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The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy Hardcover – September 22, 2009
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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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It is a deeply researched, well-written look at Reagan and Gorby's efforts to eliminate nuclear arms, along with fascinating, newly-discovered material on the Soviet chemical and biological weapons programs.
I personally was unaware the extent to which Reagan was devoted to the elimination of all nuclear arms -- he was deeply affected by ABC's The Day After, and immediately began to write notes to Soviet leaders in an effort to engage them on nuclear arms issues.
Unfortunately, his successor Bush I and his team -- including Cheney -- were distrustful of Gorbachev and set Reagan's efforts back (although Sam Nunn and James Baker were instrumental in securing loose weaponry after the fall of the Soviet Union).
The book ends with very practical, timely suggestions for what can be done now to reduce the nuclear threat -- including taking our devices off of "fire-ready" status.
I hope our leaders are listening.
Roughly the first two thirds of the book are concerned primarily with the 1980s, from the start of the Reagan presidency, through the rise of Gorbachev, and the beginning of co-operation between the two sides on arms reduction, through Gorbachev's decline and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. The final third deals with the post-Soviet era, through about 2000. I was born in 1975, so the earlier events described in the book were things that were going on as I was growing up. For example, I remember the news reports of the Korean airliner being shot down by the Russians. I remember the German kid who flew a single-engine plane to Red Square in Moscow. I remember that my parents didn't let me watch "The Day After". I remember prime-time news specials describing the "Star Wars" missile defense. But as a kid, I didn't know the real significance of any of this stuff, and of course many of the details were classified at the time. This book covers all that and more, and it's fascinating to go back and read what was going on behind the scenes during my childhood.
The author is very balanced in his approach. Reagan comes off surprisingly well, given how he is often portrayed as an imbecile. In this book, he comes across as an idealist, striving for a world without nuclear weapons, yet rather naive about how his strident rhetoric and plans for missile defense were perceived by the paranoid leadership of the Soviet Union, and for a while accelerated the arms race instead of slowing it down. Gorbachev also comes across well, a reformer surrounded by aging dinosaurs in the Communist party and an entrenched military industrial complex. But the author is by no means an apologist for the Soviet Union. There's a section toward the end of the book that sums it up well - a US official is investigating a mothballed Soviet-era biological weapons plant. He had never bought into the whole "evil empire" rhetoric. But staring down into a giant fermenter capable of producing tons of anthrax, meant to be delivered by strategic missiles to wipe out the survivors of a nuclear strike, he realizes he is staring into the face of evil.
Lots of fascinating and terrifying stuff. The descriptions of plutonium pits and highly enriched uranium spilling out the windows of poorly guarded warehouses, and being transported on creaky rail cars, or the test-tubes of weaponized plague being found in an empty tin of peas, are of course scary. And the decreased cooperation of Putin-era Russia leaves a lot of unanswered questions. There are still former bioweapons sites that Russia has never granted access to. The book paints a picture of some of these programs having lives of their own, in spite of the best intentions of the leadership. So who knows what might still be lurking in the shadows.
Minor drawbacks were (1) the author has a tendency to jump back and forth between strands of the story, i.e. from nuclear arms reduction talks, to the bioweapons story, in a somewhat distracting way, and (2) the author feels the need to keep reminding us who certain characters are, I guess because an American reader will get confused by all the Russian names. But for example, he keeps reminding us that a certain Gorbachev aide was the one he had a stirring conversation with during a walk in the woods in Canada.
But overall - very well written, impeccably researched and documented, and a great read.