Key points from The Dead Hand, David E. Hoffman


The Dead Hand re­counts high-level de­ci­sion-mak­ing around nu­clear and biolog­i­cal weapons, and how na­tions en­gaged in arms races and arms con­trol, par­tic­u­larly the USA and USSR dur­ing the eras of Rea­gan and Gor­bachev.

I sum­marised the parts I found most in­sight­ful in or­der to clar­ify my own un­der­stand­ing. I post these ex­tremely com­pressed notes here in the hope that they will in­tro­duce you to some new con­cepts and/​or help you de­cide whether to read the book. I usu­ally do not at­tempt to ver­ify facts. (In­ter­pre­ta­tions I make are in brack­ets.)

Strate­gic misunderstandings

Through much of the Cold War, USSR lead­er­ship be­lieved that the USA might launch a sur­prise nu­clear at­tack on the USSR. US lead­er­ship con­sid­ered this out of the ques­tion, in large part be­cause it seemed im­plau­si­ble that an ag­gres­sor could ‘win’ a nu­clear war, though some USSR and US gen­er­als did be­lieve in the idea of ‘win­ning’ a nu­clear war. Fur­ther, when NATO spies got hold of doc­u­ments writ­ten by USSR lead­er­ship de­tailing a pro­ject to no­tice signs of the USA prepar­ing a first strike, key US figures thought it was more likely that this was part of a pro­pa­ganda cam­paign against the USA or against the in­ter­me­di­ate-range Per­sh­ing mis­siles be­ing sta­tioned in Europe than that USSR lead­er­ship re­ally thought the USA might launch a first strike.

Poor un­der­stand­ing was some­times mis­taken for bad faith. In a pro­posal to re­duce the num­ber of long-range nu­clear weapons, Rea­gan in­cluded the ask that, for both the USA and the USSR, ‘no more than half of those war­heads be land-based’. This seemed to him like a great idea, re­duc­ing dan­ger to both coun­tries. Brezh­nev saw this as hard to take in good faith be­cause the USSR was much more de­pen­dent on land-based mis­siles than the USA. (This was a very large de­tail to be ig­no­rant of, and I think it would have seemed un­likely to me that this pro­posal was in good faith even with my ba­sic knowl­edge of the situ­a­tion.)

Some US poli­ti­cal lead­ers hy­po­thet­i­cally wanted to crush the USSR, or com­mu­nism, but wanted peace much more. (Rec­on­cil­ing var­i­ous state­ments, e.g. rec­on­cil­ing fiery speeches about the bad­ness of com­mu­nism with let­ters declar­ing a full com­mit­ment to peace, seems like it would have been hard for USSR lead­er­ship.)

The ac­cu­racy of CIA in­for­ma­tion was of­ten poor, re­gard­ing both weapons ac­tivity and the at­ti­tudes of USSR lead­ers. USSR in­tel­li­gence about the US econ­omy was par­tic­u­larly awful, with wild over­es­ti­mates of how much of the econ­omy was mil­i­tary.

The book says ‘X was a missed op­por­tu­nity’ a num­ber of times re­gard­ing times when agree­ments on arms con­trol could po­ten­tially have been reached. (It is hard to tell what the coun­ter­fac­tual re­ally was.)

Nu­clear escalation

The USSR’s at­tack-de­tec­tion sys­tems were not ro­bust, with a false per­cep­tion of an in­com­ing US mis­sile at­tack on the watch of Stanis­lav Petrov be­ing a key ex­am­ple. The book sug­gests that mil­i­tary lead­ers rushed the sys­tems into de­ploy­ment (though it’s not ob­vi­ous what the al­ter­na­tive was). The forces on the ground had to han­dle a wide range of is­sues, though they were well aware that there was a high false-pos­i­tive rate since many signs of mis­sile launches were flagged by the com­puter sys­tems for in­spec­tion by the op­er­a­tors ev­ery day. (The Petrov situ­a­tion was more ex­treme, with the au­to­mated sys­tems stat­ing high cre­dence in a mis­sile at­tack. How­ever, the full de­scrip­tion of the situ­a­tion leaves me think­ing that if some­one other than Petrov had been there, the false alarm would prob­a­bly still have been treated as prob­a­bly a false alarm by the op­er­a­tions team, lead­ing to ei­ther roughly the same course of ac­tion, or to pass­ing the warn­ing up the chain of com­mand but mak­ing clear that it was prob­a­bly a false alarm and this lead­ing to no ex­treme ac­tions.)

Sys­tems failed in ways that both in­creased and de­creased the like­li­hood of es­ca­la­tion. At one point, an er­ro­neous mes­sage clearly in­structed the en­tire USSR nu­clear mis­sile forces to move to higher alert, and only one team did so, with many of the oth­ers call­ing their su­pe­ri­ors to ques­tion whether the mes­sage was cor­rect.

Tan­gen­tially, the Ch­er­nobyl ac­ci­dent took days to be taken se­ri­ously by USSR lead­ers, pos­si­bly in part due to peo­ple not want­ing to pass bad news up the com­mand chain and a gen­eral lack of own­er­ship/​re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Most poli­ti­cal lead­ers pretty strongly wanted to avoid dy­ing. Also, the USSR was very con­cerned speci­fi­cally about a ‘de­cap­i­ta­tion’ strike which would hit Moscow and pre­vent re­tal­i­a­tion. (Th­ese con­cerns may or may not have been sig­nifi­cantly linked.) Per­ime­ter, a USSR pro­ject which au­to­mated sub­stan­tial parts of the com­mand chain and al­lowed for launch in­struc­tions to be re­layed even if com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­fras­truc­ture was de­stroyed, would have en­abled a re­tal­i­a­tory strike even in the case of a de­cap­i­ta­tion strike. (My im­pres­sion is that Per­ime­ter was put in place largely to miti­gate the de­cap­i­ta­tion con­cern, though I’m not clear on that.) Pos­si­bly in con­tra­dic­tion to claims by Daniel Ells­berg that the Dead Hand – au­to­matic launch of nu­clear weapons in cer­tain cir­cum­stances – was and re­mains de­ployed, the Dead Hand proper was re­jected by the USSR mil­i­tary in favour of Per­ime­ter, which kept some hu­mans in the loop.

Mis­sile defence

Key ac­tors in the USA and USSR had wildly differ­ent per­cep­tions of the im­pli­ca­tions of mis­sile defence, the abil­ity to shoot down in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles with in­ter­cep­tor mis­siles. Rea­gan and some frac­tion of US lead­ers dreamed of a world where mis­sile defence would ren­der all nu­clear weapons in­effec­tive. Gor­bachev and most USSR lead­ers saw mis­sile defence as a means for the USA to ob­tain se­cure first-strike ca­pa­bil­ities. The USA ceas­ing mis­sile defence re­search was of­ten a top-pri­or­ity de­mand for the USSR dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions. (This re­search seems to have been com­pli­ant with the let­ter but per­haps not the spirit of the Anti-Bal­lis­tic Mis­sile Treaty.)

Lots of peo­ple thought mis­sile defence was im­pos­si­ble with tech­nol­ogy at the time. (It re­mains largely in­effec­tive to­day.)

Prin­ci­pal-agent problems

Some gen­er­als wanted to visi­bly flex mil­i­tary mus­cles, in­clud­ing send­ing naval ves­sels or war­planes into USSR ter­ri­tory. Such ex­er­cises were not always known to poli­ti­cal lead­ers. In at least one case, the lack of knowl­edge seems to have led to greater con­fu­sion about why the USSR felt threat­ened by the USA. Suc­cess­ful in­cur­sions by US air­craft put pres­sure on USSR forces to re­spond faster to po­ten­tial threats. This may have con­tributed sig­nifi­cantly to the down­ing of an off-course Korean Air Lines flight by a USSR mil­i­tary air­craft, which was an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent.

A large USSR bioweapons re­search group worked on mak­ing a more viru­lent ver­sion of smal­l­pox. (It is un­clear to me how this came about. My vague guess is that high-level peo­ple asked par­tic­u­lar sci­en­tists for bioweapons, and those sci­en­tists de­cided to try to en­hance smal­l­pox for rea­sons not par­tic­u­larly cor­re­lated with what makes the USSR safer.) A lead sci­en­tist at one point set the goal of be­ing able to pro­duce one new pathogen per month. (It’s un­clear whether this, too, was a use­ful goal for the USSR.)

Mon­i­tor­ing biolog­i­cal weapons activity

The US bioweapons pro­gramme was shut down be­fore the Biolog­i­cal Weapons Con­ven­tion was signed. The USSR had thou­sands of peo­ple work­ing on bioweapons, in some cases with lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion given to the treaty. As one ex­am­ple, Vik­tor Zh­danov, who cham­pi­oned the effort to erad­i­cate smal­l­pox, led a high-level coun­cil over­see­ing bioweapons work. Through­out the Cold War, USSR bioweapons sci­en­tists typ­i­cally be­lieved that the USA was also de­vel­op­ing bioweapons ille­gally.

An­thrax kil­led around 100 peo­ple in Sverd­lovsk in 1979. This drew in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, with NATO diplo­mats ques­tion­ing whether this was due to a leak of biolog­i­cal weapons many times over the years. USSR au­thor­i­ties con­sis­tently blamed the in­ci­dent on con­tam­i­nated meat, and a sin­gle re­mark by Yeltsin is the only pub­lic, semi-offi­cial recog­ni­tion that it was, in fact, a biolog­i­cal weapons leak. The cause was not con­firmed by out­siders un­til lo­ca­tion data on the vic­tims was available. (The abil­ity to cover up or at least main­tain plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity of the true cause was very sur­pris­ing to me.) USSR ex­perts met other ex­perts and pre­sented at con­fer­ences about the out­break, ly­ing, in many cases very con­vinc­ingly, to >200 sci­en­tists and arms con­trol ex­perts.

Western ex­perts thought bioweapons were not very use­ful to a state with nu­clear weapons, so they thought the USSR would not want them. This be­lief was held si­mul­ta­neously to USSR bioweapons pro­grammes run­ning at their full scale.

Gen­er­ally, it is hard to figure out whether bioweapons ac­tivity is hap­pen­ing within a fa­cil­ity, though iden­ti­fy­ing build­ings which might be be­ing used for large-scale pro­duc­tion was pos­si­ble.

The defec­tion of Pasech­nik, the first per­son with a breadth of knowl­edge of USSR bioweapons pro­grammes to defect, was a very big deal. The in­for­ma­tion was dis­cussed in pri­vate, in­clud­ing with some USSR lead­ers. Go­ing pub­lic with much more con­crete in­for­ma­tion about large-scale biolog­i­cal weapons efforts would have crip­pled progress on nu­clear is­sues, in par­tic­u­lar by de­stroy­ing sup­port from Congress for co­op­er­a­tion.

Pasech­nik defected upon in­creas­ingly see­ing his own work as harm­ful, and was scared of what the Bri­tish might do to him since he thought he could be seen as a war crim­i­nal. (He seems very brave.)

By the time Yeltsin gained power, NATO lead­ers be­lieved that the USSR had a large biolog­i­cal weapons pro­gramme. Soon af­ter gain­ing power, Yeltsin ad­mit­ted the bioweapons pro­gramme and pledged to shut it down quickly. The gen­er­als man­aged to keep it al­ive. Yeltsin was not in con­trol. Also, Gor­bachev had hated the threat of nu­clear weapons, so it seems likely that he, like Yeltsin af­ter him, would also have wished to shut down the biolog­i­cal weapons pro­gramme. Pos­si­bly this was too many bat­tles to pick with the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex at the same time.

(Also: ‘mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex’ is a use­ful, mean­ingful con­cept, at least when think­ing about the USSR.)

It was some­times use­ful for NATO diplo­mats to tell the USSR/​Rus­sia what they knew about se­cret pro­grammes.

Visits to ver­ify se­cret sites seemed very im­por­tant. For ex­am­ple, vis­its by USSR sci­en­tists to US sites sus­pected by USSR in­tel­li­gence of be­ing biolog­i­cal weapons sites con­vinced Ken Alibek, who later defected, that the sites were not con­duct­ing weapons de­vel­op­ment.

Strate­gic/​bat­tlefield weapon distinction

This seems like a very use­ful dis­tinc­tion. Some biolog­i­cal weapons (e.g. an­thrax) could be used against an army – used as bat­tlefield weapons. Some are de­signed to kill in­dis­crim­i­nately – strate­gic weapons. This may make strate­gic biolog­i­cal weapons a ‘poor man’s atomic bomb’.

His eyes were riv­eted on one word on the page, “plague.” This was the mo­ment when the UK’s biolog­i­cal war­fare spe­cial­ist (read­ing in­for­ma­tion from Pasech­nik) re­al­ised that the USSR was de­vel­op­ing strate­gic biolog­i­cal weapons, ap­par­ently not a widely con­sid­ered pos­si­bil­ity be­fore­hand. (It seems to me that a lot of what Pasech­nik had to say would have sounded im­plau­si­ble at first hear­ing, even though it was highly ac­cu­rate.)

Pro­lifer­a­tion risks dur­ing the break­down of the USSR

Soviet gov­ern­ment de­part­ments tried to go into busi­ness in­clud­ing sel­l­ing nu­clear ex­plo­sions (for civilian pur­poses such as dig­ging canals). Chetek, a busi­ness, would do the re­search and de­sign­ing of deto­na­tions, and the gov­ern­ment would con­duct the deto­na­tion. This did not hap­pen be­cause of a con­tin­u­ing nu­clear test ban.

Weapons sci­en­tists be­came very poor and des­per­ate. The gov­ern­ment dra­mat­i­cally cut wages for many peo­ple and was of­ten not even pay­ing these re­duced wages re­li­ably. A ma­jor in­ter­ven­tion con­ducted by US diplo­mats and sci­en­tists was to set up in­sti­tutes to help them move to civilian work. Get­ting a weapons sci­en­tist a grant to do civilian re­search or en­g­ineer­ing could lift them out of poverty and pre­vent some of them from sel­l­ing weapons tech­nol­ogy. Scien­tists wanted to work on some­thing mean­ingful, and recog­nis­ing that and win­ning their trust was im­por­tant to get them on board with these pro­grammes.

Peo­ple were keen, and not afraid, to dis­cover and share the se­crets of the arms race. Per­haps this ap­par­ent sud­den shift was due to the break­down of the po­lice state /​ strict con­trol on the ac­tions of in­di­vi­d­u­als, and the lack of other mechanisms for dis­cour­ag­ing bad be­havi­our.

In­di­vi­d­u­als and small groups of sci­en­tists be­gan to dis­cuss sel­l­ing en­riched ura­nium with other states that wanted nu­clear weapons. This was greatly con­cern­ing to NATO since the main limit to a rogue state be­ing able to build a bomb was hav­ing fis­sile ma­te­rial. (I’m a bit un­clear about this: it seems that this is true for dirty bombs, but it is ex­tremely hard to make a fis­sion bomb work.)

A fa­cil­ity in Kaza­khstan ar­ranged to ship beryl­lium to Iran, and only failed to do so due to a pa­per­work glitch. The Kazakh gov­ern­ment con­sented to a US op­er­a­tion to ex­tract ura­nium be­fore it could be sold to Iran. This ap­peared to be a very dan­ger­ous op­er­a­tion, in­volv­ing driv­ing trucks in icy con­di­tions and the longest C-5 flights in his­tory. (Pre­sum­ably trans­port­ing en­riched ura­nium this way was con­sid­ered prefer­able to let­ting it be bought by rogue states.) Once sting op­er­a­tions on ille­gal sales suc­ceeded, this raised the pro­file of the prob­lem, gain­ing fur­ther sup­port for these efforts. Pre­vi­ously, Congress had been un­will­ing to spend money helping former USSR states dis­pose of weapons ma­te­rial.

Theft and ille­gal sales were a high risk in part be­cause fis­sile ma­te­rial was stored in poor con­di­tions with low se­cu­rity. The weak­est se­cu­rity was of­ten for en­riched ura­nium in­tended for civilian use. In one case, staff at a stor­age fa­cil­ity stole fis­sile ma­te­rial us­ing only a crow­bar and a hack­saw.


Thanks to Claire Za­bel and An­drew Sny­der-Beat­tie for recom­mend­ing the book, and to Sim Dhal­iwal and Ollie Base for sug­gest­ing clar­ifi­ca­tions.