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The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy Hardcover – September 22, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 156 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for The Dead Hand

“Authoritative and chilling. . . . A readable, many-tentacled account of the decades-long military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. . . . The Dead Hand is deadly serious, but this story can verge on pitch-black comedy—Dr. Strangelove as updated by the Coen Brothers.”
The New York Times

“Revealing, alarming and compelling throughout. . . . This richly reported account vividly chronicles the insanity of the arms race. . . . Taut, crisply written. . . . The Dead Hand puts human faces on the bureaucracy of mutual assured destruction, even as it underscores the institutional inertia that drove this monster forward. . . . A fine book indeed.”
—T. J. Stiles, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“In a compelling narrative packed with vivid detail and telling quotations, Hoffman tells the story of how Reagan and Gorbachev halted the arms race.”
The Times Literary Supplement

“Gripping. . . . Hoffman reinforces his scary thesis with breathtakingly detailed research.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Unsettling. . . . The Dead Hand argues convincingly that America’s victory in the Cold War wasn’t nearly as triumphant as the most self-congratulatory among us have tended to believe.”
The Washington Post

“A stunning feat of research and narrative. Terrifying.”
—John le Carré
The Dead Hand is a brilliant work of history, a richly detailed, gripping tale that take us inside the Cold War arms race as no other book has. Drawing upon extensive interviews and secret documents, David Hoffman reveals never-before-reported aspects of the Soviet biological and nuclear programs. It’s a story so riveting and scary that you feel like you are reading a fictional thriller.”
—Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

“In The Dead Hand, David Hoffman has uncovered some of the Cold War’s most persistent and consequential secrets—plans and systems designed to wage war with weapons of mass destruction, and even to place the prospective end of civilization on a kind of automatic pilot. The book’s revelations are shocking; its narrative is intelligent and gripping. This is a tour de force of investigative history.”
—Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens

“An extraordinary and compelling story, beautifully researched, elegantly told, and full of revelations about the superpower arms race in the dying days of the Cold War. The Dead Hand is riveting.”
—Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of An Army At Dawn

“No one is better qualified than David Hoffman to tell the definitive story of the ruinous Cold War arms race. He has interviewed the principal protagonists, unearthed previously undiscovered archives, and tramped across the military-industrial wasteland of the former Soviet Union. He brings his characters to life in a thrilling narrative that contains many lessons for modern-day policymakers struggling to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. An extraordinary achievement.”
—Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War

About the Author

David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor at the Washington Post, where he previously served as White House correspondent, Moscow bureau chief, and assistant managing editor for foreign news. He is the author of The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia.

He lives in Maryland.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (September 22, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385524374
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385524377
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #467,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Adam Rust VINE VOICE on November 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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The Cold War was mainly an ideological war.Threats of mutual destruction played a significant part during this conflict.Suffice it to mention the Berlin crises and the Cuban Missile Crisis,where humanity has almost annihiltated itself.Brinkmanship was the name of the game ,played in many instances by the Soviet empire.
"The Dead Hand" shows to what extent all of us were living in the most dangerous period of times during the second half of the twentieth century.Its focus is to show two important and cardinal points:to what extent missiles were to make sure nobody would be alive in case the conflict grew into a hot one.The second point emphasizes and demonstrates an angle which did not get much attention by Cold War historians:the threat of biological warfare.The combination of these two destructive forces would have made Hiroshima a child's play.
As Mr.Hoffman makes it clear in his riveting and breathtaking book,it would have been a matter of only some minutes when humanity could have destroyed itself.This is a story that includes presidents, advisors,soldiers,(evil)scientists,generals and spies
who were working for their respective peoples in order to gain the upper hand.
For the first time, we get an in-depth story about the Soviets' biological weapons program.The purpose of the Soviets was to create a genetically-engineered super-germ which would cause hundreds of millions of fatalities.He includes the story of some scientists who were working on this secret project day and night.
This is his best and most fascinating part of the story.He includes stories about some scientists who could not live with lies anymore, thus they defected to the West and told the whole story about how the Russians were trying to fool the world about their intentions on biowarfare.
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Most "Cold War" books fall into 1 of 2 categories... Wide scope poicy analysis or put-you-on-the scene field level narratives. There are few that find a readable method of blending the two. Hoffman does a fine job of doing just that. While the book is top heavy from the Reagan era on and generally skims over pre 1980 Cold War history it is, nonetheless, informative, upsetting and revealing. Get the highlighter out because there are many passages you will want to refer back to when discussing this subject in the future. It is one of the best histories of the Reagan-Gorbachov negotiations since Beschloss's "At the Highest Levels". If you are a foreign policy wonk purist you will probably find this book a bit thin. If you are an afficianado of field level tactics you may find this book a bit slow in areas. So be it..i.e., some people like Kolko's "Anatomy of a War" and some like Baker's "NAM". If, however, you like both of those books you'll probably love this one. A friend of mine, when seeing the dust cover of the book on my desk, mistook it for a fictional novel. I told him, "No, it isn't... but I sure wish it was!" as parts of Mr. Hoffman's work are very unsettling.
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I bought "The Dead Hand" because for many years I believed there was more to the "Cold War" and its "end" than what we were taught or told. To be honest, I never bought into the hypothesis that President Reagan's massive build up of the military and zest for "Star Wars" was the "cause" of the dissolution of the Soviet "evil empire". My more "I-obviously-watched-too-many-movies" side of me even thought that Gorbachev and Yeltsin would turn out to be CIA plants in what would have been the greatest single covert operation in human history. I just couldn't believe the Soviet "ending", which came on like a locomotive, could have been chalked up to death by natural causes with American military might to speed death along. No, this State had a fast-moving cancer put there by the Americans, on the inside. Well my fantasies will remain relegated to the Fiction section, but Hoffman did proceed to scare the daylights out of me with what he revealed. I won't spoil the many "a-ha's" so cleverly researched and reported on by Hoffman, but I will say that when I finished the book I shook my head in utter disbelief that the two superpowers didn't manage to destroy humanity. The scarier part is that it is possible a serious WMD threat still exists, especially in the so-called "rogue" states: Iran, North Korea, etc. OK, a little peek: given the laughable state of security around the Soviet's weapons of mass destruction at Cold War's end, even an optimist is left to conclude that the likelihood that an WMD will be used in our lifetime is inevitable, since accountability was a joke and incentives to sellout high. Hoffman's recount of Cold War history is riveting, revealing and even revolting. I fought sleep to keep reading.Read more ›
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