The Dead Hand

The Dead Hand: Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, by David E Hoffman, Icon Books, RRP£20, 576 pages

The dead hand of the title was a Soviet doomsday machine, a system which would be activated in the event of a first nuclear strike against the USSR. With minutes remaining before much of the country’s population was destroyed, missiles would be loosed from bunkers to inflict commensurate punishment on the enemy – assumed, of course, to be the Nato alliance, with the US the prime mover and major target.

For those who have seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove, the concept is familiar. David Hoffman resists the temptation to make the parallel, however, perhaps because the real system was semi-automatic – some human discretion remained – while the film version, once triggered, was beyond human control. More likely, he doesn’t do so because Strangelove is a black comedy and The Dead Hand is simply black, describing the horrors built by humans to destroy humankind.

This book, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and is soon to be published in the UK, is in the best traditions of American long-form reportage. This reached its apogee in the 1970-1980s work of the late David Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest, The Powers that Be, The Reckoning). Key characters are evoked in enough detail to make us care and then carry the narrative through to the end. It involves simplifications and elisions: but in this case, these are less important than the horrified fascination Hoffman – a former Washington Post Moscow correspondent, later foreign editor – succeeds in rousing through a story at once journalistically detailed and morally alive.

Ronald Reagan, the anti-communist actor, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Communist party boss, were alike in that both hated weapons of mass destruction, both had a dream of a world free of them and both were capable of change. At the presidents’ first meeting, in Geneva in November 1985, nothing was agreed – much of the meeting was quite belligerent – but they did agree a breakthrough sentence: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

This is the prelude to a trip into the inner workings of the Soviet defence establishment in the empire’s dying years. Hoffman reveals a system at once on a hair-trigger and shockingly ill-managed, so that when a Korean airliner, in 1983, strays into Soviet airspace through undetected navigational errors, it is shot down by a pilot anxious to avoid a dressing down for failing to do so, even though he recognises it as a civilian airliner. A few months later, a young German adventurer, Matthias Rust, flies through Soviet airspace to land his light aircraft ... just off Red Square.

But though Reagan and Gorbachev plough through mistrust to a kind of friendship, though Reagan’s successor George HW Bush co-operates with the increasingly embattled Soviet leader in cutting the arsenals, and though his successor Bill Clinton carries the process still further with “my friend Boris” (Russian president Boris Yeltsin), a secret obscenity continues.

Those countries which were developing biological warfare – the UK, the US and the USSR – solemnly agreed to ban it. It was, as far as we know, stopped in the first two but not in the USSR, nor in its successor state, Russia. Throughout the 1970s, after the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed in 1972, “Soviet leaders secretly broke their obligations and expanded research on offensive biological weapons through a vast and concealed complex of laboratories and institutes disguised as civilian facilities.”

Thousands of the brightest chemists in the country, encouraged in a shortage economy by bigger apartments, better food and access to the best equipment, were put to work in making bacteria and viruses as virulent as possible, so that, once the rocket carrying the pathogens exploded in a city or in the midst of an army, death would be painful, swift and inevitable.

Some of these scientists thought the rationale – defence of the Soviet motherland and a belief on the part of the Soviet leaders that the US and the UK were doing exactly the same – was not sufficient. Vladimir Pasechnik, a senior germ warfare scientist and leader of a laboratory, defected in Paris in 1989. He tried to give himself to the Canadians, who shut the embassy door in his face: the British, his second, reluctant, choice, snapped him up and in their debriefing, the intelligence services received a vast amount of material, leading one of them to describe it as “one of the key acts of the ending of the Soviet Union”.

Hoffman’s flowing narrative is so seductively readable that it seems destined for a conclusion which resolves all. Instead it rubs in the message that “the tools of mass casualty are more diffuse and more uncertain than ever before”. He reports on the many partially successful attempts by Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis (of the Saddam era) and North Koreans to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological technology.

Though the US, prompted by the visionary politicians Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn, did much, in the 1990s, to destroy the nuclear arsenal stored outside Russia – above all, in Kazakhstan – they could not penetrate the most secret Russian sites, even under the benign rule of Boris Yeltsin. “More diffuse and uncertain”: the world we live in sometimes makes the era of Mutual Assured Destruction look less MAD than the present.

John Lloyd is an FT contributor

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