The Dead Hand: a terrifying trip into the Cold War

He was far below on the command chain from General Secretary Yuri Andropov, frail and at an enhanced level of paranoia after President Carter had issued Directive 59 that listed the decapitation of the Kremlin as a key nuclear war option. It was Petrov’s job to give Soviet leaders the five or six minutes needed to decide whether to participate in one of mankind’s most onerous paradoxes: Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, Petrov looked up at a monitor that was lit up with the red letters – “LAUNCH.” A light at one of the American missile bases had lit up. A siren wailed. Within minutes the creaky Soviet computers were signaling five U.S. missiles had launched.

In David E. Hoffman’s disturbing book “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy” (Doubleday) this unknown Russian held the fate of the world in his hands. If the alarm was validated, the Soviet leadership and the General staff could launch a retaliation. There were only minutes to decide. It came as the nuclear tension during this “mysterious and shadowy” period were at their highest since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nukes much closer to Moscow and Washington.

Hoffman writes: Petrov made a decision. He knew the system had glitches in the past; there was no visual sighting of a missile through the telescope; the satellites were in a correct position. There was nothing from the radar stations to verify an incoming missile, although it was probably too early for the radars to see anything. He told the duty officer again: this is a false alarm. The message went up the chain.

Hoffman’s triumph with “The Dead Hand” is that he tells the precarious nature of the final decade of the Cold War through the eyes of common men like Petrov, and through the diaries of the famous: President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. 

In 1979, candidate Ronald Reagan walked through the 25-ton blast doors of Cheyenne Mountain of the North American Air Defense Command, the nuclear war monitoring nerve center. The question – what would happen if a Soviet SS-18 hit nearby? – brought the answer: “It would blow us away.” Gen. James Hill would note that “a look of disbelief came over Reagan’s face.”

Reagan would lament four years before he and hydrogen bomb father Edward Teller would dream and announce the Strategic Defense Initiative that the only options were to press the button or do nothing. “We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles.” 

President Reagan would be one of 100 million Americans to watch ABC’s “The Day After” movie on nuclear war in 1983. It would play a role in what Hoffman describes as a president who became a “nuclear abolitionist.”

Soviet and American leaders faced three choices in an imminent nuclear attack. Pre-emptive strike, launch on attack confirmation or retaliate after attack. 

Reagan had decided that he would stay in the White House under a nuclear attack, saying it would be the presidency – not the president – that would survive. Hoffman writes that the Soviets, with a succession of ailing leaders, came up with a different “ingenious and incredible” answer. They built a Doomsday Machine that would guarantee retaliation – launch all the nuclear missiles – if General Secretary Chernenko’s hand went limp.

The retaliatory system – “The Dead Hand” – would turn over the fate of mankind to computers. 

The Indiana angle in  “The Dead Hand” is U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar’s role with Sen. Sam Nunn in the Nunn-Lugar Act, which established the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. When the Soviet Union collapsed, more than half of the 60,000 nuclear warheads were located in the bankrupt empire. Nunn-Lugar would end up spending about $1.4 billion annually to clean up the mess and keep nukes and biological weapons off the terror black market.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was opposed, preferring to see the crumbled Soviet empire in “free fall.”

Hoffman continued: In 1992, Senators Nunn and Lugar took a gamble with history. They helped Russia and the other former Soviet republics cope with an inheritance from hell. The investment paid huge dividends. In the years that followed, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine completely abandoned nuclear weapons.  A total of 7,514 nuclear warheads, 752 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 31 submarines have been deactivated, though 23,000 still exist in U.S. and Russian arsenals.

Writing that the Nunn-Lugar gambled paid off, Hoffman concludes: “The world is safer for their vision and determination. It was also a bargain.” A bargain compared to the trillion dollars the U.S. spent to take out Saddam’s nuclear arsenal that didn’t even exist.

(The columnist publishes at

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