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Review: The Dead Hand – the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race

September 16, 2011

One night in October 1962, I went to bed wondering if I would see my parents again. I was an 11-year-old pupil at an English boarding school, and this was my introduction to the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis passed. At the critical moment of the confrontation Khrushchev blinked, and his missiles headed back to Russia.

Eleven years later, I went to work on the night shift at Cadbury’s, and asked myself if I would see the dawn. It was the day when the US raised its nuclear alert levels in response to a threat by the Soviet Union to intervene in the Yom Kippur War.

Most people born after 1980 will have no experience of living in the shadow of the Bomb. The rest of us do. My world was defined both by the ever-present threat of nuclear war, and by the experience of the preceding generations in the Second World War. Most of my parents’ generation lost relatives in both world wars. The slaughter came to a climax in 1945 with the carpet bombing of German cities, the destruction of Berlin and finally the flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the first and only  nuclear bombs dropped in anger.

For as long as I can remember, I was fascinated by the footage of the nuclear mushroom cloud. To me, the sight of a hydrogen bomb explosion was as beautiful as newsreel of starving concentration camp survivors was ugly. Both have been central themes in my perception of the world. I became a Cold War junkie and a World War II obsessive.

Both strands come together in one of my favourite movies of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece Dr Strangelove, in which the world faces nuclear conflagration  through the machinations of a demented American Air Force general. The chief scientific advisor to the US President, one of several roles played by Peter Sellars, is a wheelchair-bound former Nazi whose knowledge – like that of Werner Von Braun, the architect of the US space programme – proved  useful enough to his new employers for them to ignore his distasteful antecedents.

Which brings us to The Dead Hand, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Washington Post journalist David E Hoffman. In a long but riveting narrative, Hoffman describes how at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the new leader’s aggressively anti-communist stance convinced the Soviets that the US was planning a nuclear attack on the USSR. The KGB alerted all its stations in the West, but particularly Britain and the USA, to report back on any signs of preparations, such as mass slaughter and cold storage of farm animals.

The paranoia was accentuated by Leonid Brezhnev’s failing health, and his eventual succession in short order by two sick and elderly leaders, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. As the tension ratcheted up, a false nuclear alert picked up by the Soviet air defence computer system was only prevented from triggering a retaliatory strike by the common sense of a single officer. And the shooting down of a Korean airliner that accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace sparked a predictable reaction from Washington. Only later did it emerge that the Soviets mistook the Boeing 747 for a US spy plane that was also in the area.

After this hair-raising opening, Hoffman develops two themes. First, the massive and covert biological weapons program pursued by the USSR in contravention of the international treaty banning the development of such weapons. Second, the relationship between Reagan and the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorhachev, a man 35 years the President’s junior.

The germ warfare programme employed thousands of scientists whose job was to develop new and deadly pathogens as well and variants of existing bacteria and viruses such as anthrax, smallpox and plague. The task was then to weaponise these pathogens. The authorities justified that program to telling themselves  that the US had a similar program. In fact the American program had been scrapped in the 70s by Richard Nixon, a fact demonstrated to Soviet inspectors much later. So hermetically sealed in their institutes were the scientists that most of them were not even aware of the treaty.

An early leak of anthrax spores in the city of Sverdlovsk resulted in 70 deaths, which the Russians covered up for twenty years until confronted with overwhelming evidence. Across the USSR, institutes with innocent names continued to work on these weapons in secrecy throughout Gorbachev’s and even Yeltsin’s presidencies, all the while denying their existence.

Meanwhile Reagan and Gorbachev began to get to grips with each other. Reagan, the sunny optimist whose Strategic Defence Initiative, also known as Star Wars, reflected his desire to break out of the mutually assured destruction (MAD) paradigm by developing means of destroying incoming missiles. Gorbachev, who inherited an economy in terminal decline because of the defence burden – defence spending at its peak amounted to more than 20% of the national gross domestic product.

Both had a motive to end the arms race. Reagan because of a deeply-held desire to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely – a belief he kept quiet about before he was elected. Gorbachev because the defence burden was crippling the Soviet economy – in most ways apart from weaponry, his country was backward, inefficient and stifled by the state bureaucracy.

Hoffman is compelling when he describes the summits between the two men, culminating in the Reykjavik meeting in which Reagan proposed a timetable for eliminating all nuclear weapons by 2000. Only the thorny issue of the Star Wars program, which Reagan refused to abandon, prevented a deal, much to the relief of the generals in Washington who thought that Reagan’s proposal was madness.

Although there was no deal at Reykjavik, the summit opened the floodgates for a succession of arms reduction treaties signed by Gorbachev, Reagan and Reagan’s successor George H W Bush. But these developments came too late for Gorbachev, who presided over the disintegration of the Soviet Union, starting with the withdrawal of troops from the other nations in the Soviet bloc, which in turn precipitated the revolutions in Poland, Hungary, Romania and East Germany.

When a disaffected group of KGB and military hardliners in the Politburo engineered an attempted coup against Gorbachev, only to be thwarted by Boris Yeltsin, who had built his own power base, Hoffman’s story moves towards its close.

Gorbachev resigned, leaving Yeltsin to dismantle the apparatus of the Soviet state and preside over the creation of independent states from the old Soviet republics. Hoffman graphically describes the chaos in the post-Soviet order. Thousands of nuclear warheads and other fissile material, minimally guarded and attracting the keen interest of the North Koreans, the Iraqis and the Iranians. No money to pay the scientists, some of whom became resources hired out to the nuclear aspirants. Inspection programs set up through arms reduction treaties revealed the full extent of the biological warfare effort. Vials of plague virus casually placed in tin cans on the shelves of rotting warehouses.

Through international efforts and a law enacted by two US senators that earmarked funds for the decommissioning and safe storage of warheads and the destruction of pathogens, proliferation was largely contained.

The heroes of the piece are clearly Reagan and Gorbachev, each for their own reasons. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, the senators who pressed a cautious George Bush to sign the bill allocating funds for weapons decommissioning also emerge with credit, as do a host of lesser players on both sides who helped to break the deadlock, and the Russian scientists who blew the whistle on the germ warfare program.

Others do not emerge with much credit – most notably Robert Gates, Secretary of Defence under George W Bush and Barack Obama, who as deputy director of the CIA consistently advised the older Bush that Gorbachev’s desire for reform was insincere.

Hoffman is unable to answer the question of why Gorbachev, while moving full steam ahead on arms limitation, continued to sanction the development biological weapons. Yeltsin hints at the reason. He implied that the military leadership held the upper hand over both him and Gorbachev, which meant that neither man had the power to stop the program until the disintegration of the political and military establishments.

He also makes no attempt to explore  the ethical issues around nuclear and biological weapons. Is one any worse than the other?  A nuclear winter with billions dying of starvation and radiation poisoning or the same billions dying from viruses and bacteria resistant to drugs, including the resurgence of smallpox, anthrax and plague? Neither outcome strikes me as any less evil than the other. Is the act of building nuclear bombs any less contemptible than turning germs into offensive weapons? I’m not sure, though I do buy into the rationale that if you have one set of WMDs, surely you don’t need another.

For me, the most telling evidence of the end of the cold war that obsessed my generation came in the early 2000s when my elder daughter started at my old boarding school. We went down to see her after the first couple of weeks, and asked her about her new friends. She cheerfully described a Russian boy who was teetering on the brink of expulsion because of his very obvious liking for vodka. I asked his name, thinking that he must be the offspring of one of the wealthy oligarchs who made their fortunes from the privatisations of the Yeltsin era.

I nearly fell off my chair when she provided an iconic family name – one of those grim-faced leaders who waved at the missiles from the Kremlin wall every May Day. Equally striking was that she had no idea about the significance of her friend’s notorious ancestor.

As for the Doomsday Machine beloved of Dr Strangelove, it turns out that the USSR built a device not dissimilar, and it remains in place today. The Cold War as my generation experienced it may be over, but its infernal devices never went away.

From → Books, History, Media, Politics, UK, USA

  1. I enjoyeed reading your post

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