The Dead Hand

Evan Mawdsley reviews a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the late Cold War and the hideous weapons it spawned

The Dead Hand
Author: David E Hoffman
Publisher: Icon
Reviewed by: Evan Mawdsley
Price (RRP): £20

David Hoffman won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for this account of the late Cold War. He was exceptionally well qualified to write it, thanks to his contacts both in Washington and in Russia. He served as White House correspondent for the Washington Post and, in the late 1990s, as the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow.

The title has at least three meanings.

Hoffman connects it to the surviving remnants of the Soviet nuclear and biological warfare (BW) programmes. These were mostly ‘contained’ at the end of the Cold War, yet they remain a “lethal machine that haunts the globe” or “the Dead Hand of our time”.

Second, ‘Dead Hand’ was a Soviet code name used for the most extreme element of the Soviet nuclear warfare system – a ‘Dr Strangelove’ type Doomsday machine designed to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike even if the Soviet government and high command had been knocked out by a US ‘first strike’.

This project for a computer-based strategic missile command system was never actually built. There was, however, a ‘semiautomatic’ version called Perimetr, based on ‘hardened’ command centres and a system of command missiles.

Finally, ‘Dead Hand’ might refer to the elderly men who ran the USSR in the 1980s and decided the country’s strategic policy.

These meanings neatly sum up the scope of the book. It has important things to say about the implications of these weapons developments, should nuclear or BW materials fall into the hands of terrorists or ‘rogue states’.

It is exceptionally well informed about the exotic (and frightful) details of Soviet nuclear and BW projects and plans for total war.

Finally it sets these projects within the context of the stagnation and collapse of the Soviet system: the first part of the book deals with Brezhnev and his ‘gerontocrat’ successors, the second with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the third with developments in the post-Soviet era, especially the US involvement in cleaning up and containing elements of the nuclear and BW programmes.

An impressive range of primary sources, written and interview-based, is used. Among the most interesting are the notes of Vitalii Kataev, former head of the Defence Industry Department of the Central Committee in this era.

Hoffman won his Pulitzer for ‘General Nonfiction’, rather than history. He is a journalist rather than an historian, and perhaps that shows in this book, with its strong interest in the ‘untold story’. As a result the treatment of the subject is somewhat skewed towards BW which was not, in truth, a central feature of the late Cold War.

But although this book is about events of only a quarter century ago, it is certainly history. Indeed what is described seems to be part of a different epoch. Anyone interested in the Cold War will learn something new from this fascinating, if rather depressing, read.  

Evan Mawdsley is professor of international history at the University of Glasgow

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