The Missile Gap: A Moral Panic for an Atomic Age

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

This research is examines the nuclear arms race that dominated the 20th century, during which the United States manufactured and stockpiled a large number of strategic weapons. Using moral panic theory, the roles of the President of the United States and the media are examined in facilitating public interest in the manufacture of these weapons from 1955-1990. The project uses both time series and historical analyses to determine the extent to which the strategic nuclear weapons crisis was a moral panic created to insure public acceptance of such this massive defense sector expenditure. The time series analysis reveals that the President does have the ability to influence the public via the State of the Union Address, but that influence does not extend strongly to the media. However, what influence the President does have appears to be correlated to the use of substantive rhetoric, and the percentage of the speech dedicated to the issue. Finally, the historical analysis demonstrates that the moral panic moves through three phases. The first phase is characterized by grassroots concern over the technical gap represented by Sputnik 1's launch was utilized by interested actors to accomplish their goals. During the second phase, this concern transformed into an institutional technique utilized for deflecting institutional challenges when the moral panic moved into an interest group model. The final phase occurs during the rise of the "security state", when elites begin using the moral panic to achieve their own ends.

moral panic, missile gap, strategic nuclear weapons crisis, military Keynesianism