The Dead Hand – the Cold War arms race

The Dead Hand by David E Hoffman, Icon Books, 577pp, 2010.

The Dead Hand gives us the untold story of the cold war arms race and the efforts made to clear up the Soviet arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Its opening chapters relate the efforts made by Reagan and Gorbachev to negotiate away their nuclear arsenals. Ronald Reagan was vehemently anti-Communist but was shaken by a presentation in which officials showed him what would happen to the USA in the event of a nuclear attack.  Consequently he became determined to eliminate the threat of nuclear war, either by getting rid of the weapons or by constructing an impenetrable anti-missile shield, the SDI or “Star Wars” project.  Mikhail Gorbachev had similar ideals. Unfortunately, in the prevailing atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, civil and military officials on both sides did not share their leaders’ ambitions. Reagan, encouraged by his officials, clung to his dream of SDI (a project which was, and remains, entirely imaginary) and this is why Reagan and Gorbachev came within a whisper of abolishing strategic nuclear weapons but in the end accomplished little.  With the paranoia, the false alerts and the brinkmanship, it seems largely a matter of luck that we’re all still alive today.  The USA and Russia even now have enough nuclear weapons targeted on each other to destroy everybody several times over.

The Soviet military-industrial complex was nothing like as technically advanced as American officials believed.  The Soviets had a Star Wars program to make space-borne lasers, but it never worked. What they were able to do, was to keep making missiles and warheads and weapon systems in an unstoppable stream. There was, literally, no way of scaling back the production, and they had so many missiles it didn’t even occur to them to use cheap dummies instead of fully functional missiles for launch training.

The Soviet “Doomsday machine” was real. It was called “Dead Hand” and was a semi-automatic system for enabling the launch crews to launch their missiles should the central command be destroyed.

In the 1970’s the Soviets and the USA renounced chemical and biological weapons and agreed to dispose of all stocks, which the USA duly did. The paranoid Soviets didn’t believe this, and during the 1980’s and the 1990’s, they continued a massive, totally secret, and illegal CBW program, employing thousands of people and costing billions of roubles.

With the fall of Gorbachev and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the USA was faced with a new headache. The Soviet empire was disintegrating, but known to be armed to the teeth with huge quantities of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that were not secured and could fall into the hands of who knew what rogue state or terrorist group.  The production of nuclear weapons stopped only when the USSR collapsed and the money stopped, but the CBW programs were even more difficult to stop, and were still running even after Russian president Boris Yeltsin tried to have them cancelled.

The Iranians, North Koreans and others made efforts to acquire experts and weapons technology from the collapsed USSR, but a program headed by American visionaries was largely successful, at the cost of a few billion dollars, in removing stockpiles to safety, providing money for desperate Russian experts, and encouraging the suspicious Russians to improve their terrifyingly rudimentary storage procedures.