"The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy," by David E. Hoffman
Review by Eric Renderking Fisk | February 21st, 2011
I should be dead. Before you read any more of this review let me make that perfectly clear to you. I should be dead. I shouldn’t be able to write this, there shouldn’t be a “Fedora Chronicles” as a means to publish this review. I shouldn’t be here at this desk writing in this house, in the state of New Hampshire, in the United States of America, on planet Earth.
I should be dead. None of the objects that I wrote of should be here, either. Everything should be gone, destroyed or never created in the first place thanks to “The Dead Hand,” the fail-safe device and procedure that would have caused all of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear and biological weapons to be launched in the event that communications from The Kremlin was disconnected between the missile launch sites and the rest of the military. Since “The Dead Hand” was made with faulty equipment and untested technology thanks to the “let’s build it first then figure out how to make it work reliably later” attitude, there were many false positives. In one anecdote in the beginning of the book, in 1983 there was one such false positive alert that could have easily have been mistaken for an all-out missile launch from The United States. Thanks to one man in charge of the instillation their missiles were never launched and Armageddon was averted once more.
What the book painstakingly illustrated is that this one event was one of many. Humanity was on the brink of total destruction because of poorly designed equipment, under-trained personnel, and illegal programs run by a rouge element within the Soviet Industrial Military Complex.
In another anecdote in the introduction, anthrax spoors were accidently released in the unprotected work-force in one of the “ceramic factories” where this germ agent was being developed. While the Soviet government kept their top secret and illegal program under wraps they used the cover story of “infected meat” to explain the anthrax outbreak to the infected workers, the villagers living in area, and the soviet-controlled local media.
Again; whole regions of the world were under the threat of massive casualties and death due to accidents and mishandlings of weapons of mass destruction. Similar to the near-accidental missile launch because of building equipment based on untested and inadequate technology, the Soviet biological weapons program often ran away from its handlers. Their extraordinary advances in gene splicing that was one part genius and one part theft from a British University didn’t help matters, rather it compounded them by creating microscopic “King Kongs” that broke through their metaphorical steel chains and cages to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting citizens.
Mr. Hoffman also takes the opportunity to share the behind-the-scenes of the historic arms summits between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that eventually brought an end to the arms race or at the very least slowed it down. President Reagan’s commitment to weapons reduction is a testimony to the power of motion pictures; he was haunted by the made-for-television film “The Day After” written by Edward Hume and directed by Nicolas Meyer. Seeing the advanced copy of this film before it was released changed Mr. Reagan, disturbing him with the images of what might happen if he himself ordered the launch of the nuclear missiles in America’s arsenal. We can make the argument that this telefilm could have literally changed the world since it helped affect the heart and mind of a world leader.
If that’s the case, both Mr. Hume and Mr. Meyer deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.
The first 2/3rds of “The Dead Hand” served as a refresher for me, reminding me of the news of the summits. I laid awake many nights listening to the radio, I specially remember hearing the news of Ronald Reagan’s announcing the STI defense project and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, just two events in 1983 that lead me to believe that things in the world were pretty bad and its end was eminent.
I remember being in my makeshift room in the family’s basement while listening to the news reports from The Reykjavík Summit, there had been progress in some promises in reducing some arms, but those agreements fell apart because of Reagan’s unwillingness to abandon STI since he believed that such a missile shield would make inter-continental ballistic missiles obsolete. The Russians believed that STI would make them vulnerable since the threat of mutual assured destruction would no longer exist, the American warheads could reach their targets but the Soviets would have been destroyed once they reached their zenith while on their way to the United States. That was a scenario that was unacceptable to the Kremlin and from their perspective one might have to respect that line of thinking.
After this news from Reykjavík, it seemed as if the fate of the world was actually in further jeopardy that this “last best hope” that we were counting on failed. If there was to be any hope, we would either have to keep our fingers crossed or hands together in prayer for future summits where progress could be made. Simultaneously I felt that I hoped that if there were any agreements made at weapons reduction that someone wasn’t lying when the time came to comply. “Trust, But Verify” wasn’t just a snappy slogan Reagan was fond of saying, it was something we had to believe that both sides were doing just so that a secret stockpile wouldn’t come back to haunt the other side.
Let me reiterate again, these were very dark times that lead us to believe that the world was definitely going to end soon because of eroding relationships between the two nations and “the button” pushed in anger while simultaneously there easily could have been an accident because of faulty design or failed equipment. Throughout this time humanity came to the brink time and time again and the way we lived showed how we coped with that knowledge.
Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll – live for today because tomorrow we die.
At the end of the Cold War and during the collapse of The Soviet Union, humanity was at the brink once more as “The Dead Hand” was disconnected from The Kremlin,; the scenario that should have caused the missiles to accidently launch. Perhaps it was the faulty design that kept the system from deploying the arsenal…
What remains today is a different kind of arms race, terrorist groups and rouge nations continue to scramble to acquire the remains of the Soviet programs, both nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Hoffman illustrated one such incident when The United States rushed into a former Soviet state to recover weapons grade plutonium from an unsecured facility. Many other incidents involved the material just laying around in metal buckets behind wooden doors; these compounds had no security, no guards or gates to prevent enemy agents or mere children to help themselves.
The question remains after the book is done; are we safer now that the Soviet Union no longer exits and we no longer have a clearly defined enemy? Looking at the way the world has turned since the introduction of The Taliban and al-Qaeda and their violence on the global stage it’s not hard to imagine what these savages would be capable of if they could only get a hand on the abandoned arsenal left behind by the communist regime. As Mr. Hoffman illustrated, much of the most feared materials ever created by human beings is just lying around ready to be sold to the highest bidder – most likely the former Soviet States that are so desperate for currency to feed their people and their own corrupt ad-hoc governments. Even worse, we know that in many of these former military bases, factories and research facilities much of this material is available to anyone who wants it, free of charge. The only obstacles are knowing where the material is and the transportation for getting it out.
It’s not a matter of if terrorist groups have what they’re looking for, it’s a matter of when they got it or when they’ll get it. Once that happens, there’s no question as to whom they will use it against. In the off chance they have acquired those items that Mr. Hoffman referred to as “The Deadly Legacy,” why haven’t they used it yet?
If after reading this book you’re not at least the slightest bit concerned and want to write your congressman or senator as ask them if they know what The United States government is doing to get this material before it falls into the wrong hands, then you didn’t get what this book was about. The world is still in imminent danger; maybe even more so then before.
“The Dead Hand” is a haunting book that will leave many readers shaking; sometimes in fear and sometimes in anger. After reading the evidence in this book there really is no logical way to explain why the world hasn’t already been destroyed because of Cold War rhetoric and posturing, faulty equipment and inadequate safeguards. It might help to cling to your faith of a divine power that provided a hedge of protection to get sleep when your sleeping subconscious wakes you up with a nightmare in the middle of the night.
Find out more about "The Dead Hand" and the Author, David E. Hoffman at The Official Website...
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