The Democratic senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas had warned Congress in August 1958 of a “drift to disaster,” claiming that U.S. defense funds had been “impounded, sunk, and hidden” by the administration. Making matters worse, Eisenhower’s second Secretary of Defense, Neil H. McElroy, had openly admitted that the U.S.S.R. might have as much as a three-to-one advantage in nuclear weaponry. Congressional Democrats immediately seized on this “missile gap” with the Soviets as a campaign issue, with Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri leading the charge. As head of a Senate Armed Forces subcommittee, Symington issued a majority report pronouncing, “It is now clear that the U.S.…may have lost control of the air,” thanks to Eisenhower’s insistence on putting fiscal concerns above national security and his “tendency to either ignore or underestimate Soviet military progress.” Symington, whom Truman had appointed the first Secretary of the Air Force in 1947, insisted loudly and publicly that only a massive increase in U.S. defense spending could start America back toward military parity with the Soviet Union.

The President believed Symington was inflaming Cold War anxieties to further his own presidential hopes while at the same time promoting the interests of the major defense contractors, such as General Dynamics and Boeing, that backed him. After all, it was Eisenhower who had funded the three great weapons systems that were the foundation of America’s Cold War defense: He initiated funding for the Minuteman intercontinental nuclear missile and the Polaris nuclear-missile-firing submarine and continued funding for the nuclear-bomb-bearing B-52 bomber. What’s more, in 1958 Ike oversaw the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to ensure future technological advancement. But the next year, when Congress tried to appropriate $137 million for the questionably effective Nike Zeus antimissile missile, Eisenhower refused, maintaining that funds “should not be committed to production until development tests are satisfactorily completed.” Interested corporations immediately mounted a massive public relations campaign to promote the Zeus. Western Electric, the program’s lead contractor, and eight subcontractors took out full-page ads in newspapers around the country showing where all the contract money would be spent, while members of Congress in those districts took to making speeches about Soviet military superiority. Then the U.S. House majority leader, John McCormack, a Massachusetts Democrat, pleaded for the United States to “close the gap in our missile posture, muzzle the mad-dog missile threat of the Soviet Union, and loose the Zeus through America’s magnificent production line.” Eisenhower refused to flinch, scoffing at the “loose the Zeus” crowd’s preference for pork-barrel projects benefiting their own districts and states.

It is difficult today to imagine the genuine fear that swept America after the news of Sputnik, and it’s startling to realize how lonely Eisenhower’s voice of reason sounded. Yet the President held his ground, insisting that America’s defenses were more than adequate, although for national security reasons he could not disclose the proof provided by the CIA’s U-2 reconnaissance photographs that the Soviet Union had built and deployed very few ICBMs. “Everyone knows,” the Air Force general Nathan Twining told the President in private, that “we already have a [nuclear] stockpile large enough to obliterate the Soviet Union.”

Eager to dispel both the “missile gap” myth and the public’s post- Sputnik worry about overwhelming Soviet technological superiority, Eisenhower’s third Secretary of Defense, Thomas S. Gates, Jr., brought revised intelligence estimates to the House Defense Appropriations Committee on January 19, 1960, showing that the initial estimates of the superpowers’ relative military strength had been mistaken and there actually was “a clear balance in our favor.” Democrats, including the presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, accused the administration of manipulating the statistics and made the missile gap a major issue in the 1960 campaign. The supposed U.S. military deficit had sprung in part from an exaggerated sense of the Soviet Union’s ability to build new missiles; in fact, the U.S.S.R. had never tried to radically increase its production and probably didn’t have the resources anyway. Spy satellites deployed during the Kennedy administration bore this out, revealing that even the CIA’s estimates of Soviet weapons strength had been much too high.