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THE DEAD HAND by David E. Hoffman


The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy

by David E. Hoffman

Pub Date: Sept. 22nd, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-385-52437-7
Publisher: Doubleday

Stanley Kubrick got it wrong in Dr. Strangelove: There was a Doomsday Machine, but it was in the other bunker.

So we learn in this penetrating look at the history of the Cold War and its many curious assumptions, specifically the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, bearing the apt acronym MAD, courtesy of the late Robert McNamara. One of its offshoots was the notion that the Soviet military created “Dead Hand,” a missile system that led to further assumptions that the civilian leadership and military command system were dead and gone. The Soviet brass, writes Washington Post reporter Hoffman (The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia, 2002), worried that human operators might have pangs of conscience and tried to push through a computer-loop design by which the machines would decide when to unleash hell without human intervention. Fortunately, more sensible heads prevailed—but not without a fight. One of the many virtues of Hoffman’s book is that it depicts not just the death-tainted hand of the military-industrial complex in the United States, but also in the Soviet Union, where supposed strongmen like Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov had considerable trouble keeping the warmongers under control. Despite diplomatic agreements and good assurances, the Russian city of Sverdlovsk pumped out anthrax spores as “the Soviet Union promptly betrayed its signature on the [arms control] treaty.” Indeed, readers will realize how lucky we are to have escaped being destroyed at their hands. Yet, Hoffman notes, even today, “in a remote compound near the town of Shchuchye in western Siberia, there are still 1.9 million projectiles filled with 5,447 metric tons of nerve agents.”

A compendium of discomfiting, implication-heavy facts, of particular interest to students of geopolitics.