Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy

Author: David E. Hoffman
Published: 2009
Length: 592 pages
Source: Local library
Award: Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction (2010)

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5

     Reagan escorted his guest [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko] down the long colonnade from the West Wing to the main White House mansion for a reception...A small chamber orchestra played classical music. Reagan introduced Nancy.  At the end of the reception, Gromyko took Nancy aside and said, "Does your husband believe in peace?"
     "Of course," she replied.
     "Then whisper 'peace' in your husbands ear every night," he said.
     "I will, and I will also whisper it in your ear," she said. And with that she leaned over with a smile and whispered softly, "Peace."

If only simple whispers of peace in the ears of Soviet and American leaders could have prevented the misguided suspicions and nuclear arms buildup that characterized the Cold War. In The Dead Hand, David E Hoffman offers a new understanding of both sides of the conflict, aided by his access to internal documents of the Soviet Defense Department, as well as memoirs, diaries and interviews. These sources provide an inside view of the attitudes and reactions of the Soviet leadership in the last years of the Cold War. What were Soviet leaders thinking? What did they say to each other behind closed doors? Interwoven with a detailed account of Reagan's horror at the prospect of nuclear war and his reasoning behind "Star Wars," the capture of both perspectives gives the sense of listening in on an intense conversation--a dysfunctional one, but it keeps the pages turning. 

Hoffman includes a terrifying history of the Soviet Union's covert biological weapons program. Brilliant scientists, afraid to refuse assignments from the government or convinced that they needed to counter an alleged secret U.S. program, worked feverishly to genetically engineer pathogens that could wipe out huge populations--smallpox, plague, tularemia, anthrax. The program was so secretive that it is questionable whether Gorbachev knew of it. In contrast, United States stopped research and development of biological weapons in 1969, reasoning that nuclear weapons were a sufficient deterrent. As Nixon said, "If someone uses germs on us, we'll nuke 'em." 

Nixon's statement is a good example of militant rhetoric on both sides that camouflaged the extreme abhorrence with which leaders such as Reagan and Gorbachev viewed the possible use of their massive and costly stashes of nuclear weapons.  Each side was convinced that the other side was ready to push the button, and they had to be prepared. The "Dead Hand" refers to the Soviet plans to create a Doomsday machine that would launch a retaliatory strike if their leadership was wiped out by an initial U.S. strike. This horrifying scenario of a nuclear weapon launch free of human decision was never actually operative. Instead, they developed a semi-automatic system called Perimeter.  As for the U.S., Reagan's vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative was never realized, but it showed his concern that an attack from the "Evil Empire" was possible at any time, and we desperately  needed a way to defend ourselves from a fate imagined in "The Day After."  In reality, both sides hoped to avoid WWIII, but the realization of this unfolded at a slow, painful, and costly pace.

I was born in 1973, so I lived through the last chapter of Cold War hostilities. I was blissfully unaware of the frightening possibilities. I saw headlines here and there, and I remember when "The Day After" was televised, but it never really sunk in. I was happy watching MTV and spraying my hair with copious amounts of Sun-In. I would have never imagined that the Soviets were cooking up ways to kill me and my family with smallpox or the plague.  As terrifying as their biological weapons program  was, the real horror is the present danger triggered by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the "leftovers" of the Cold War. The highly enriched uranium and plutonium that sit unguarded in warehouses. The engineers and scientists ready to sell their knowledge and/or weapons to the highest bidder just so they can feed their families. Who will end up with these weapons and the knowledge to develop and manufacture more?  Now that MTV sucks and my hair is gray, I'm a little more aware of what's going on in the world. As frightening as the idea of the Dead Hand was, the legacy of the Cold War is the bigger nightmare.

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