David Hoffman on 'The Dead Hand' and End of the Cold War

David Hoffman
Washington Post Contributing Editor
Monday, September 21, 2009 1:30 PM

Post contributing editor David Hoffman discussed his new book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and it's Dangerous Legacy.

The book is an examination of the role Star Wars played in ending the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the consequences for Russia's weapons programs.

Author David Hoffman served as Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post from 1995-2001, and later as foreign editor and assistant managing editor for foreign news.


David Hoffman: Good day to everyone. I'm excited to be here to talk about my new book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. For some readers of the print edition who saw a few lines were dropped in the paper this morning, please take a look online, the complete story is there.


Ottawa, Canada: Congratulations on the magnitude of journalism accomplished in writing this book. In your research, what Cold War sites did you travel to in Russia to give us a reporter's account of what's really going on at weapons facilities today? Thank you.

David Hoffman: Thank you very much. The book is the result of a decade of work, and many interviews, and extensive research in the field. It involved visits to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons sites -- all in the years after the Soviet collapse. You can imagine how traumatic is was for these places that had grown up with subsidies to contribute to the Soviet Cold War effort; suddenly it all ended, and they were not making the shift to civilian goods very easily. One of the big themes of the book is how difficult it was for institutes that had worked on weapons of the Cold War to adapt. I think many of them are still trying.


Harrisburg, Pa.: There was some sentiment within the U.S. that the real power of Star Wars was that it would force the unstable Soviet economy to overspend in time on a response to our Star Wars that its own economy would collapse. Did Gorbachev recognize these economic consequences and how did these financial concerns motivate his actions?

David Hoffman: Gorbachev was acutely aware of the economic problems, and it was central to all he did. He wanted to change the system in hopes of saving it. In the end he could not. But the part that we often misunderstand is the impact of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Sure, the Soviet leaders were puzzled by it, and threatened. But I reveal in the book that they did not respond by building their own. Some of the ambitious designers and builders wanted to do so; they gave Gorbachev a huge proposal in 1985. Had he gone ahead and built a Soviet "Star Wars," perhaps we could say that bankrupted them. But he did not do it, and that was his contribution. His own physicists told him it was not likely to work any time soon. So Gorbachev tried to find another way to respond to Reagan.

In the end the Soviet system bankrupted itself. Reagan's "Star Wars" gave them a fright, but they were done in by the rot of a teetering, failed and imploding system, not by Reagan's dream.

And I think we have to realize that at the same time he was doing that, Gorbachev was fighting internally to slow the arms race from within. He pushed hard against his own military and establishment.


Columbia, MD: Hello, I always felt that Gorbachev deserved more credit for winding down, peacefully, the discredited Soviet system. I was rather taken by his rather nonchalant way of describing his view on the proposed expansion of the SS-18 missiles. Not sure if you got a chance to interview him in detail, but does he feel like history hasn't been kind to him? Does he have a craving for 'recognition' or is he as simple in his wishes as he seems to be publicly? Thanks for a good read.

David Hoffman: I did interview him, and I think he was horrified by the idea of expanding the SS-18. He doesn't like to recall it, and he didn't do it, for which we all ought to be thankful.

I think his view of what happened is complex. Clearly, he hoped to refurbish socialism and the Soviet system, not destroy it. The end of the story did not turn out the way he had envisaged.

Scholars have been arguing for a long time whether the Soviet Union could have been turned into some kind of social democracy. I doubt it myself. I think what Gorbachev didn't quite understand, until it was too late, is that his efforts at change unleashed new, certrifical forces he hadn't counted on. He opened the door a crack and a huge wind blew it open.

My book does show one thing pretty clearly, however. Gorbachev's own notions of change were more radical than we realized at the start. When we were wondering if he was just another Andropov or Brezhnev, he was, from the first days, moving fast to do things differently.


Richland, Wash.: Good afternoon. Could you tell us a little about the dangerous legacy the book's title speaks of. Thanks and congratulations.

David Hoffman: The Cold War left behind in the former Soviet Union huge amounts of uranium and plutonium; stockpiles of chemical weapons in munitions; and an archipelago of laboratories and facilities used for research and production of biological weapons. While great efforts have been made in the last 18 years to deal with this legacy, much remains to be done. The book covers the final years of the Cold War and then examines what happened to the weapons and the weapons scientists.


Munich, Germany: How often do you consider the diplomatic interactions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to have bordered on nuclear brinkmanship? The Cuban Missile Crisis is universally known, but were there moments when both sides feared a first strike by the other, which lead to strategies for first strike and retaliation strike scenarios?

By the way, does the title of your book have anything to do with the classic novel by Wilkie Collins?

David Hoffman: In the book, I describe a period known as the "war scare" of 1983. This was an extremely tense period in the autumn when Reagan received warnings that the Soviet leadership was alerting the KGB to look out for signs of nuclear missile attack. Reagan said later that he began to see the Soviets in a different light after the war scare. Although I don't think it came to putting missiles on alert, the gaps of misunderstanding and mistrust were enormous. And the book brings some new understanding to this period by telling the story of provocative U.S. naval maneuvers the previous spring in the Pacific Ocean.


Washington, DC: Your description today of Project Sapphire -- getting all of that uranium out of Kazakhstan was terrific (thus keeping it away from the Irans and Iraqs of the world -- and perhaps other rogue nuclear wannabes). Question: though the US was able to "buy" much of it, a lot more uranium and weapons remained in the Soviet Union after its collapse. Also, there were thousands of Soviet nuclear scientists over there with the knowledge to re-create these weapons. What happened to them? I know some came to the U.S. -- but were they able to come here "freely?" The Nunn-Lugar act provided some "support" for them to stay living in Russia....but what about others? Did we "spirit them out?" Did other countries lure thenm out?

David Hoffman: A serious effort was made to secure the rest of the uranium and plutonium. The United States built a huge, fortified warehouse for the Russians to store in it, too. New fences were built and locks put on about 70 percent of the fissile material. However, much of it is still spread out over 200 buildings and sites; obviously it would be better if it could be consolidated into fewer places. Also, we don't know exactly how much of the warehouse capacity is being used. When Sens. Nunn and Lugar visited in 2007, only about one quarter of it was full.

As for the scientists, there were excellent programs to reach out to them, including the International Science and Technology Center, which I describe in the book. But the problem always was that they could only reach a percentage of those who worked on weapons. What happened to the rest? We know some left and went to Iran. We don't know how many. Other contries certainly tried to lure them out. A whole busload were on their way to North Korea when they were stopped at the airport.


New York: What is the likelihood that, during the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, a rogue state got hold of sufficient U-235 to make a weapon? Thanks.

David Hoffman: The opportunities were there in those years. Fences were down, doors creaking open. For a few years, visitors from the West were surprised to find highly-enriched uranium just laying in storage bays, lockers and closets. How much of it slipped away then is hard to know. I tell the story in the book about one place where visitors from the Energy Department found 75 kilos of highly-enriched uranium laying on the floor of an institute. It was about 50 feet from the back door, and nothing to stop someone from walking out with it. Now, things have changed some since those early days, but I try to tell the story of what happened and how chaotic it really was.


Washington, DC: I played a central role in Project Sapphire. Some of your information is incorrect, and some is still classified.

David Hoffman: Well, please send me the corrections and the classified information, I am always interested in learning more! And please read the whole chapter in the book.


Arlington, VA: That was a great article -- too bad the print edition was marred with a massive printing error.

How secure is Soviet-era plutonium now? How much did the Bush administration invest in it, or did they cut it because it was a Clinton success story? And will President Obama continue the Clinton adminisration program?

David Hoffman: I expect Obama to do more. His campaign positions were that we need to do more to secure the fissile material. He's had some other big issues to deal with at the outset, and it is still his first year, but he's put a lot of whip-smart proliferation people into his administration, and I think he cares about the issues.


Germantown, Md.: Reagan-Gorbachev-Thatcher, you may have disagreed with their policies, but you got to admit the world paid attention to their words and actions. How do recent and current world leaders (i.e. the U.S. and Russia) compare to Gorbachev-Reagan, specifically their real impact on world events?

David Hoffman: This is a very complex question, and comparisons are always difficult. But I think there are some good lessons for today to be learned from the history I describe in the book. One of them is this: despite his deeply-held ideology, Reagan was willing to talk to Gorbachev. He willing to do business with him. We should realize that engaging with adversaries is often one of our great strengths. As long as we use the engagement to stand up for the things we care about, there is no harm in talking. If we could negotiate and have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, why not Iran today? Is Iran any more frightening than the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War?

And there's another lesson too: all my research pointed to the value of verification. That's a fancy way to say, after you talk, check everything. The Soviets violated the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, a treaty outlawing biological weapons, because it had no enforcement. But in their private talks with each other in 1989, they were really worried about the Chemical Weapons Convention being negotiated in Geneva. Why? Because the chemical treaty had provisions for mandatory, challenge inspections. They knew that inspectors could come snooping around and say open this, or open that. And they had actually agreed to such inspections.

I find it hard to argue with Reagan's old slogan: Trust, but verify.


Potomac, Maryland: Your work on this topic seems incredible. Given the problems in newspaper economics today and the growth of non-traditional media, are you concerned that in-depth, time consuming reporting like yours will disappear? What are your feeling about that?

I write this assuming that you are no longer at the Washington Post, which is a shame.

David Hoffman: I know that readers want this kind of reporting more than ever. So, hopefully that hunger for depth and understanding will prompt the news media to provide it. But I am not worried about the platforms on which it appears. It will be published where there is a demand for it.


Odenton, MD: The article in today's Post emphasized Operation Sapphire which removed highly-enriched uranium from a facility in Kazakhstan. This weapons-usable material is still present at many sites in the world, some of which are still poorly secured. How can the United States convince other countries, including Russia, to take this threat seriously and take action?

David Hoffman: This is a good question for which there are only difficult answers; each place is a Rubik's cube of its own. But when you think about it, this kind of work ought to be a major priority for the United States. We should be out there trying everything. I am always surprised to read the defense budget and find out that of all the money we pay for defense, this kind of work is such a tiny sliver. About $1.4 billion in an annual defense budget of $530 billion.


Gorbachev and Putin: Putin has his pet theories on Soviet history. How does he view Gorbachev considering he was the Soviet leader at the time of the collapse of the Soviet system/empire? What is their relationship today?

David Hoffman: I don't know the answer. But Putin has said he felt the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe.


Moscow, Russia: The title seems to be a striking metaphor; does it imply anything specific? Thanks.

David Hoffman: The title refers to a specific program which Soviet leaders built that would provide guaranteed retaliation in the event of a nuclear missile attack if the leadership were wiped out. This system, which still exists in part, is described in detail in the book. But I also offer the Dead Hand as a metaphor for the legacy of nuclear, chemical and biological wepaons from the Cold War. It is not all over yet.


Boston: How much has the US spent on ballistic missile defense since Reagan and what do we have to show for it?

David Hoffman: I saw an estimate in Time magazine this weekend that we have spent more than $100 billion. We have something to show for it -- a limited system on the West Coast -- but it has not fulfilled Reagan's dream of making nuclear weapons obsolete. In fact, the same difficulties faced by Reagan in the 1980s are still there: how do you hit a bullet with a bullet? The technology is getting better, but it still is focused on one interceptor knocking down one missile. In war, there would be many more challenges, more chaos, more uncertainty.


New York: Why was it the United States' role to buy up the U-235 from Kazakhstan? Why not NATO, the U.N., or some other multilateral organization? Thanks for a fascinating story.

David Hoffman: I think this was an example of the United States taking a leadership role in something that others weren't willing to do. The people who saw the threat realized it needed action, and they acted. There was some discussion with the Russians about working together on it, but in the end they did not want to take the lead. We did. It is not a perfect model, and would not work in a lot of places (including inside Russia) but it also highlights an activism that I find refreshing. You know, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bush administration was very lukewarm about dealing with these issues. Some people said: just let Russia go into free-fall. Thankfully, Nunn and Lugar stepped in, they did not see free-fall as viable option.


chem/bio science gap: One implication of the Soviets continued work on chemical and biological weapons after we had stopped (per the treaty) is that it created a scientific expertise gap between the US and the Soviets/Russians up to the point of 9/11 when it hit home how vulnerable we were to WMD attacks. How many of these scientists have been brought to the US to help us deal with these threats (and conversely not be able to help our adversaries or terrorists)?

David Hoffman: I don't know. But from what I can see, there is a vigorous, wide-spread bio defense effort underway in the United States.


Arlington, Va.: While some on the right like to give President Reagan all the credit for ending the Cold War, wasn't it really President Nixon's policy of detente that saw how the USSR would crumble from within ? Doesn't President Nixon deserve credit for the policy of detente ?

David Hoffman: Detente is too big a subject for the short time left, but I would say Nixon tried to wrap the Soviet Union into a web of agreements that would constrain its behavior. What happened is that many people lost faith in that approach, not the least because of how the Soviets handled it.


David Hoffman: Thanks to all for writing.

The book has a web site of its own, www.thedeadhandbook.com

And I welcome questions there.



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