Does the name “Stanislav Petrov” sound familiar? The lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces died in May last year, but in 1983 during the Soviet nuclear false alarm incident – when the Soviet Union’s missile attack warnings malfunctioned and reported the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from bases in the United States – he correctly dismissed the warnings as a false alarm instead of authorising a retaliatory nuclear attack, and has therefore been credited for saving the world from nuclear war. The supposed American missiles detected by the warning systems were actually a flock of geese, and this is the very first story which leads David E. Hoffman’s riveting “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy”.
Against the background of the Cold War and the deterrence doctrine of mutual assured destruction, in which the use of nuclear weapons would completely annihilate both the attacker and the defender, the “dead hand” literally refers to the Soviet automatic nuclear-control system which would automatically trigger the launch of ICBMs through a pre-entered highest-authority order. More metaphorically, along this tangent, there are questions about how the opposing sides sought to – often wrongly – make sense of each other’s intentions and actions, and the lengths the leaders would go to to ensure that they would be able to retaliate through computers if they had been killed. Quoting the research of Harvard professors: “The United States cannot predict Soviet behaviour because it has too little information about what goes on inside the Soviet Union; the Soviets cannot predict American behaviour because they have too much information”.
The central themes of the book, in this vein, are information asymmetries and mutual suspicion (For the Soviets: “Who ever doubted that Americans were always cheating on us Nobody did, simply because we always did – and expected others would be stupid not to behave in the same way”), perpetuated by bad intelligence and errors of judgement (“Each side in the Cold War remained a mysterious black box to the other. The Americans could not see Gorbachev’s radical intentions. The Soviets could not understand Reagan’s dream”) not just at the high levels, but also among spies and agents (“What the agents and Soviet military analysts feared the most … was to underestimate the seriousness of the threat, so they overestimated it”).
Across the three parts – the first focusing primarily on “the dead hand”; the second on the ascension of the final leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, in an account which is largely sympathetic to him, leading up to the Geneva Summit of 1985 when he first met then American President Ronald Reagan, who are also the two key figures of the book; and the third on the end of the Cold War and the transition of power to the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin – the writing is highly engaging, with first-hand views from key persons (“presidents, scientists, engineers, diplomats, soldiers, spies, scholars, [and] politicians”), diaries, and other primary documents.
Amidst the broader narrative of the Cold War arms race and legacy of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons which still remain a threat today, there were interesting – and disturbing details on the command and control of nuclear weapons, the psychological effect of having real people actually managing these systems, as well as the illegal work of the Soviet Union’s biological warfare agency Biopreparat.
Disproportionate emphasis, especially towards the end of “The Dead Hand”, on the chemical and biological weapons – vis-à-vis the nuclear ones – is a valid criticism. There are also loose ends in relation to the spy networks and the aftermath of the defections, and as aforementioned the account is fairly sympathetic or biased towards Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, yet taken as a whole Hoffman does justice to this episode of the Cold War. Unlike many other historical accounts he does not insert himself into the narrative, instead letting the principal actors speak for themselves and having the reader appreciate how close the two superpowers were to a full-scale nuclear war, and how far the world still is, from the complete elimination of these destructive weapons.