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David E. Hoffman, contributing editor at The Washington Post and former Moscow bureau chief, signs “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy” at 6 p.m. Thursday at Otowi Station Bookstore.
He will also give a lecture at 5:15 p.m. at the Bradbury Science Museum.
In the first full account of how the arms race finally ended, “The Dead Hand” provides an unprecedented look at the inner motives and secret decisions of each side. Drawing on top-secret documents from deep inside the Kremlin, memoirs and interviews in both Russia and the United States, Hoffman introduces the scientists, soldiers, diplomats and spies who saw the world sliding toward disaster and tells the gripping story of how President Reagan, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and many others struggled to bring the madness to an end.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, the danger continued and the United States began a race against time to keep nuclear and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states.
From the final years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, which ended at his death 1982, to the arrival of Gorbachev in 1985, the Soviet Union seemed to be led, as New Yorker editor David Remnick has put it, by a series of “half-dead men in half-lit hospitals.”
During this time the Soviet Union had succession issues of a far darker sort on its mind, Hoffman writes. “The Dead Hand” takes its title from a Soviet doomsday machine first conceived under Leonid Brezhnev. Because the Soviets feared “decapitation” —the killing of its leaders in one fast, huge American nuclear strike—they developed an automatic retaliatory system to launch their missiles even if their command structure no longer existed.
“The Dead Hand” provides the fullest — and most terrifying — account to date of the enormous and covert Soviet biological weapons program, developed in defiance of international treaties at the same time that the Soviets appeared to be earnestly interested in reducing their weapons stockpile.
This biological weapons program, which Hoffman refers to as “a dark underside of the arms race,” included the development of a super germ that mounted a grisly one-two attack on its victims: it would make them mildly ill and then, once they appeared to recover, hammer them with a death blow.
Hoffman details how truly paranoid the Soviets were that America would launch an unprovoked nuclear attack. He observes the curious Soviet idea that it could predict a nuclear attack by looking for a spike in prices for blood donations in Britain. “The KGB failed to realize,” Hoffman writes, “that British blood donors are unpaid.”
He offers an inside account of the dangers, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, of its stockpiles of nuclear and biological weapons, much of which was stored in unguarded warehouses.
Almost as dangerous were the tens of thousands of newly unemployed Soviet defense workers, some willing to sell weapons or skills to the highest bidder.
Hoffman writes that the stray parts of the Soviet empire became “a Home Depot of enriched uranium and plutonium, with shoppers cruising up and down the aisles.”
Hoffman is a contributing editor at the Washington Post.
He covered the White House during the presidencies of Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and was subsequently a diplomatic correspondent and Jerusalem correspondent.
From 1995 to 2001, he served as Moscow bureau chief and later as foreign editor and assistant managing editor for foreign news.
He is the author of “The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia.” He lives in Maryland.