Book World: Review of The Dead Hand, by David E. Hoffman

By Matthew Dallek
Sunday, January 17, 2010


The Untold Story of The Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy

By David E. Hoffman

Doubleday. 577 pp. $35

Americans are obsessed with weapons of mass destruction and the damage they could inflict on us all. Books and films ranging from journalist John Hersey's "Hiroshima," published in 1946, to ABC's television extravaganza "The Day After," broadcast in 1983, from Fox's ongoing counter-terrorism Armageddon drama "24" to apocalyptic novels like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," reflect a preoccupation with a nuclear-, chemical- or biological-weapons attack and its aftermath dating from at least the end of World War II. The fear that scientific expertise will be married to ideological conflict, technological advances and social hate pervades these doomsday-themed books and movies.

Now comes David E. Hoffman's "The Dead Hand," a welcome, unsettling, nonfictional addition to this still timely genre. Hoffman, a Post contributing editor and former Moscow bureau chief, examines the Soviet struggle to build biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as a counterweight to American power in the Cold War's final years. "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. When the arms race between the two superpowers ended in the 1990s, a second terrifying competition replaced the first. The collapse of the Soviet regime precipitated a breakdown in internal controls on weapons of mass destruction. Russian scientists began losing their jobs, and weapons facilities and nuclear materials were often left undefended. Hoffman reports that terrorist organizations and rogue regimes rushed into this breach to acquire these horrific weapons, while U.S. officials worked furiously to prevent them from falling into hostile hands.

Against the backdrop of this reconfigured arms competition, Hoffman's book is a chillingly modern historical tale about a collective failure with lasting consequences. Chronicling the breakneck drive in the U.S.S.R. to develop methods for inflicting death on a massive scale, Hoffman captures the reckless abandon with which the Soviet Union (and the United States) pursued the arms race, from the 1970s to the early '90s.

We learn, for instance, that the U.S. record on biological weapons was far from sterling. When the Nixon administration abolished the program in 1969, the United States had already developed a vast trove of agents of death, including some "220 pounds of anthrax dried agent . . . 804 pounds of dried tularemia bacteria and 334 pounds of the incapacitating agent Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis virus."

As the U.S. program ended, the Soviet initiative was only just beginning. Code-naming biological weapons programs "Bonfire" and "Ecology" and establishing an organization called "Biopreparat" to develop such weapons, communist officials endeavored to weaponize "the most dangerous pathogens known to man." Tons of anthrax spores cultivated in top-secret facilities were manifestations of the late-Soviet era times, while a "630-liter smallpox reactor, standing five feet tall" offered more evidence still of this frenzied weapons quest.

Equally disconcerting, Hoffman reports, was that Soviet leaders invented a doomsday program dubbed the "Dead Hand": If communist officials were killed in a first nuclear strike by the United States, then "a small crew of duty officers surviving deep underground" would still be able to retaliate using nuclear weapons. Hoffman sings the praises of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan for envisioning a world liberated from the chokehold of nuclear missiles.

"The Dead Hand" at times veers too quickly from stories of spies to politicians and to scientists and varied weapons facilities, and its portrait of Reagan is surprisingly benign. Hoffman shortchanges Reagan's decades-long description of the Cold War as a fight to the death that could involve military means, and his lengthy record of belligerent commentary (for instance, he proposed that North Vietnam be paved into a parking lot).

But Hoffman also makes a convincing case that Reagan and especially Gorbachev deserve credit for embracing arms control and reaching accords that significantly cut each nation's nuclear stockpiles. Yet as the Cold War wound down, some U.S. diplomats and political leaders in the East and West understood that, despite these reductions, the Soviets' formidable WMD arsenal posed a major problem. Non-proliferation efforts, including the bipartisan Nunn-Lugar initiative, helped secure Russian weapons facilities, protect Russian trains transporting "loose nukes" and ship highly enriched uranium used for building nuclear bombs to the United States from unstable states such as Kazakhstan. Americans paid Russian scientists not to assist rogue regimes and terrorists seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.

Two decades have now passed since the Berlin Wall was toppled, and the Soviet Union has long since vanished as a national security threat. Yet as "The Dead Hand" demonstrates, the symbol of triumphant democratic capitalism -- the tearing down of the Berlin Wall -- also has a less well understood counterpoint: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Far from being an unadulterated moment of democratic triumph, the two-decade anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall should also remind Americans that unsecured Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction coveted by terrorists and rogue regimes are the Cold War's most unnerving legacy.

Matthew Dallek, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."

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