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Book Review: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

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“Last night I had the strangest dream
 I ever had before.
 I dreamed the world had all agreed
 To put an end to war.”  — Ed McCurdy

Shortly after the major news media hailed the end of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall fell, I was brought back to reality by a radio talk show host who reminded me that “those missiles are still there and they‘re pointed at us. Who’s got their finger on the trigger now?” 

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, David E. Hoffman once again jolts us back to reality.  Just what is “the dead hand” and what does it have to do with me in 2010?

Many times over the years, I have often remarked with mock disappointment, “They didn’t ask me,” when considering the announcement of winners of big name prizes like the Nobel or the Pulitzer.  After reading The Dead Hand, it’s pleasing to see that this book earned such a distinguished honor.  Hoffman’s second book is an engaging page turner that reads like a Michael Crichton novel (high praise from me!). 

Most of my adult life, I’d thought that Chernobyl was scary and that the Cuban missile crisis had brought us to the brink of war.  In Hoffman’s prologue, the reader learns about a 1979 biochemical weapons incident and a brush with nuclear war in 1983 that makes the skin crawl!  In the end, he leaves us with conclusions and stories that are nothing short of terrifying.

Presenting new information gleaned from diaries and memoirs recently made available along with declassified government papers and interviews, Hoffman takes the reader on an adventure of international intrigue and world politics that makes us wish it were fiction and along the way answers many important questions.  How did we live through such times?  Where did Reagan’s “Star Wars Defense” originate?  How and why did the U.S. carrier Midway disappear near Russia?  What was the significance of “007” if it wasn’t James Bond?  Was U.S. Representative Larry McDonald (Dem.-GA) murdered?  How did “reluctance” and fear of decapitation lead the Soviets to automation?  How would the Russian Doomsday Machine guarantee retaliation in the event of a dead leader?  Why did Gorbachev keep a sculpture of a goose in his office?  What is the legacy of the Cold War that remains a threat to us today?

Much of The Dead Hand focuses on significant decisions of Reagan’s presidency, his interest in eliminating nuclear weapons and his personal alliances with British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.  Hoffman details how Reagan won popular support with his “evil empire” speech before a group of evangelical Christian ministers and eventually reached out on a personal level to Gorbachev. 

Would I buy The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy?  Yes, and I would recommend it even to those who did not care for Reagan. It’s an important book about an important time in world history presented factually with little or no bias.  It contains a serious warning about the influence of the Cold War on the present and also our future survival.

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  • This sounds like an amazing book that reveals many untold stories about the Cold War. Yes, it’s amazing we’re all still here! Great review!

  • Thanks Joyce!

  • Raymond Luxury Yacht

    The book is well written, it flows, it was a real eye opener. The unraveling of the USSR was as dangerous, or more so, than the cold war period leading up to it. I just hope we are all as lucky, and have as many men of conscience around for the next chapters!