The Dead Hand

David E. Hoffman’s “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy” is a chilling account of the last years of the Cold War. The book takes its title from a Soviet doomsday device of the same name (the official designation was Система «Периметр», Systema “Perimetr”). The system should have retaliated automatically with what was left of the Soviet arsenal of nuclear missiles, even if a first strike had wiped out the Politburo and regular command structure was knocked out. The existence of “Perimetr” was (and is still) officially a secret. Which is ironic as the “whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret”, as Dr Strangelove put it.

Hoffman also gives an account of what he calls the “dark underside of the arms race”: the secret decision by the Soviet government to turn biological germs and toxins into weapons, despite signing a treaty banning these weapons at the same time. The book reveals some details and lesser known facts now available after documents have come to light and personnel working on these projects started to give information.

Insightful are also accounts of encounters on the political stage (like the 1985 Geneva Summit) and military blunders (like the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007). The reader gets the impression of how decisions that could have wiped out millions of people depended on beliefs, suspicions and gut feelings about the other side or superiors rather than reasoning. It is revealed that often enough even the facts that would support such reasoning were wrong or missing entirely.

Having lived in this period as a child and teenager Hofmann’s book brings back memories — mostly from TV. News items and films like War Games, The Day After and Z For Zachariah come to mind. It reminds me of a time when these stories were the ordinary background of an upbringing (not only mine). Recalling from today I feel a strange longing. There is regret of having missed the (what seemed then) very real chance of fulfilling every boys dream of never having to grow up. The eerie sense one gets when walking on the edge of an abyss and the cynical cold one has after having done so for a long time.

David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, 2009, ISBN 978-0385524377

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