The Dead Hand, a review

For awhile, when I started reading the Dead Hand, winner of this year’s Pulitzer for general non-fiction, I felt that I was finally in the grip of the definitive end-of-the-Soviet-Union book. Even while living through the events of those years, I figured that a lot of the events forming it would not come to light for decades afterward. Think of the decoding of Enigma and JN-25 (the Japanese wartime code), which did not come to light until the 1970’s. I’ve been waiting for a final, historical conclusion, but none has been satisfying yet. (I can go into the role of history-as-fiction written by the winners at some later date.)

However, after 150 pages, one has to scratch one’s head. Why so much time on biological warfare? A fair time is spent on nuclear command and control elements (and much of this new to me). Almost nothing on the other aspects of the war.

By page 250, I started deconstructing the author’s work. Why did it ring so true, but so hollow and partial? I finally realized that Hoffman was at the mercy of the interviews he’d been granted. Yes, some of them were startling — Gorbachev, members of the Reagan White House (Robert McFarlane), officers at the nuclear command centers, scientists from several of the biological warfare centers. This does not make it a bad book, but it is not a complete overview. I class this as an important part of the end of the Cold War canon, but far from the definitive tome it wants to be.

As always with books like this, I’m surprised at how much was done on the Russian side of the table leading up to the collapse and how little was done by the West. Of course, the Russian’s were the ones feeling the pressure – falling behind, atrophying economies, unable to compete.

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