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Book Review - The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

Category Book Review David E. Hoffman The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy
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Remembering back to the Cold War, it was simple and tempting to paint "them" as evil, and "us" as right and moral.  But in reality, both the US and the Soviet Union were prepared and able to kill millions of people to "win" a war that could never be fought.  David E. Hoffman digs into that period of history with extensive research and insight with his book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy.  Using archives and documents from Russia and the US from that period, he paints a picture of how easy it would have been to miscalculate and make the planet largely unlivable.  On the other hand, I have a great deal more respect for what Gorbachev tried to accomplish against a bureaucracy entrenched and committed to maintain the status quo.

Part One: At The Precipice; War Games; War Scare; The Germ Nightmare; The Anthrax Factory; The Dead Hand; Morning Again In America
Part Two: "We Can't Go On Living Like This"; Year Of The Spy; Of Swords And Shields; The Road To Reykjavik; Farewell To Arms; Germs, Gas, and Secrets; The Lost Year; The Greatest Breakthrough; The Year Of Living Dangerously
Part Three: A Great Unraveling; The Scientists; Revelations; Yeltsin's Promise; Project Sapphire; Face To Face With Evil
Epilogue; Acknowledgments; Abbreviations In Notes; Endnotes; Index; Text And Illustration Permissions

It was well-known that the Soviet Union was obsessed with secrecy within their borders, and that obsession was part of every facet of their existence.  When it came to military matters, that obsession became paranoia.  Nuclear research was conducted in closed cities situated hundreds of miles from civilization.  Same with biological weapons research facilities.  If a test of biological agents got out of control and civilians died, it was covered up to look like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.  Everything was perfect, and that was the only image they would allow to be portrayed to their citizens and to the rest of the world.

It was this mindset that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were up against  as leaders of their countries trying to step back from an arms buildup that was costing billions, wrecking the economy, and threatening the lives of everyone on the planet.  Gorbachev had to fight most of the members of his own government who were steeped in regimented Soviet thinking.  Reagan wanted to break the communist hold over the Eastern bloc countries and eliminate the threat of nuclear war.  The problem is that Reagan wanted to do that with his Star Wars missile defense system, while Gorbachev saw that as something that would forever put the Soviet Union at a military disadvantage.  It wasn't until the Soviet Union *was* breaking up that arms reductions started to be made at a rapid pace, and all the posturing largely disappeared.  But then came another issue that was just as unsettling... what would become of all the nuclear and biological weapons that were now controlled by newly independent countries that had no clue as to how to manage and secure them?  And would some leader of a small country from the former Soviet Union decide to hold on to the weapons and declare themselves a nuclear power?

I was impressed by Hoffman's work on a number of levels.  First off, there was no overt axe to grind or platform to push.  In a book that wants to tell me the "untold story" of something, I'd prefer the information to be largely factual and not a means to an end for the author.  I didn't sense that in Dead Hand, and I appreciated it.  I was also pleased that he was able to to take the material and make it a compelling narrative that wasn't a chore to read.  Like a good novel, Dead Hand had me staying up past the point that my body was screaming for sleep, all because I wanted to see what behind-the-scenes action was going to occur next.

While I think the whole book is eye-opening and provocative, I felt the strongest material was in the final section of the book.  It's there that he looks at what became of the nuclear and biological material as the country collapsed and workers walked away from jobs they were no longer being paid to do.  American teams that went into certain areas found highly enriched plutonium sitting in abandoned warehouses, with no guards and no security.  The records for how much material was stored were incomplete or missing, which means there's no way to know whether any of the material ended up in the hands of other countries or terror groups.  The same goes for biological agents.  The worst part is that this lack of control was well-known by countries who should *never* have nuclear capabilities, and attempts were made to purchase the material and know-how.  While some were stopped, no one can be certain if they all were uncovered or how much material may have made it out of the country.

The Dead Hand is a well-written look into a period of time that still continues to have implications to this day.  If someone is trying to go beyond the headlines and understand what truly happened, this book should be on the list of recommended titles to read.

Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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