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A Horrible Set of Crimes
on November 2, 2009
The Dead Hand details secrets from the Soviet Union's military and research industries - secrets that are so dark as to reframe the historical interpretation of that country and its leadership during the Cold War.
The Soviets referred to a semi-automatic defense plan as the "Dead Hand." The Dead Hand was a system that would fire a portfolio of SS-18's on to the United States and Western Europe if its sensors made the conclusion that the Kremlin had been destroyed by a nuclear blast. The system was in place as early as the mid-80s. It is a bit of a miracle, given the demonstrated shortcomings of Soviet engineering, that it never made a mistake.
There's more to the spirit of the Dead Hand, though. Much of this book is about the extensive germ warfare research that the Soviets conducted in violation of international law. Hoffman has managed to track down the assorted scientists who worked in the Urals, in Kazakhstan, in Siberia, the Aral Sea, and other places. Each one has a small part to play in a dark effort. The Soviets weaponized all kinds of killer bugs - plague, smallpox, anthrax, tularemia, and others. The Soviets created anti-biotic resistant strains of each. Some were hybrid bugs that would kill in two stages over several weeks.
In the last days of the Soviet Unions, leaders like Sam Nunn and Les Aspin worked to identify and eliminate nuclear stockpiles. Unfortunately, not as much effort went in to finding chemical weapons. Some were found, but the author believes that many stockpiles were either hidden or lost.
The takeaway, ultimately, is that the Dead Hand still exists, albeit in a new mode. There is no semi-automatic nuclear weapon program. Instead, there are the residual weapons (both chemical and nuclear) that have fallen into untraceable hands throughout the world. There appears to be evidence that some of those hands include the governments of Iran and North Korea, but it is just as likely that many private groups are able to put their hands on the remainders of the Soviet arsenals.
This book contradicts some of the larger interpretations of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Reagan built up weapons stockpiles, building not just the Pershing IIs but also the drive to SDI. Many have taken those events to say that Reagan was hawkish, and that he strategically invested in defense in order to put economic pressure on the Soviet budgets. Hoffman doesn't deny that SDI did require additional spending, but his analysis is that Reagan was driven first by an absolute hatred of nuclear weaponry. He knew that their system was able to produce advanced weaponry but little grain. Hoffman portrays Reagan very favorably, even as he is less taken by Bush I.
This book covers a lot of ground, but the author's narrative is very readable. I think it adds something to the history of the Soviet Union.