RED ALERT THE DEAD HAND: REAGAN, GORBACHEV AND THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE COLD WAR ARMS RACE
By David E Hoffman (Icon Books 577pp £20)
THE DEAD HAND is the first non-religious book I can recall that is claimed by its British publishers to be ‘hugely revered’. Despite the overblown encomiums of Icon Books, however, this is an important, well-written volume that makes a major contribution to our understanding of the last decade of the Cold War and its aftermath.
David Hoffman begins by reminding us that there was no sign at the start of the 1980s that the Cold War was enter ing its final decade. On the contrary, relations between the superpowers were more tense than at any moment since the Cuban Missile Cr isis. The combined strateg ic arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had an explosive power a million times that of the atomic bomb which had obliterated Hiroshima. The tensions of the nuclear arms race were exacerbated by what Hoffman reasonably identifies as a ‘paranoid’ strain in the Soviet leadership, which feared that the notoriously anti-Communist administration of President Ronald Reagan was planning a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union.
Intelligence Service (better known as SIS or MI6) during the final decade of the Cold War. On the two most intractable problems facing British policymakers – the mindset of the Soviet leadership in the pre-Gorbachev era and the progress of the Soviet biological warfare programme – SIS provided surprising and important information not available from any other source.
SIS’s most important Soviet source during the decade that led up to Gorbachev’s rise to power was an ideological agent and secret dissident within the KGB’s foreign intelligence arm, Oleg Gordievsky. After Gordievsky returned to Moscow to work at KGB HQ in 1978, SIS considered it too dangerous to run him. When, to the delight of SIS, he was posted to the KGB’s London station in 1982 and able to resume his career as a British agent, his intelligence transfor med Br itish understanding of Soviet policy. Gordievsky revealed that the KGB and GRU (Soviet military intelligence) were jointly engaged in the largest peacetime intelligence operation in their history to discover the presumed but non-existent plans of the Reagan administration for a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
In November 1983 Moscow even f eared that a NATO exercise codenamed ABLE ARCHER might be used as cover for a real attack. Several years later I had the oppor tunity to get to know Gordievsky and work with him on some of the top secret KGB documents he had smuggled out of its London station. Despite his modesty, it was clear that he had taken extraordinary risks to alert the West to the underlying delusions of Soviet policy.
Searching for buried anthrax on Vozrozhdeniye Island
At the time of the NATO exercise in November 1983 the significance of Gordievsky’s intelligence was better g rasped by Reagan
Hoffman’s account of the nuclear arms race is not, as the subtitle suggests, an ‘untold story’. Much of it has been told before. Far more original is his account of the top-secret Soviet biological warfare programme conducted in defiance of international law, which was on a far larger scale than almost anyone in the West suspected and is still underestimated by many studies of the Cold War. Hoffman cites persuasive evidence that one of the aims of the programme was to weaponise the pneumonic plague which during the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century may have wiped out up to one-third of the English population. As one British weapons expert later put it: ‘You do not choose plague to put on the battlefield. You choose plague because you’re going to take out the other person’s country.’
than by some of the CIA’s most senior analysts. The President wrote in his diary: ‘I feel the Soviets are ... so paranoid about being attacked that, without in any way being soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.’ Almost overnight Reagan dropped the ‘Evil Empire’ rhetoric that had helped to stoke Russian paranoia. By contrast the US National Intelligence Officer for the Soviet Union, Fritz Ermarth, insisted that signs of Soviet alarm at US intentions were mere propaganda: ‘We believe strongly that Soviet actions are not inspired by, and Soviet leaders do not perceive, a genuine danger of imminent conflict or confrontation with the United States.’
Though The Dead Hand deals far more with US than with British policy, it underlines the importance of the intelligence on the Soviet Union provided by the Secret
There is an interesting comparison between Hoffman’s impressively balanced assessment of Reagan’s strengths and weaknesses and the dismissive assessments of Reagan
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011