The Legacy of the Cold War Arms Race: An Interview With David E. Hoffman

Originally published here.

If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development. — Aristotle

It is absolutely critical for everyone, not just the arms control community, to understand the history of the Cold War: its origins, its conclusion, and how the vast weapons programs on both sides are still a dangerous issue today.

Back in September of this year, Washington Post Contributing Editor David E. Hoffman published an extraordinary book.

It’s called The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy. Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll called it “… a tour de force of investigative history,” and that’s not an overstatement. It is one of those rare books that presents a vast amount of information, but is written in an engaging and interesting narrative.

Mr. Hoffman was kind enough to grant me a very thorough interview this week. My questions are in bold and his replies follow.

Introduction And Background

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your career, how your experiences and your background led you to write this particular book.

I was a White House correspondent for the Washington Post in Reagan’s presidency, then I covered the State Department, and then the paper sent me overseas, including six years as Moscow bureau chief.

In the Reagan years, I saw firsthand the centrality of the Cold War conflict. I covered the summits at Reykjavik, Geneva, I wrote about these things constantly. And then in Moscow, as a bureau chief, I got to see the other side, and I met the big players. So the book grew out of really twenty years of writing and thinking about this period that I saw from both sides, and I realized, almost at the end of that, that on both sides things had been missed. In Reagan’s case, I didn’t realize that he’d become a nuclear abolitionist, and I covered his first campaign in 1980, and you’ll find not a word of that in my coverage, because I didn’t know it.

On the Russia side, I realized that there’s a whole side to their story, of what had happened in the late Cold War and after, that had never been told. So, my motive was to create a history in stereo that would tell readers, and help them understand, two big things that I had experienced but discovered late.

Growing up during the Cold War and as a teen in the Reagan years, we didn’t realize that he was a nuclear abolitionist either.

You know, I was twenty-seven years old, I was a correspondent, I covered Reagan’s presidential campaign from the very beginning, from New Hampshire all the way to the end. I wrote a lot of things about him. But then when I went back and read his diaries, looked at the original documents, twenty, twenty-five years later, I just realized that he personally, essentially hid from us this abolition, for a while. But it began to come out later in his presidency.

And of course now we see that he was much more radical in his thinking — privately — than he let on.

My favorite example of this is in January, 1986, before Chernobyl, Gorbachev proposed the liquidation of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. The Americans immediately had the proposal translated, and George Shultz got the translation, and he got in his car, and he raced over to the White House to talk to Reagan. Of course the White House had it translated, and Shultz went into the Oval Office, and there’s the President, and Shultz says, “Mr. President, what do you think? Gorbachev has proposed liquidating all nuclear weapons by the year 2000!” And Reagan just looks up and he says, “Well, why wait until the year 2000?”

The “Dead Hand” and “Perimeter”

The next question I have has to do with the “Dead Hand”. When my mom asked me what I was reading, and I gave her a brief sketch of your book, her response was to gasp and say “Dr. Strangelove was real? There was a Doomsday Machine?” Of course, that’s putting it broadly… so, let’s talk about “the Dead Hand” and nuclear weapons command and control.

What was “the Dead Hand”? Tell me about the history of “Perimeter”, who came up with the idea, and to what extent the Soviets deployed it.

In the late 1970s, at the time the Euro-missile crisis was gaining steam, when the Soviets had stationed their SS-20s and NATO was preparing to put Pershing II missiles in Europe (and they did), during all that period, the Soviet leaders began to really fear “decapitation”. They began to fear the idea of a [nuclear] strike that would wipe out the leadership before they could respond. If they couldn’t respond, and had no retaliatory capability, they felt vulnerable.

They feared this not out of the blue; they feared it in part because we signaled to them that this was part of our strategy, to “decapitate” the leadership. Jimmy Carter signed a top secret nuclear weapons command and control decision, in 1980, called PD-59. This was an evolutionary decision about how the President would manage a nuclear war. One thing in it that was new said the Soviet political leadership is in the cross-hairs. They’re targeted.

And then, for maximum effect, according to top Pentagon officials, they leaked that part to the Soviets to make sure that they were aware they were in the cross-hairs.

It was psy-war, a little bit — psychological. But then, of course the Soviets saw that, to counter-balance their SS-20 Pioneer missiles, we were putting these Pershing IIs in Europe, in Germany, and GLCMs — ground-launched cruise missiles in England. The thing is, the Pershings were extremely fast, and the Kremlin feared they could fly from Germany to Moscow in maybe six to ten minutes.

So, the first thing about this is the Soviets feared this decapitation and the failure to retaliate. So they came up with a system that they hoped would guarantee a retaliatory strike. The system was called “Perimeter”. It meant that the Soviet leader, if given a warning of an imminent strike, could switch on Perimeter, literally activate it, and pass the decision about retaliation to somebody else, that he wouldn’t have to press the button, so to speak, in those six or ten minutes. He could pass it.

The “somebody else” were several duty officers, three or four, in a concrete globe buried deep under the earth in a small town outside of Moscow. Those three or four guys had a checklist of three conditions:

  1. Was the switch on?
  2. Had all communication with the Kremlin or the commanders been stopped, in other words, were the lines cut?
  3. Was there seismic and other evidence of incoming nuclear strikes?

If the three conditions were met, the guys in the bunker were empowered to launch the retaliation. It was kind of a Rube Goldberg machine that would launch command rockets, that would in turn launch the bigger missiles, and so on.

But here are two critical things about Perimeter:

One, the Soviets thought for a while about automating it completely, without the men in the bunker. They drew up plans for this. This is “Dead Hand”. But they backed off, because even they thought it was too risky to entrust this decision to computers. So they built the human firewall.

The second critical thing about it is that if they wanted to deter — if they wanted to create guaranteed retaliation, so we would be deterred, so that we would have some fear of it — they needed to tell us about it. And here’s where I think they made a dangerous mistake — they kept it secret. Throughout the Cold War, until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we did not know about this system, making it, I think, in a hair-trigger world, much more dangerous…

I think that if they’d have been transparent, and we had known about it… transparency creates a little bit more safety in a hair-trigger world, because then, before you launch an attack, as you interpret what’s happening, you know it exists. But if you don’t know about things like this, then it can be much riskier. Hair trigger alerts require fast decision-making, with limited information. This is part of our problem today.

The beginning of your book really made that quite clear, namely the part of the Prologue called “Night Watch for Nuclear War”. [You can read the Prologue here.]

Yes, the false alarm.

Could I add one thing? The man who helped work on it [Perimeter] is identified publicly in the book. His name is Valery Yarynich, He worked on it in its final phases, in the last year, 1984. He was a Soviet guy, expert in communications, he worked on it, and he felt it should have been made public. I think his credibility to make such a judgement is even greater than ours, because he was there.

He feels that they made a mistake, they should have told us. And this is where it loops back to Dr. Strangelove, because that’s the discussion at the end of the movie, about the fact that if you build such a thing, you have to tell the other side. In real life, it was more dangerous because it was more secret.

People have asked me, “Why was it secret?” I don’t really know. I have to admit, there are a lot of things I don’t know, but in this case I had no proof of why, but I think one reason might have been that they were insecure about these things. They were insecure that if we found out about it and targeted it, that we could strike it. Generally, the whole Soviet side of the Cold War, when it comes to nuclear weapons, is characterized by insecurity. This is very hard for American audiences to accept and believe. I tried to tell the other side here, but people say “Oh no, they’re the ‘evil empire’, how could they be insecure?”

On Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” and the Soviet Response

One of the most vivid memories us “Cold War kids” (people of my generation or older) have about the Reagan years was his Strategic Defense Initiative speech. Though SDI never came to fruition, the Reagan administration gave us all the impression that it would.

In your book, you draw on a lot new information and documents that have never been discussed before regarding the Soviet response to SDI. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Yes. You know, Reagan announced SDI the same month he called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire”, in March of 1983. I was able to find a lot of internal records, from the Central Committee [of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], in Moscow, which is where the policies were discussed at the highest levels.

For the first two years after Reagan’s announcement, you see in the record-keeping that the Soviets were much more worried about the Pershing II missiles in Europe, and about “decapitation”. They issued some propaganda about Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan, but for example, I looked at the agendas of the Military Industrial Commission, which was a high-level commission, through 1983. In the third quarter of 1983, there’s not a single meeting of the Commission on Reagan’s “Star Wars”. We’re talking about the period in the summer. But there are twenty or so meetings to talk about the Pershings that were coming that fall.

So, at first, they were worried about the immediate threat of those Pershings, and that arms race in Europe. But after a while, Reagan, in his second inaugural address, in January of 1985, broadens the rhetoric to say that he wants to build a “shield” to render nuclear weapons obsolete.

Ten days after that, the KGB puts out a world-wide alert, to all of its agents all over the world, to come up with more information about this. I found documents from the Central Committee that were written by one of its staffers, Vitaly Katayev. These reports crossed his desk. He recalled that a huge amount of information began to flow in – a lot of it clipped from newspapers, by the way.

Then, when Gorbachev took office, just weeks after Reagan’s second inaugural address, he became the General Secretary. My documents reveal, for the first time, that that is when all the big military industrial leaders of the Soviet Union, the design bureaus, the guys who built the booster rockets and satellites, brought to him a huge plan, to take all of the projects they already had on the drawing board and combine them into a giant Soviet “Star Wars”, to essentially go toe-to-toe with Reagan, the idea being that in the Cold War, every action had a reaction. If the Americans were going to build one, the Soviets had to build one.

Gorbachev’s reaction to this was not to stand up right away and say “no”, but basically to take this proposal, which I’ve seen, hundreds and hundreds of different items, billions of rubles — Gorbachev took this proposal and put it in his bottom drawer, and said “Thank you very much.”

It took a while, because, again, he was a very good tactician. He used tactics and maneuvering to essentially not build this “Star Wars”, over time. Some parts of it moved ahead; some parts of it failed, as I described in the book. One of them fell into the sea.

But, you know, this didn’t solve his problem of the fact that the Cold War was still on, and Reagan was still talking about “Star Wars”. So the next thing that happened was, since he didn’t let them build their giant Soviet “Star Wars”, there was a discussion of an “asymmetric response.”

An asymmetric response meant that the Soviets would produce a huge number of missiles with warheads to overwhelm Reagan’s plan. It’s like, if Reagan had the umbrella, they were going to be the rain, and they would make more rain than there would be umbrella.

Gorbachev actually pondered this for a while. This is not something imprecise. I point out in the book that the discussion was to put thirty-eight nuclear warheads on top of every Soviet SS-18 missile, which at the time had ten, limited by arms control.

Vitaly Katayev — the guy whose records I got — says in one document it was up to forty warheads, but thirty-eight was the number in his notebooks.

Now, they never did it, but that’s the kind of talk they were having, about how you would overwhelm. They had 308 of those missiles, so you could see they would triple the number of warheads, even more than triple.

So, at the Geneva summit, November 1985, still in Gorbachev’s first year, after he’s received this huge proposal for a Soviet “Star Wars” and put it in his bottom drawer, he says to Reagan, “If you build your ‘Star Wars’, we will smash your shield.” And we know that, because we have the transcript of the Geneva discussion.

When the Geneva discussion is over, Gorbachev decides that he doesn’t want an arms race in space, and he doesn’t want an arms race on the ground. So he doesn’t go for the asymmetric response either. He goes for the third option, which is he tries to talk Reagan out of “Star Wars”, and that’s what happens at Reykjavik, at the end of 1986.

So, I think this vision of what happened inside the Soviet side has never been woven into the American historical narrative, because we always tend to look at Reagan, our side, our “Star Wars”. Gorbachev was under much more pressure, and he made a huge, courageous decision not to compete for an arms race in space.

The quote that I remember off the top of my head from the book is that Gorbachev wanted to “save [his] country but may have saved the world.” He took incredible political risks, that even those of us who were very aware of the news in those days, really couldn’t fathom.

What excited me about this was, as a journalist and maybe as an amateur historian, I’d seen that the Soviet side of decisions was always represented by clippings from their newspapers, by their propaganda, by their speeches, and sometimes journalists would get interviews. But I’d never seen any raw, original material from the other side. I think that’s one of the big accomplishments of The Dead Hand: real documents, a real inside look at what they were saying to each other, and what was happening inside their system, which is all still secret inside of Russia.

On The Dangerous Legacy of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program

Let’s talk about biological weapons. I’ve read [former Soviet biological weapons scientist] Ken Alibek’s memoir, but I don’t think many Americans outside the arms control community know the extent of Soviet biological weapons program.

The subtitle of your book refers to the “dangerous legacy” of the Cold War arms race, and the last sentence of the book is: “The Dead Hand of the arms race is still alive.” This is in reference not only to “loose nukes” in Russia, but to the remains of the Soviet biological weapons program. How big was that weapons program, and how is it a lingering, potential danger today?

Okay, first, on how big it was. As far as I can determine, this was the largest program of offensive biological weapons ever built. Certainly the Japanese built a program during World War II, but this far exceeded it. 50,000 people were involved, dozens of institutes and laboratories, factories to produce pathogens. Our knowledge stops after the factories. We’ve never seen the actual weapons, but there is testimony that the next step, of course, would have been to fill shells, warheads, sprayers, or whatever delivery vehicles.

So, it was very large, and it was all hidden in a program that was ostensibly civilian, called Biopreparat. I think the breadth of it can be appreciated by the fact that the Soviets were trying to use the emerging life sciences — advances in genetic engineering. In other words, for many years, even when the United States had a biological weapons program until 1969, countries used natural pathogens. What was really diabolical, and in my view, striking about the Soviet program, was the evidence that I got from their scientists that they tried to interfere with the basic building blocks of life, to create agents and pathogens, bacteria and viruses, that the world had never seen before, to be used in combat, so that if they were unleashed on a population, there’d be no antidote. No vaccine, no antibiotic.

This idea required a lot of extra effort, because the Soviets were behind in biology, because of their crazy experiments in the 1950s and 1960s with Lysenko. So rather than catch up to save lives, they decided to do their catch-up in biological weapons. That required a lot of resources, laboratories… it was a very big program.

I don’t know of any evidence in the history of the world in which a large genetic engineering effort was undertaken for such diabolical purposes.

Now, the legacy. First of all, some of these biological weapons facilities, outside of the Russian Federation, were discovered in the 1990s, by a group of people that I think were courageous, hard-working, and unknown. I try to call attention to them in the book, like Andy Weber. He led the team that discovered some of these. In particular, they found some in Kazakhstan, where the Soviets had put them far away from population centers. One reason they did that was because of the anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk in 1979, which I discuss in the book. [See Prologue for a discussion of the outbreak. Click here.]

The Soviets decided to move all this bad stuff away from population centers. In Kazakhstan [at Stepnogorsk], Andy Weber and his team found a factory. I don’t mean a laboratory, I mean an industrial factory to grow anthrax spores, to dry them and prepare them for weapons, by the ton.

Inside the Stepnogorsk complex, machines were ready to create tons of anthrax for weapons if the Kremlin had given the order. (Click to enlarge.) Credit: Andy Weber/From The Dead Hand

One part of this legacy is, that factory was found, and ultimately, at the expense of the United States, it was destroyed. But there are other parts of it that have not been found. The Russian Federation still has three military microbiology laboratories that have never been open to western cooperation. Now, they have several others — Obolensk and Vector, which are both mentioned in the book, which did open for a while, to western cooperation. But western cooperation — which means transparency, exchanging scientists, discussing research papers — a lot of that has closed down in the biological field, and Russia has been much less cooperative in the last few years than it was in the late 1990s.

I went to Obolensk myself, I was invited there because they were looking to highlight western cooperation, in the year 2000, and the International Science and Technology Center, the ISTC, actually had a program there for a while. I went back there in 2005 for book research, but I haven’t been back there since.

There was a window there for this cooperation, and Andy Weber was partly responsible for that, but that window has closed.

… The Cold War is over. The period of hostility is over. So the need for secrecy ought to be over. We built the Russian stock market. We helped them become capitalists, so it would seem to be logical to have more transparency because both we, and the Russians today, face the problem that the life sciences have accelerated so greatly since they were building their biological weapons program. As you know, genetic engineering that required a large number of scientists and work in the 1970s can now be done in a university laboratory. I think that everybody who’s familiar with this history is worried… I don’t want to point fingers, but I think there are so many bad actors in the world today. Part of the legacy is that biological terrorism is still a possibility in the world we live in.

Dangerous Knowledge for Sale

It would be unrealistic not to point fingers. You described in your book that after Soviet Union fell apart, there were scientists who, as you put it, were “down to their last sack of potatoes”, and scientists were sorely tempted to take other countries (such as Iran and Iraq, at the time) up on offers for work, or teaching skills involved with illicit weapons programs.

Things have obviously improved economically in Russia, but is that still a problem, of scientists being tempted away by better offers? Are there still starving scientists who might be seduced to the “dark side” to use their skills, like the danger was when the Soviet Union first fell apart?

You never know what you don’t know in this particular part of it. We knew that the universe of weapons-experienced scientists at the time of the Soviet collapse was 60,000 people. You know, I think the ISTC, which was the effort to touch them and give them some money in those first years, that emergency effort, may have touched tens of thousands, maybe half of them.

So, to answer your question, we just don’t know what’s happened to so many thousands of people with knowledge. Furthermore, knowledge is now easier to spread. They can leave Russia anytime they want, without anybody preventing them, and of course the globalization of the digital revolution means that they don’t even have to leave, they can send information.

So, I think that the combination of not knowing what’s happened to them all, the globalization of information, and free travel suggest, at least, that if people are out to buy something — information, talent, knowledge — there aren’t any barriers. That’s the world we live in. We know from actual testimony that a group of these Russian rocket scientists were recruited, and brought to Iran repeatedly in the 1990s to help them build missiles. I discussed that, and you can find a lot of evidence that Russian, Ukrainian rocket experts, missile experts, would meet each other in the cafeteria in the Tehran institutes.

The Iranians attempted to do this in biological weapons, and Andy Weber caught wind of it, and I think he probably stopped some of their major efforts, but what happened that we didn’t see? The Iranian recruitment efforts were often based around bringing experts to Tehran for teaching, or for trade fairs, and then using their skills once they were in the country.

Between 2000 and 2005 there was a lot of evidence that the biological weapons laboratories of Biopreparat, in other words, the non-military, secret, big organization, were down on their heels and desperate for money. Obolensk, the place where one of the scientists developed that hybrid pathogen I mentioned, had a period where the electricity was cut off for lack of payment of their bills.

The director of Obolensk told me when I was there in May of 2000 that they were receiving one percent of the budget subsidies that they had received in Soviet times.

In 2005, when I visited, I found that many of the scientists there were attempting to do backdoor businesses out of their homes. They were all trying to make a living.

I have to say, my experience in Russia tells me: always beware when things are going out the back door, whether it’s nuclear, whether it’s biological weapons, and lack of transparency, back-door channels, leads me to worry about it. I also worry about other actors. I worry about North Korea, other places besides Iran. The congressional commission, the Graham-Talent commission, had an interesting line in their study. They put a fair amount of focus on BW [biological weapons] issues. They said the danger is not that a terrorist is going to become a biologist; the danger is that a biologist is going to become a terrorist.

Given the intent, and the thinking back then, and the tools of today, you have a terrible, terrible combination.

During Project Sapphire, more than 1,300 pounds of highly-enriched uranium was located in a warehouse in Kazakhstan. It was subsequently flown to the United States. (Click to enlarge.) Credit: Andy Weber

Something For the President’s Reading List: A Word on Hair-Trigger Alert

On another subject, I was thinking that if I could afford it, I’d send your book to every member of Congress, to each member of the President’s national security team, and of course to the President himself.

On that thought, let’s imagine that President Obama has a copy of your book on his desk. He has a spare 15 minutes. Which section of your book would you like him to read, and why?

Hands down, the answer is, I want him to read about Stanislav Petrov and the false alarm. [Again, see "Night Watch For Nuclear War", in the Prologue, which you can read here.]

The reason is this. The hair-trigger alert, which drove so much of the absurdities and the madness of the Cold War, has not gone away. It’s part of the “Dead Hand” legacy. Today, according to the best estimates that I’ve seen, we — meaning the United States and Russia, the two major nuclear superpowers — have maybe 1,500 or more nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, or what the specialists call launch-ready alert. This could mean launched from land or sea in just minutes. I say in the book it would take just one or two minutes to launch and fire the land-based missiles, and maybe 12 minutes for the submarines. The only reason we have this is that we’re frightening each other, but we’re no longer enemies, or adversaries, really, not in a strategic nuclear sense. To me, one of the things that I want Obama to realize is to not be afraid of de-alerting, because de-alerting is something we could do with our own hands. It’s not that difficult to create a delay of an hour, of a week, or a month before you can put a warhead on a missile, but to take down this alert structure that’s a relic of the Cold War. The Petrov thing dramatizes it.

I think that de-alerting deeply worries the American military, and they’re resistant to it. No question there are verification and other problems. But political leaders need to say, “As a civilian political leader, we need to stop this kind of alert because there’s no use for it anymore.” Certainly, it should be done by both sides, and if both sides said “we will introduce procedures so that we have at least twelve hours before any launch decision could be made,” that would make the world concretely safer.

But I don’t even think people today understand that we still have missiles on alert like this.

In my view, the ideal of Global Zero, or the idea of some large, idealistic leap is laudatory because the Cold War is over. But we should also hold our politicians to concrete accomplishments that are not just some grand ideal.

The Prague speech that Obama gave was positive in tone, but actually his Nuclear Posture Review, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a fissile material cutoff treaty, de-alerting, that’s where the hard work has got to be done. I think that he’s basically dropped de-alerting, and I think it’s one of the early things that you can do to get results, and ditto with the Nuclear Posture Review. Is he going to actually impose some serious change of direction in this legacy from the Cold War, or simply ratify the status quo, like Bill Perry did, like Rumsfeld did?

A verifiable two hundred warheads each, de-alerted, by five nuclear powers, would be a much safer world than a world today of 23,000 warheads and bombs. People don’t realize thousands are tactical nuclear weapons that have never even been accounted for in a treaty, and the numbers and whereabouts are unverified. Again, when you think about things we can do concretely, I think this tactical nuclear weapons situation is one where concretely getting a handle on that would be a huge accomplishment. We have only 700, but how many does Russia have? How many have been dismantled? How many are they re-deploying? We have no answers to those questions.

Again, it strikes me that most people don’t realize that nuclear dangers are not only the actual missiles on alert, but also the fact that many, many thousands of nuclear weapons — the small, portable ones — have never been covered by a treaty.

But the other side — you know, I’m one of those people who believes you have to look at the world whole, and look at the other side as well — you know, the Russians have a large amount of tactical nuclear weapons that they don’t want to talk about. Obviously, the smart thing to do here would be to create some kind of negotiating process where both sides do something, rather than simply withdraw the American ones.


… Reagan has allowed us [a] more detailed view [of who he was] because of the publication of his diaries, and the release of some archival information. I frankly think that there’s a lot of detail about the Reagan presidency that is still classified, but the diaries are extremely valuable. Matching them against the diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev, who was keeping a careful record of Gorbachev, who was Gorbachev’s national security advisor, matching these two begins to give you a little of that stereo history effect that we lacked in the earlier period.

I’ve written this book, in part, because I want people to feel and hear that stereo, because there’s a whole bunch of triumphalist literature about Reagan, books such as Victory and Crusader, and in none of those books will you find the Soviet side of the story.

I’d like people to realize that this is a book about the people that tried to end the arms race, many of them for different reasons, but I’m trying to show, that in the absurd period, when great destructive weapons were built, there were people who came to their own conclusions about what needed to be done, against great odds, on both sides. In my view, you can only understand what happened here by trying to understand what people did and how they did it.

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