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The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold…
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The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its… (2009)

by David Hoffman

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This amazing and, in many respects, chilling book is an account of the winding down of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is amazing because of the interplay on nuclear arms control between the US leadership, principally Ronald Reagan, and the Soviet leaders following Brezhnev. Reagan was sincerely repulsed by the philosophy and practices of communism and his tough talk was an honest expression of his views on the so-called “Evil Empire”. At the same time, and this isn’t so widely known, he was genuinely driven by the idea that the world could be rid of nuclear weapons. His disarmament overtures to the Soviets were bold, usually counter to the advice of his civilian and military advisors, and came remarkably close to succeeding.

Against this intention, however, were his constant provocative anti-Soviet public statements that could be legitimately received as antagonistic, even threatening. The story is chilling because of circumstances in the early 1980’s where misperceptions and the response to those brought us to the brink of an actual nuclear exchange. Reagan’s openly hostile demeanor toward the Soviets brought their leaders (a succession of old guard hacks – Andropov and Chernenko) to believe that the United States was planning a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Their level of obsession reached a state of paranoia. They surmised that the US would first take out the leadership through an all-out attack with its nuclear arsenal. This led to devising a command and control protocol that would allow a launch command to be sent without the real-time authorization of the top leaders – a semi-automatic launch command to the missile officers at the silos, hence the “dead hand” that would in effect pull the nuclear trigger. One thing is clear: the Soviets felt genuinely, if erroneously, threatened about the West’s intentions. While they were not reckless about their own use of nuclear weapons, a series of missteps or technical breakdowns stemming from their fears could have resulted in a nuclear exchange. The book recounts incidents where, due to errors in early warning systems, the Soviets thought they were being attacked. The decision time to launch a counter attack is just minutes, the so-called “hair trigger” danger of nuclear strategy.

Reagan’s effort to eliminate nuclear weapons was thwarted by his obsession with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or the so-called Star Wars program). It is puzzling why he held so tightly to this new aspect that would inevitably upset the balance between the super powers. It seems clear that this was not just a bargaining chip he played against the Soviets. He apparently truly believed that this anti-ballistic missile “shield” would protect against nuclear attacks (although the science and technology were/are highly suspect) and could bring about the reduction or elimination of offensive weapons. The Soviets, whose economy could not bear another expensive weapons venture, logically viewed SDI as destabilizing the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) balance between the two countries. SDI would create greater threat to them since, after all, if the US could destroy the Soviet’s nuclear missiles then its own could be used without fear of retaliation.

Another chilling aspect of this story, told at great length and in remarkable detail, is the Soviet’s development of biological weapons. After an international treaty banning the production and possession of biological weapon agents was signed by most countries, the Soviet Union completely violated the treaty by continuing with a full-scale, highly secret program of manufacturing the most heinous weapons imaginable. The Soviets believed wrongly that the US was also ignoring the treaty and they continued on a massive scale to find and weaponize diseases that would create the most horrific consequences if used. The Soviet leaders were aware of this, but couldn’t exercise complete control as there was a powerful military-industrial combine that worked to perpetuate it. Indeed, the influence of the defense/warfare sector of the Russian economy (and surely our own) was a strongly contributing factor to the arms race in all dimensions. (One must remember that the Soviet economy had a huge defense industry, a much larger component of the country’s economy than in the US.)

The Soviet Union collapsed during Gorbachev’s rule. Gorbachev was not the radical reformer that he is often portrayed to be, but his moves to open up Soviet society unleashed forces that took matters far beyond what he intended. Gorbachev and Reagan develop a true rapport, but institutional impediments (including the military/industrial combines in both countries and the SDI) prevented making substantial progress on arms control. It was after the Soviet economy collapsed (and, yes, the constant pressure of keeping up with the Americans had something to do with this) that the unsustainability of the levels of nuclear weapons compelled change.

However, as the Soviet’s economy and authority structure collapsed the already poor controls over nuclear weapons and weapons materials have become clear and very worrisome. The book conveys the laxity of security over weapons and weapons materials and the ability of rogue actors to spread these elsewhere. Even if, thankfully, the chances of full-scale nuclear war have greatly lessened, the possibilities that weapons or weapons components could fall into maleficent hands has greatly increased. In the “MAD” era of the cold war (and one would not wish to return to this) the opposing powers had compelling institutional rationales for not attacking each other. Our new enemies have no such inhibiting pressure on them. There are international programs aimed at destroying stockpiles, or at least accounting for them under strict security, but the chances that these materials could fall under the control of terrorists seems very great. One remembers the fear and revulsion created by two homemade “pressure cooker” bombs in Boston; just think of what could happen if even a small amount of nuclear/radioactive elements were unleashed anywhere in the country. The efforts to gain (regain?) control over the security of the products of the Cold War deserve the highest attention possible. ( )
  stevesmits | Jun 24, 2014 |
Fascinating look at Soviet WMD programs, people and institutions, as well as Cold War events, espionage and politics in the 1980s. Coming of age in the 1980s, I'd heard of many of these things in the news, but herein we have retrospection and new information. Who needs unreliable and speculative news if you can wait a few years for the book to tell what really happened. At times it felt like science fiction because it's so difficult to comprehend a Holocaust that could kill billions of people, but that is what we are asked to imagine as the purpose of these weapons, which are quite real.

Hoffman does a particularly good job with the Soviet chemical and biological weapons programs, how they came about, developed and later uncovered. The pathogens created were diabolical enough to kill every human in the world with no anecdote. The Soviet chemical weapons are now loose in Syria, thanks to one rouge individual. As one pundit said, the Soviet weapons problem will be with us for many generations. I was also impressed by the depiction of Reagan who is usually seen as a warmonger but seemingly was just the opposite, he wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons; however it also revealed the myth that Reagan "won" the Cold War, the Soviets would have failed anyway. 1985 seems to be the beginning of the end when the Old Breed WWII vets lost control and a new generation headed by Gorbachev took over. The book ends on a chilling note that the Cold War had a balance of power, neither side wanted to die, thus WMD's were kept in check. However the present era of terrorism, in which the belligerents want to die, and asynchronous warfare, in which a single person can cause untold damage, changes everything.

There are many great stories in this book, if it drags in a few place that is OK because all told its well worth it. This review is based on the audiobook, it translates well to narrative form. ( )
  Stbalbach | May 6, 2013 |
The second half of the twentieth century will always be defined by what became known as The Cold War. Born out of the distrust between the major allied powers in the Second World War, the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States not only gave shape to the modern world, it also created two weapons building programs unrivaled in history. Ultra secret programs that produced weapons that are too horrifying to imagine and created consequences for those who chose to create them. And while those weapons were never actually employed in the war that luckily never happened, it wasn’t for lack of trying. And even now, the shadow of those military programs lives on in spite of the end of the Soviet Union. In fact, things might be more dangerous now than they were at the height of the Cold War.

David Hoffman’s inside look at the Cold War arms race and its consequences is in a word…frightening! Those of us who grew up in that time remember the fear that pervaded us – that one day we would wake up to cities being incinerated by nuclear warheads and that would be the end of that. However, until I read. The Dead Hand, I didn’t really appreciate just how close to the brink of World War III we came. Forget the Cuban Missile Crisis. We never came closer to calamity than during a few weeks in 1983 – and few knew anything about it until decades later.

The Dead Hand goes far beyond simply documenting how weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological) shaped policy between the superpowers. It describes just how perilously close we came at several points to all out Armageddon. Hoffman provides a wealth of information from sources on all sides of the Cold War. Even more chilling is how even today we are haunted by the legacy of destructive arsenals even though the two primary combatants no longer have a beef with each other. The industry of the two superpowers are now the deadly tools that rough states and terrorists would love to grab a hold of…and just one would alter our world forever.

That is not to say The Dead Hand is perfect. At times, Hoffman’s writing becomes a bit repetitive, at other times he drones on about minor things. However, the overall portrait he paints is both thoughtful and chilling. Hoffman doesn’t end with a litany of conclusions or things that need to be done. Ultimately, there are no easy answers to the world we have built other than a need to be vigilant about allowing paranoia and fear to push into acting in a devastating way. The tools of our protection can become the instruments of our destruction.

The Dead Hand is a must read for anyone who lived through the anxiety of the Cold War or wants to know what threatens our way of life today. The Cold War might be over, but the threats to humanity still remain. Well written…and frankly unnerving. ( )
  csayban | Apr 7, 2013 |
We don't hear much about weapons of mass destruction these days, but this history of the Cold War arms race and its aftermath is a warning bell that much needs to be done, not only to abolish nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological weapons and stocks of enriched uranium and plutonium. Hoffman lays out in plain language the extent of unsecured weapons, weapons-grade materials and scientists and technicians who are able to make more of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
This book confirms my prejudice that a Pulitzer Prize is a very reliable indicator of excellence in non-fiction. This book showcases journalism at its best; eminently readable, well researched and ground breaking. I can´t say that this book answers all of the questions about the Cold War, but it has answered a lot of questions I would never have thought of asking. For those that remember the Cold War and the sense of the possibility of imminent extinction of life on the planet (an event that would be over in a couple of hours) this book brings back vivid memories. For those born later, they could do worse than remember that old saying about studying history in the hope of never repeating it. This would be one of the prime books for that sort of study. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote nandadevi | May 8, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
A readable, many-tentacled account of the decades-long military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union... What’s particularly valuable about Mr. Hoffman’s book, is the skill with which he narrows his focus (and his indefatigable reporting) down to a few essential areas.
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385524374, Hardcover)

“A tour de force of investigative history.” —Steve Coll

The Dead Hand
is the suspense-filled story of the people who sought to brake the speeding locomotive of the arms race, then rushed to secure the nuclear and biological weapons left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union—a dangerous legacy that haunts us even today.


The Cold War was an epoch of massive overkill. In the last half of the twentieth century the two superpowers had perfected the science of mass destruction and possessed nuclear weapons with the combined power of a million Hiroshimas. What’s more, a Soviet biological warfare machine was ready to produce bacteria and viruses to sicken and kill millions. In The Dead Hand, a thrilling narrative history drawing on new archives and original research and interviews, David E. Hoffman reveals how presidents, scientists, diplomats, soldiers, and spies confronted the danger and changed the course of history.

The Dead Hand captures the inside story in both the United States and the Soviet Union, giving us an urgent and intimate account of the last decade of the arms race. With access to secret Kremlin documents, Hoffman chronicles Soviet internal deliberations that have long been hidden. He reveals that weapons designers in 1985 laid a massive “Star Wars” program on the desk of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to compete with President Reagan, but Gorbachev refused to build it. He unmasks the cover-up of the Soviet biological weapons program. He tells the exclusive story of one Soviet microbiologist’s quest to build a genetically engineered super-germ—it would cause a mild illness, a deceptive recovery, then a second, fatal attack. And he details the frightening history of the Doomsday Machine, known as the Dead Hand, which would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike if the Soviet leaders were wiped out.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the dangers remained. Soon rickety trains were hauling unsecured nuclear warheads across the Russian steppe; tons of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium lay unguarded in warehouses; and microbiologists and bomb designers were scavenging for food to feed their families.

The Dead Hand offers fresh and startling insights into Reagan and Gorbachev, the two key figures of the end of the Cold War, and draws colorful, unforgettable portraits of many others who struggled, often valiantly, to save the world from the most terrifying weapons known to man.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:02 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The first full account of how the Cold War arms race finally came to a close, this narrative history sheds light on the people who struggled to end this era of massive overkill, and examines the legacy of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that remain a threat today. Drawing on memoirs, interviews in both Russia and the US, and classified documents from inside the Kremlin, David E. Hoffman examines the inner motives and secret decisions of each side and details the deadly stockpiles that remained unsecured as the Soviet Union collapsed. This is the story of how Reagan, Gorbachev, and a previously unheralded collection of scientists, soldiers, diplomats, and spies changed the course of history. --From publisher's description.… (more)

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