Book Review: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

The “Dead Hand” of the title refers to a proposed Soviet doomsday machine that would provide devastating retaliation in the event of an American nuclear first strike.
Lacking the technology to make the device completely automatic, the Soviets instead devised a semi-automatic program in which personnel hidden deep in concrete bunkers would launch the missiles.  In a broader sense, the dead hand refers to the overwhelmingly huge stockpile of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons left over after the breakup of the Soviet Union and their ongoing potential for destruction.

The book follows two main threads:  the quest for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, mainly pursued by US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier
Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Soviet program for developing biological weapons for
military use, which went on long after the USSR signed treaties banning such activity.

Both Reagan and Gorbachev sought to completely eliminate nuclear weapons, realizing that no war using them could be won.  The book shows the stagnation and decay of the pre-Gorbachev years under Brezhnev and Andropov, the relentless military buildup which consumed all the national resources and more, and strangled and starved the common people.  The contrast puts Gorbachev’s achievements in perspective and makes what he was able to accomplish seem all the more amazing.  That he and Reagan were able to get together and discuss scaling down the arms race was a tremendous feat.  Both faced great opposition at home:  Reagan from right-wingers suspicious of Soviet intentions, and Gorbachev from generals who were determined to preserve the powerful  military/industrial complex.  In the end, the two leaders did not meet their ultimate goal, which was total elimination of nuclear weapons, but they made great strides in that direction.

In the meantime, though, the Soviet program to develop and prepare for use as weapons such biological agents as anthrax, plague, and smallpox went on unabated.  Though strict
treaties were signed, the Soviets, and later after the breakup of the Soviet Union the Russians, continued research and production of both biological and chemical weapons on a massive scale.

History intervened.  Gorbachev allowed the Berlin Wall to fall and one East Bloc country
after another to declare independence.  This left nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons scattered all across the Soviet Union in hundreds of locations, for the most part ill-guarded, neglected, without funding, staffed by scientists who received little or no pay.  The last part of the book documents the gradual realization by the Western governments that this network of weapons existed, and their efforts to do something to reduce the risk before terrorists and rogue states moved in and got to them first.  It’s a story of real-life espionage and intrigue, of investigation and heroism.

The story does not end well.  Many of those weapons are still out there, still available to wreak havoc and destruction.  They have not all been dismantled or neutralized or placed in secure locations.  They are dormant for the moment but still exist as a “Dead Hand”, a doomsday device of potential annihilation.

This is a terrifying book.  At the same time, it is brilliantly written, a terrific read, as
compelling and as hard to put down as a novel.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2010, and that prize was well-deserved.  It’s an invaluable study of an important aspect of modern history – all the more so because that history is ongoing.

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