Monday, November 02, 2009

Dead Hand

Depending on when you call it, the Cold War may have ended 20 years ago (could have been in 86 at Reykjavik or in 91 when the Soviet Union collapsed). Maybe it is for that reason we are seeing a surge in Cold War books. Last year we saw the angry Arsenals of Folly by Richard Rhodes, this year we have a new one from Neil Sheehan called a Firey Peace in a Cold War (just started it, great so far). Take a look at this review essay from Philip Zelikow for a number of books on the era.

In the Dead Hand, David Hoffman of the Washington Post covers both the East and West, but sheds a lot of new light on the Soviet side. He shows both the good, the realization that the nuclear arms race could end the world, and would certainly crush the Soviet economy, as well as the bad.

The bad is pretty grim. He spends quite a bit of time showing the rise of the Soviet biological weapons industry. The US, viewing bio-weapons as a strategic liability, signed and adhered to the Biological Weapons Convention and killed the offensive bio-weapons program. The Soviets feared the US was cheating, so they built a secret program with all sorts of horrors like smallpox bombs and new two punch viruses with an initial bug to weaken the immune system followed by a knockout punch bug.

Hoffman also shows the effects on international relations of the terrible management and maintenance practices, secrecy and the use of poor technology. The decrepit system allowed for the penetration of Soviet airspace by a young German in an airplane, Chernobyl, the anthrax outbreak of 79 and the shoot down of KAL 007. Recent history has tried to pin the blame on the US for this. Hoffman shows that the weight lies heavily, if not completely, on the Soviets.

Hoffman also discusses the post-war period where unemployed Soviet scientists sat in rotting buildings with weapons materials stored in filing cabinets. He reveals more about the US efforts to get weapons materials out of the newly independent republics.

I have a few minor complaints. The title is a bit of a dodge. The Dead Hand of the title refers to a Soviet Doomsday machine that would ensure that the missiles would fly even if the Russian leadership perished. Hoffman uses it as a metaphor to describe how the WMD is still out there even if we have forgotten about it. If you are expecting a book that focuses on doomsday machines, look elsewhere.

There are also times where Hoffman has done so much research that it starts to take over the narrative. The level of detail becomes a bit much and bogs down in a, fortunately very few, places. Overall I found it an engaging, well-written and informative read.

Take a look at this WaPo Q&A with Hoffman where he addresses these issues and more.

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