DAVID E. HOFFMAN
When the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949 the Cold War began in earnest. Over succeeding years the nuclear arsenals of East and West grew in size and potency, so that by the early 1980s some 60,000 separate nuclear warheads were in place around the world with a combined power of a million Hiroshimas – sufficient to kill mankind several times over. To any sane observer this was madness and something had to be done, but both sides seemed locked into a macabre nuclear embrace, as mutual fear, opposing ideologies and the demands of their respective military-industrial bureaucracies increased the momentum of nuclear-arms expansion.
The veil of suspicion existing between the two sides inhibited meaningful dialogue. The core of the problem was summed up by a group of Harvard historians in 1983: ‘The United States cannot predict Soviet behaviour because it has too little information about what goes on in the Soviet Union; the Soviets cannot predict American behaviour because they have too much information.’ The Soviet leadership feared that it might be destroyed in a US first strike, which led to the development of a semi-automated retaliatory strike system that would operate after their deaths – the Dead Hand that provides the book’s title.
But in the end, both sides did see reason of a sort and while the world still bristles with nuclear weapons, the arms race itself was brought to a halt. David E. Hoffman, Washington Post journalist and its Moscow bureau chief from 1995 to 2001, tells the story of the people who effectively ended the Cold War. Key among these was Mikhail Gorbachev, who had the insight to realize that the game was up for the corrupt and virtually bankrupt Soviet Union, and the courage and political skill to bring the Soviet Empire to a virtually bloodless end. Hoffman rightly signals Gorbachev’s contribution, as he does his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, although the US President’s mania for the SDI ballistic-missile shield prevented an opportunity to reduce nuclear-weapon stocks even further.
While the core of the book is about nuclear arms and their containment, Hoffman also considers the other potential great military scourge of civilization: biological weapons. Although the Soviet Union signed up to the 1972 treaty renouncing biological weapons, covert research continued. The break up of the Soviet Union has provided potential opportunities for terrorist states and terrorist groups to secure the deadly pathogens manufactured in biological-weapon laboratories – as well as stocks of enriched uranium and plutonium for the manufacture of ‘dirty bombs’.
The author’s fluent and even-handed narrative draws upon the insights provided by the main players in this great drama, and a particular strength is the detailed research conducted in the former Soviet Union. Hoffman praises the efforts of those who have tried to contain the dangers of such weapons of mass destruction, but he concludes: ‘They were only partially successful. Today, the weapons to destroy civilization, the legacy of the Cold War, are still with us. They are the Dead Hand of our time, a lethal machine that haunts the globe long after the demise of the men who created it.’
Icon Books, 594 pages, £20 (h/b)