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  • The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
  • Nicholas Daniloff
David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. New York: Doubleday, 2009. 577 pp.

During the Cold War, Soviet leaders sought to convince the world that the Soviet Union was a fearsome superpower equal to the United States. They pursued this goal [End Page 129] by fair means and foul: by blustering statements from the highest level, by seemingly unstoppable missile production, and by startlingly dangerous weapons programs that came to light only after the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

David Hoffman, former foreign editor of The Washington Post, has produced a stunning account of these hidden developments. Although some of these secrets started becoming public in the early 1990s, Hoffman has pulled together a fascinating narrative based on classified reports from Soviet defense bureaucrats, transcripts of once-secret Politburo meetings, memoirs and diaries of Soviet officials, and interviews with former leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev.

The heavy secrecy that shrouded Soviet military programs reinforces the disturbing observation made during the Cold War by U.S. defense intellectuals: Unless you are aware that programs exist, you do not know whether you can guard against them. In the era of Vladimir Putin, this issue has resurfaced in Russia: How much do we really know about Russian capabilities and intentions?

Hoffman’s reach into the Soviet defense sources is impressive. He has studied the papers and notebooks of Vitaly Kataev, a high-ranking Communist Party defense official who recorded secret developments in various Soviet military programs. Hoffman has also interviewed Anatolii Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s national security aide, and spoken with a variety of former Soviet officials and even defectors such as Kanatjan Alibek, who headed a top-secret biological warfare program.

What seems especially significant is that Soviet leaders, who supposedly maintained firm political control of the armed forces, gave in to pressures from the military-industrial complex and seemed unable to rationalize or stop duplicative programs. Furthermore, when challenged by Western leaders, Soviet leaders prevaricated rather than coming clean. Even a dynamic figure like Boris Yeltsin was quick to promise military reform but failed to deliver.

Probably the most egregious example of Soviet leaders’ inability to control the military’s appetite for exotic weaponry occurred with biological weapons. In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced the end of U.S. programs to produce biological weapons. Three years later in 1972, the Soviet Union, the United States, and twenty other countries joined in signing the Biological Weapons Convention, committing themselves never “to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain” biological weapons.

As a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report in the mid-1980s, I got hints from a disaffected microbiologist that the Soviet Union was violating the ban by secretly continuing research and development of biological weapons. This source told me that an important scientist in this effort was Yurii A. Ovchinnikov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences whose research center was located somewhere in Siberia.

Hoffman discovered that the Soviet Union was indeed engaged in a major program of producing banned biological weapons in violation of the convention and that the program went far beyond Ovchinnikov in Siberia. The ostensible justification for this blatant deception was the belief that President Nixon had not really ended the U.S. program in 1969. This was an excellent example of miscalculation by “mirror-imaging.” [End Page 130] Because Soviet leaders were not averse to misleading and lying, they assumed the same was true of their U.S. counterparts. The apparent openness of U.S. society was, in Soviet eyes, a smokescreen behind which to hide a secret program.

As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, both Britain and the United States received intelligence from well-informed defectors about the secret program. When Yeltsin became president of the newly independent Russian Federation, the U.S. and British governments pressed for an acknowledgement of this major violation. In 1992, Yeltsin provided that confirmation and added: “I know all about the Soviet biological weapons program. It’s still going ahead even...


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pp. 129-132
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