#27 - JRL 2009-198 - JRL Home

Kennan Institute
October 19, 2009
Event Summary
Book Discussion: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
Cosponsored by the Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson Center and the Kennan Institute

At a book discussion on 19 October 2009, cosponsored by the Cold War International History Project and the Kennan Institute, David Hoffman, Contributing Editor to The Washington Post, discussed the Cold War arms race and its legacy of peril in his book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. "Much of the history has been written from the outside, without Soviet account," explained Hoffman. The Dead Hand, however, is culled largely from the author’s discovery of the papers of Vitaly Leonidivich Katayev, a staff member of the Central Committee who had a "front row seat" in all arms race-related discussions, kept meticulous notebooks of technical data, and preserved thousands of pages of official memos.

Hoffman presented two case studies in his talk that showed the disparity between the American perspective and Russian reality. Both featured the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhael Gorbachev, whose achievements in ending the Cold War "were not his first objectives, but grew out of his desire for radical change at home," stated Hoffman. "Gorbachev did not set out to change the world, but rather to save his country. In the end, he did not save the country but may have saved the world."

The first case study focused on Gorbachev, Reagan, and Star Wars. Hoffman noted that much of the literature on Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) abounded with "American triumphalism," which praised Star Wars for bankrupting the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War. However, Hoffman’s research told a different story. Gorbachev assumed office just two months after Reagan declared that SDI would "render nuclear weapons obsolete." CIA Director William Casey, in his analysis of the newcomer, labeled Gorbachev as neither a reformer nor a liberalizer. He was proven wrong on both fronts; shortly after coming to power, Gorbachev turned down a "colossal new plan" for Soviet Star Wars that was brought to him by the military-industrial complex. Hoffman remarked that shelving the proposal was a "huge accomplishment" for Gorbachev because "he didn’t rush to go nose-to-nose with Reagan." This evidence contradicts historians’ claims that Star Wars bankrupted the Soviet Union and served as one of the main reasons for the United States’ victory in the Cold War.

However, "there is one unexplained and difficult black hole" in Gorbachev’s record, said Hoffman, introducing his second case-study on the Soviet biological weapons program. The clandestine program was in full swing during Gorbachev’s rule, in violation of the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention. Soviet scientists were experimenting with genetic engineering and manufacturing tons of anthrax bacteria. The program was partially uncovered in late 1989 when a Soviet defector to the UK provided information describing Russian’s Biopreparat system and its genetic engineering of pathogens.

The information was shared with the U.S., but for political reasons neither President George H.W. Bush nor Gorbachev mentioned it at the Malta summit following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The U.S. instead quietly confronted Russia about the program through a series of demarches, but the cover-up continued when Foreign Minister Shevardnadze boldly lied, "We have no biological weapons."

By this point, Gorbachev certainly knew many of the details of the program, so why, Hoffman asked, did he not take stronger action to slow the arms race in test tubes? The author’s interview with the General Secretary’s closest aide yielded one potential answer: the military had promised Gorbachev it would shut down the biological weapons program but never actually did. Hoffman suggested other possible explanations for Gorbachev’s inactivity; he may have thought the biological weapons program was too entrenched to withstand opposition, or he may have felt himself "unable to challenge the authority of those who ran the biological weapons empire." This hesitation was entirely possible during his last two years, when Gorbachev was facing strong political opposition and the slow demise of the Soviet Union. Finally, Hoffman added, "Gorbachev may have been reluctant to admit the full scope of Soviet violations out of fear of what it could do to his public image and that of his ‘new thinking’ all over the world."

Despite this myriad of plausible explanations, Hoffman concluded that "it still remains a puzzle why, given Gorbachev’s dedication to glasnost and his enormous effort at disarmament in the nuclear field, he did not do more to stop the dangerous biological weapons program."

Written by Larissa Eltsefon

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