As the United States reeled from the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in late 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower received a top secret report prepared by a committee of leading scientific, business, and military experts. The panel, called the Gaither committee in recognition of its first chairman, H. Rowan Gaither, Jr., emphasized both the inadequacy of U.S. defense measures designed to protect the civil population and the vulnerability of the country's strategic nuclear forces in the event of a Soviet attack. The Gaither committee viewed these defense measures--ranging from a missile system to defend the continental United States to the construction of shelters to protect the population from radioactive fallout--and the maintenance of sufficient strategic forces to launch military strikes against Soviet targets as essential for the preservation of U.S. security. It concluded that in the case of a surprise Soviet nuclear attack the United States would be unable to defend itself with any degree of success. The committee emphasized the urgent need for the Eisenhower administration to strengthen the country's continental and civil defenses and to accelerate the development of its strategic striking power.
This study examines the history of Gaither committee: Why was it created? What were the backgrounds of its members? What evidence did it examine in performing its study? Why did it reach the conclusions it did? How influential was it on the Eisenhower administration? This manuscript illuminates the significance of the Gaither committee in shaping changes in Eisenhower's national security policies and in the development of President Kennedy's. It demonstrates that Eisenhower followed a consistent set of values and used an established decision making system to evaluate the Gaither committee's findings and to make changes in his national security policies. It reveals that Eisenhower sought the assistance of experts from a variety of professions to supplement the advice he received from his official advisers. Finally, it shows that the Gaither committee reached its conclusions based as much on the preconceptions of its members as on the evidence it examined.