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

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  4,156 ratings  ·  361 reviews
The Dead Hand is the suspense-filled story of the people who sought to brake the speeding locomotive of the arms race, then rushed to secure the nuclear and biological weapons left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union—a dangerous legacy that haunts us even today.

The Cold War was an epoch of massive overkill. In the last half of the twentieth century the two superpowe
Hardcover, 592 pages
Published September 22nd 2009 by Doubleday
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Oct 06, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nuclear-war
I'll admit I picked this up because I am a fan of nuke porn. I grew up reading the surprisingly subtle On the Beach, the over-written, over-sexed The Last Ship, and the ridiculous Ian Slater series WW III. On television, I was thrilled by The Day After (I've never seen Steve Guttenberg the same, since). I even downloaded On Thermonuclear War, just to see what precautions I could take (step one: don't get into a thermonuclear war; there is no step two).

Some months ago, I read an article on the o
Jun 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was a fantastic recounting of the Cold War. It was extremely factual, and did well in citing all of the sources for each piece of information and story that made this book non-fiction.

I always found the Cold War as this mysterious time period where we somehow miraculously avoided nuclear annihilation by coming up with Mutually Assured Destruction. However, Hoffman really gives us an in-depth and intimate look at how MAD came about. I was left intrigued as I learned about what the Dead
Apr 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman

9/14/82 Teller explained his vision of an X-ray laser that he called Excalibur. An effective missile defense would turn mutual assured destruction on its head, Teller said — and lead to “assured survival” instead. Reagan asked him if an American antimissile system could really be made to work. “We have good evidence that it would,” Teller replied .... “He’s pushing an exciting idea,” Reagan wrote in his diary that night, “the nuclear weapons can be used in connection
Jan 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
I thought this book would likely be boring; but no. Hoffman starts with a bang and generally kept me turning the pages. I did not remember all the Russian names, but I didn't have to, as some clue was inserted to jog my memory if the name returned. I have to say now, before I forget, that the book left me with a lingering question, which I mentally asked over and over as the book drew to a close. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE RABBITS? There was this lovely scientist living in some remote area with his wi ...more
Chad Sayban
Dec 16, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The second half of the twentieth century will always be defined by what became known as The Cold War. Born out of the distrust between the major allied powers in the Second World War, the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States not only gave shape to the modern world, it also created two weapons building programs unrivaled in history. Ultra secret programs that produced weapons that are too horrifying to imagine and created consequences for those who chose to create them. And whi ...more
Mar 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
A chilling account of how close the world came to nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War and also a fascinating account of how the Cold War ended. Very interesting on the dynamics of the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship and also the whole parallel worlds of the US and Soviet Union and their perceptions of each other. Most worryingly it has details of the appalling biological weapons programs the Soviets pursued right up to the end and beyond of the Cold War in contravention of treaties they had si ...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Dec 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020, history, war
The Dead Hand is an account of Soviet biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons through the end of the Cold War, and how these weapons drove superpower politics, that manages to be sprawling without being comprehensive. The many interesting moments add up to less than the sum of their parts.

One chain is Biopreparat, the Soviet agency in charge of biological warfare. Biopreparat spent billions of rubles weaponizing anthrax, plague, smallpox, and a host of other diseases. There was infrastructure
Frank Stein
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Just a few decades later, it's hard to imagine how humanity spent so long living on the nuclear brink. Yet, throughout the Cold War, presidents, politicians, and generals in the United States and Soviet Union spent a good chunk of their time thinking about the "unthinkable," how to end billions of human lives. David Hoffman's book, although overlong and often circuitous, shows us how close we were to destruction, and why we decided to step back from the edge.

As Ronald Reagan remembered in his me
Apr 26, 2010 rated it liked it
"The Dead Hand" covers enormous swaths of narrative terrain with an exceedingly narrow focus. After briefly introducing Soviet forays into biological and chemical warfare in the late 1970s, Hoffman commences with a retelling of the political and diplomatic bullet points between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The central concern of this story is the struggle of both superpowers to reduce or eliminate their respective stockpiles of nuclear weapons, with a subplot devoted to the aforem ...more
Apr 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
The Cold War seems both so recent and so long ago. This book brought back memories of the day to day events and the feelings they engendered. It was a fascinating summary of the diplomacy that brought down Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The back and forth of arms negotiations which did result in a reduction of nuclear weapons were revealing. Gorbachev come across as the major hero (at least to me) for being willing to make major changes in his system of government, though he s ...more
Incredible story of the history of the Cold War, including how the world almost came to war over a mistake. "Dead hand" refers to the idea of having automated systems determine the efficacy and need for initiating a retaliatory strike on an enemy prior to the arrival of the enemy's already launched attack systems. The book also discusses the Soviet Union's illegal bio-weapons research and development. The leaders of that country were convinced the US was doing it, so the Soviet Union needed to a ...more
Nick Black
Jul 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: oppenheimania
Great reporting and research -- I'd barely heard of the Biopreparat, despite The Doomsday Men's emphasis on biochem (particularly Shirō Ishii's Unit 731). Pretty crappy writing, though. The whole thing has a definite air of being hustled together on a bunch of adderall. ...more
Jan 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audio, history
Awesome recounting of the end of the cold war. From Reagan through Yelstin. Reagan come across as a hero. Gates & Snowcroft come off as kind of tools.

The sections on the biological weapons of the Soviets are really wild & scary.
This is a very frightening book with it pointing out all that we have not known and what we don't know at present. The Cold War may be over, but the weapons still remain and so do those who wish to wage war. ...more
Abhi Gupte
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
What an explosive book!! I had read in magazines and seen in movies the scare of mutual assured destruction and Russian proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons; but the details elucidated by Hoffman in the "Dead Hand" sent shivers down my spine. He describes the mind-numbing mechanics of the management of these Weapons of Mass Destruction (I know that's a loaded term post-Iraq but it really deserves to be used here). The cognitive dissonance of both the leaders and the peoples of the two ...more
Ron Willoughby
May 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The only thing more mind-boggling than our proximity to self destruction during the Cold War has to be our refusal to speak with honesty of mistakes made and evil plans undertaken. I say evil because what other word could be used for a program of biological annihilation intended as the follow-up to nuclear first strike.

David Hoffman has written an excellent book detailing so much of what transpired on the Soviet side of the Cold War regarding Nuclear, Chemical and Biological weapons of mass des
Andrew Tollemache
Feb 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
A riveting book that pursues a parallel set of narratives centered around the WMD programs of the Soviet Union and the 1980s strategic weapons negotiations between Gorbachev and Reagan. While both are interesting, it is the discussion of the Soviet's biological weapons program that is the most haunting. Even though both the US and the USSR signed the 1972 treaty outlawing the use of and development of bio weapons, the Soviets covertly pursued a very aggressive bio weapons program that developed ...more
Jun 02, 2012 rated it liked it
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 So ...more
Raj Agrawal
Nov 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: saass-books
This is a book I’ll definitely come back to. I’ve never gravitated toward history books, but this one reads like a novel – but “you can’t make this stuff up.” Hoffman tells the story of the major personalities involved in nuclear deterrence, especially during the Reagan and Gorbachev years. Hoffman shifts some of the emphasis off of Reagan’s effectiveness, and shares credit for the end of the Cold War with Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s genius, ability to shape information, and his apparent concerns wit ...more
Glenn Hyman
Feb 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book! The cold war is very much still with us. Still, Americans or Russians could send up their missiles and really the only possible responses are massive retaliation and doing nothing. I must say that I understand a little bit better the motivation of Ronald Reagan. He could not believe that if the Russians were to send up their missiles, there is not really much that we can do. That was behind the whole Star Wars thing. He wanted some way to protect us from a Soviet first strike, fo ...more
Mar 02, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book was disappointing to me for several reasons. First, the titular doomsday machine is the subject of significantly less than a quarter of the book. Biological and Chemical weapons and arms control summits are the majority focus of the book. Chemical and biological weapons are definitely scary, but I was looking for nuclear terror instead. Secondly, the author treats Reagan without an ounce of criticism. His lofty speeches and contemplative letters are treated as if they are the only expr ...more
This was an OK read. Not bad, but not great, either.
"The Dead Hand" spends most of its time on a very detailed back-and-forth account of the relationship and negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev, for what seemed like more time than it was worth. For such a long book (audio book was >20hrs long), it could have included a background about the Cold War and its early stages, which was what I was expecting.
Author David E. Hoffman praises Mikhail Gorbachev for his role in the de-escalation and d
Feb 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Incredible book! An absolute must read for sure. Presents enough well researched background to create significant concern about the possibility both weaponized BW/CW stocks remain in Russia and the expertise/capability remains to make more. With Putin's actions over the last decade, it is clear the world has much to be concerned about with respect to the future actions of the Russian Federation. ...more
Ying Zu
Jan 14, 2017 rated it did not like it
Interesting recount of the cold war history, but the narrative is overly skewed as if every minute American actions during that horrible span of tension are automatically justified due to their moral superiority or some mysterious yet boundless love for humanity as a whole. Given up reading at around 90% mark, the storyline turns very pale after the soviet meltdown. Overall not recommended, wish I had spent the time reading something else.
May 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: war, history
The Cold War is over, we no longer have nuclear attack drills in schools, so all's well. Right?

Wrong. Way wrong. Turns out the Soviets were developing some seriously dangerous biological weapons, and who knows where this technology has subsequently found a home. Chances are good that some really bad people now have this.
Feb 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
How are any of us alive?
Bill Weaver
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
The Dead Hand: the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, despite that lengthy title, won the Pulitzer. I thought it'd be a good follow up to the Making of the Atomic Bomb. Certainly it is different nonfiction. The Atomic Bomb book couldn't been written by a robot: it was just a chronological, objective retelling of events. The Dead Hand, on the other hand, is investigative journalism (or history?) and offers interpretation and opinion. Unfortunately, this book was offe ...more
Dec 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
The Dead Hand is a dense, gripping and incredibly well sourced history of the Cold War arms race between the US and Russia. Hoffman expertly details the construction and implementation of what are two rival doomsday machines that are designed for maximum damage and hair-trigger automation. In addition to the massive arsenal of nukes pointed at each other and on constant stand-by for launch there were incredible amounts of chemical weapons and biological weapons also on stand-by, with horrific gr ...more
Steve Smits
May 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This amazing and, in many respects, chilling book is an account of the winding down of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is amazing because of the interplay on nuclear arms control between the US leadership, principally Ronald Reagan, and the Soviet leaders following Brezhnev. Reagan was sincerely repulsed by the philosophy and practices of communism and his tough talk was an honest expression of his views on the so-called “Evil Empire”. At the same time, a ...more
Mustafa Gundogan
Oct 13, 2019 rated it it was ok
It looks like the author is in love with Reagan. Ideology aside, statistically speaking, there should be something he did that should be criticized, right? You won't find it in this book. He presents Reagan as someone willing to get rid of the nuclear weapons altogether. If this were the real intention he would've sat with Russians trying to find a way out. Instead he gave green light to defensive systems (by violating the previous agreements) fully knowing that the Soviets would understand this ...more
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NonFiction Pulitzers: Dead Hand: May/June 2017 -- Part 3 39 28 Jul 13, 2017 10:14PM  
NonFiction Pulitzers: Dead Hand: May/June 2017 -- Part 2 18 18 Jun 26, 2017 10:05PM  

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David E. Hoffman covered Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign for the Knight-Ridder newspapers. In 1982, he joined The Washington Post to help cover the Reagan White House. He also covered the first two years of the George H.W. Bush presidency. His White House coverage won three national journalism awards. After reporting on the State Department, he became Jerusalem bureau chief for The Pos ...more

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“Katayev’s notes show that the military-industrial complex was indeed as large as Gorbachev feared. In 1985, Katayev estimated, defense took up 20 percent of the Soviet economy.16 Of the 135 million adults working in the Soviet Union, Katayev said, 10.4 million worked directly in the military-industrial complex at 1,770 enterprises. Nine ministries served the military, although in a clumsy effort to mask its purpose, the nuclear ministry was given the name “Ministry of Medium Machine Building,” and others were similarly disguised. More than fifty cities were almost totally engaged in the defense effort, and hundreds less so. Defense factories were called upon to make the more advanced civilian products, too, including 100 percent of all Soviet televisions, tape recorders, movie and still cameras and sewing machines.17” 1 likes
“The United States cannot predict Soviet behavior because it has too little information about what goes on inside the Soviet Union; the Soviets cannot predict American behavior because they have too much information.” 1 likes
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