Explaining the Cold War Legacy

Also published here.

Since the beginning of April, there has been quite a rush of headline-making nuclear weapons news. The Obama Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, which laid out significant changes from past such roadmaps; Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev signed a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will keep both of our countries on track to further arms reductions in the future; and finally, President Obama held a very successful, and rather unprecedented, Nuclear Security Summit, that yielded not only good discussions, but solid national and international goals.

John Isaacs, the Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, is not given to hyperbole, so you know it’s a big deal when he says:

The last two weeks have arguably been the two most eventful weeks on reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons since the advent of the nuclear age.

There really was quite a lot going on, and you can read my series of posts on the events here.

A Timely Pulitzer Prize

All of the big stories I mentioned ultimately have their origins in the Cold War and the frightening arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The problems of nuclear weapons, and even biological weapons, didn’t just disappear when the Soviet Union collapsed. Twenty years later, we are still dealing with international security issues that started with the escalation of Cold War tensions and the resulting arsenals.

No one does a better job of pointing that out than author and Washington Post contributing editor, David E. Hoffman, who was just awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in the “General Nonfiction” category. His book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the Cold War, its key players, and the decisions they made — or in some cases, the decisions they didn’t make. It’s a must-read for policy wonks, lawmakers, and anyone interested in weapons of mass destruction and their role in past as well as present US relations with the rest of the world.

It’s also a must-read for anyone who’s had a general eye on the news and wants to know the bigger picture of US-Russian relations, and why it is absolutely essential that both countries ratify the New START treaty as soon as possible.

Nuclear Arsenals and “Star Wars”

The beauty of Hoffman’s book is that it’s absolutely packed with information, but the narrative is so clear and engaging that it’s like reading an interesting story rather than a dry historical account. He doesn’t just fill in the gaps of what we didn’t know about the Soviet side of the Cold War; he introduces us to a cast of characters as real and as vivid as someone sitting next to you. He takes us through the records and notes of Soviet Communist Party Central Committee staffer Vitaly Katayev, and shows us for the first time that Mikhail Gorbachev had the option to respond to Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) by starting a “Star Wars” program of his own, as well as a massive asymmetrical response involving a huge expansion of the Soviet nuclear weapons program. In fact, Gorbachev did neither; instead, he opted to try to convince Reagan to give up SDI at the Reykjavik summit.

One of the best aspects of The Dead Hand is that it takes a clear-eyed view of both Reagan and Gorbachev: their agreements, their disagreements, and their ultimate successes and failures. While it is absolutely true that Reagan did want to abolish nuclear weapons, he didn’t want to give them up in a vacuum and not replace them with anything. On the contrary, he only wanted to give them up if he could have his “Star Wars” space-based missile defense system. His inflexibility on this was essentially what sunk the Reykjavik summit. If he had been more flexible, he and Gorbachev could have made huge strides toward eliminating part of their respective nuclear arsenals. But he was not. It’s important to remember that, especially these days, when everyone seems bent on recasting Reagan as some kind of pure nuclear abolitionist, a dove in disguise, if you will.

“Launch-Ready Alert”

Last December, when I interviewed David Hoffman, one of the questions I asked him was: if President Obama had 15 minutes to spare, which part of the book should he read? Hoffman told me:

Hands down, the answer is, I want him to read about Stanislav Petrov and the false alarm. [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.

One thing that nuclear treaties do is create trust, which is why that example is particularly vivid in light of the fact that the US and Russia just signed a New START Treaty.

Another Legacy: “Loose Nukes”, Secret Germs

You can’t have a nuclear program without making lots and lots of plutonium and uranium. Hoffman writes about Project Sapphire, which was the US-led effort to secure 1,278 pounds of highly enriched uranium from an almost unsecured location in Kazakhstan. It is but one example of poorly secured bomb-grade nuclear material in the former Soviet republics, and he explains this in some detail in his book. As we saw from the news about the Nuclear Security Summit last week, the problem is ongoing.

Another really frightening part of Hoffman’s book is his description of the rather extensive Soviet biological weapons program, which was still operating (to some extent) even after the end of the Cold War. Although there is no need for secrecy, the Russians are still less than forthcoming about some of their military biological laboratories, even today. Hoffman also emphasizes the attractiveness of former Soviet bioweapons scientists’ knowledge to states with dubious intentions, like Iran and North Korea; in our interview, he emphasized that he’s not alone in worrying about this.

The point is, that although the Cold War is long over, its legacy affects global security and will extend far beyond today, well into the future.

Further Reading

To save you a few Google searches, I’ll just point you to where David Hoffman is writing now. He’s been writing about nukes over at foreignpolicy.com; definitely check out his piece on tactical nuclear weapons, and his pieces on the Nuclear Posture Review and the New START Treaty, among others. You can also read something he published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last year on how the Soviet biological weapons program was revealed.

All of these, plus the excerpt from his book that you can read at his website, will give you a taste of the breadth of knowledge he has. It’s worth picking up his book. We’re going to be hearing about these issues for many, many years to come.

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