Ilya's Reviews > The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy

The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman
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Jun 02, 2012

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bookshelves: nuclear-weapons, cold-war

This is a conventional narrative history of the final stages of the Cold War and its end and aftermath, with an emphasis on weapons on mass destruction, mostly focusing on the Soviet Union and Russia, which is not surprising given that Hoffman was the Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post in the 1990s. The same topics are mostly covered in the relevant chapters of Richard Rhodes's Arsenals of Folly and Twilight of the Bombs. One topic Hoffman discusses at length and Rhodes doesn't is the Soviet biological weapons program. The belligerent in World War II with the most advanced program of biological warfare was Japan, which experimented on live Allied POWs and Chinese civilians. After the war both the Americans and the Soviets availed themselves of Japanese germ warfare expertise, just as they did with German rocketry. The American program was terminated in 1969 by President Richard Nixon; when speechwriter William Safire asked Nixon whether the United States should retain a few germs as a deterrent, Nixon answered, "If somebody uses germs on us, we’ll nuke 'em." Great Britain terminated its program in 1956. The Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain all signed the 1972 convention outlawing biological weapons. However, the convention did not include an effective regime of inspections, so the Soviet Union cheated: tens of thousands of Soviet scientists and technicians worked on weaponized anthrax, smallpox, the Marburg virus and more, genetically engineering the germs to be more effective and resistant to medicine, brewing enough of the poisons in enormous stainless-steel vats to kill the humanity many times over. This was no deterrent: how can something be a deterrent if its existence is a state secret? In Sverdlovsk in 1979, anthrax spores leaked from a factory, killing about 100 people; when the rumors of this found their way to the West, Soviet scientists lied to their Western colleagues that the epidemic was caused by people eating tainted meat; the truth was only acknowledged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The extent of the program was revealed to the West in 1989, when the director of an institute that worked on spraying plague germs from a low-flying cruise missile went to France to sign a contract for lab equipment. He defected to Great Britain and told all he knew; the West hushed it up lest the news of it harms Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of New Thinking. The defector called the Canadian embassy first because he was afraid that if he were to go to the United States or Great Britain, he would be forced to work on these countries' germ warfare programs; he and his colleagues did not believe that these programs did not exist. The Canadian embassy gave him a cold shoulder but the British one was more responsive.

The title of the book comes from a late Soviet second-strike nuclear command-and-control system called the Perimeter. If a Pershing II ballistic missile had hit the Kremlin and killed Konstantin Chernenko and the rest of Soviet leadership before they had time to react to its launch, several junior officers in a bunker would check that a nuclear attack had taken place and normal communication links had been severed, and launch a special rocket with a radio transmitter in place of a warhead. The transmitter would transmit commands for a retaliation strike, which would cause nuclear-tipped missiles to automatically launch. The officers would be analogous to the twitching fingers of a dead hand; hence the title of the book. This is analogous to the Doomsday Machine from the film "Dr. Strangelove". A character in the film says, "The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!" The Perimeter, however, was secret until the fall of the Soviet Union. The film is black comedy, but the book is nonfiction!
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