Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction
Synopses & Reviews
“A tour de force of investigative history.” —Steve Coll
The Dead Hand is the suspense-filled story of the people who sought to brake the speeding locomotive of the arms race, then rushed to secure the nuclear and biological weapons left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union—a dangerous legacy that haunts us even today.
The Cold War was an epoch of massive overkill. In the last half of the twentieth century the two superpowers had perfected the science of mass destruction and possessed nuclear weapons with the combined power of a million Hiroshimas. What’s more, a Soviet biological warfare machine was ready to produce bacteria and viruses to sicken and kill millions. In The Dead Hand, a thrilling narrative history drawing on new archives and original research and interviews, David E. Hoffman reveals how presidents, scientists, diplomats, soldiers, and spies confronted the danger and changed the course of history.
The Dead Hand captures the inside story in both the United States and the Soviet Union, giving us an urgent and intimate account of the last decade of the arms race. With access to secret Kremlin documents, Hoffman chronicles Soviet internal deliberations that have long been hidden. He reveals that weapons designers in 1985 laid a massive “Star Wars” program on the desk of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to compete with President Reagan, but Gorbachev refused to build it. He unmasks the cover-up of the Soviet biological weapons program. He tells the exclusive story of one Soviet microbiologist’s quest to build a genetically engineered super-germ—it would cause a mild illness, a deceptive recovery, then a second, fatal attack. And he details the frightening history of the Doomsday Machine, known as the Dead Hand, which would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike if the Soviet leaders were wiped out.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the dangers remained. Soon rickety trains were hauling unsecured nuclear warheads across the Russian steppe; tons of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium lay unguarded in warehouses; and microbiologists and bomb designers were scavenging for food to feed their families.
The Dead Hand offers fresh and startling insights into Reagan and Gorbachev, the two key figures of the end of the Cold War, and draws colorful, unforgettable portraits of many others who struggled, often valiantly, to save the world from the most terrifying weapons known to man.
This riveting narrative history of the end of the arms race sheds new light on the frightening last chapters of the Cold War and the legacy of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that remain a threat today.
During the Cold War, world superpowers amassed nuclear arsenals containing the explosive power of one million Hiroshimas. The Soviet Union secretly plotted to create the “Dead Hand,” a system designed to launch an automatic retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States, and developed a fearsome biological warfare machine. President Ronald Reagan, hoping to awe the Soviets into submission, pushed hard for the creation of space-based missile defenses.
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, David Hoffman introduces the scientists, soldiers, diplomats, and spies who saw the world sliding toward disaster and tells the gripping story of how Reagan, 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 and rogue states.
Revealing how close the world had come to nuclear Armageddon, this riveting history sheds new light on the frightening last chapters of the Cold War, and the legacy of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that remain a threat today.
About the Author
Praise for The Dead Hand
“In The Dead Hand, David Hoffman has uncovered some of the Cold War’s most persistent and consequential secrets—plans and systems designed to wage war with weapons of mass destruction, and even to place the prospective end of civilization on a kind of automatic pilot. The book’s revelations are shocking; its narrative is intelligent and gripping. This is a tour de force of investigative history.”
—Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens
“An extraordinary and compelling story, beautifully researched, elegantly told, and full of revelations about the superpower arms race in the dying days of the Cold War. The Dead Hand is riveting.”
—Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of An Army At Dawn