Cover of The Dead Hand

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy by David Hoffman (Icon Books)

There was a huge crowd of journalists waiting for George Shultz, the American Secretary of State, at the end of the Iceland summit. Were Reagan and Gorbachev serious in proposing to abolish all nuclear weapons? Would the Cold War suddenly be over, with both sides scrapping their vast arsenals? Thatcher, we knew, was horrified at what she saw as Reagan’s naivety.

Finally, Shulz appeared. It was a historic moment, he told us. Both leaders had a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. It had been a tough two days, but we stood on the brink of a breakthrough. But – and he lingered, maddeningly, as the deadline for the first edition drew near – it was not to be. They had failed. In the end, Reagan had refused to give up his cherished “Star Wars” Strategic Defence Initiative. Shultz’s tired and drawn face told it all.

Iceland, Reagan’s second summit with the new Soviet leader, was meant to be just a brief discussion, but then careered out of control. US aides had suddenly found themselves sketching out sweeping new plans for global security on A4 pads of paper, huddled in the bathroom of Hofdi House, the lonely two–storey house, said to be haunted, that faced out on to the cold Atlantic. There was nowhere else to meet and consider the momentous proposals being tossed around by the leader of the free world and his Soviet rival.

In fact, Reykjavik was not a failure: it was the moment in 1986 when America understood that Gorbachev – the Russian Thatcher had spotted earlier as a man she could do business with – was for real, not just a glossy new version of previous dour, doddery Kremlin leaders, as the Pentagon and other hardliners still insisted. And he was desperate to reduce the arsenals that had led to each side piling up thousands of warheads, any one of which could have killed millions. Russia, Gorbachev knew, could no longer afford the arms race. It could not compete with Star Wars (though this surreal plan never in fact got off the ground). It was haemorrhaging money on defence while the country stagnated. He knew – though it was a while before spies and intelligence agents later revealed – that the world had come very close to disaster in 1983, when the Russians under Andropov nearly responded to what they believed was a US nuclear launch, and which turned out to be a false alarm.

David Hoffman, the former Washington Post White House and later Moscow correspondent, followed the tortuous attempts to return to sanity, as Reagan rose above his old prejudices and Gorbachev battled the Kremlin hardliners in his attempt to revive the moribund Soviet empire. Hoffman’s superb account of the twists and turns in the struggle to end the arms race is detailed, gripping and monumental, a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published.

Only now do we know how terrifying the race had become: how the Russians, paranoid at their military inferiority, had almost perfected an automatic “Perimeter” programme to deliver a retaliatory strike on America even if all the Soviet leadership had been wiped out – the “Dead Hand” that removed any human caution or judgement. Mutually Assured Destruction (“MAD” as it was aptly called) would have been just that.

But far worse, arguably, was the Soviet commitment to biological warfare. And even as Gorbachev slashed nuclear stockpiles and opened up his country to inspection, he allowed a secret, deadly, illegal and inhuman programme to continue: scientists manufacturing anthrax, plague and other unstoppable diseases on an industrial scale. He lied, and all the negotiators lied, when challenged. The programme had already killed dozens in an accidental spill of anthrax spores in Sverdlovsk in 1979, but it continued and grew. Years later Hoffman travelled to the evil heart of this programme, saw the abandoned germ factories, talked to the deluded scientists and defectors who revealed what they had been doing.

And the new edition of his book shows that the legacy is still virulent. Deadly viruses and nerve agents are still there, not accounted for, not properly guarded. Terrorists, Iranians and criminal opportunists are now grasping for the secrets and the discarded apparatus. It will be a long time before the awful legacy of Cold War confrontation is cleaned up from the ruined Russian landscape, and a long time before the world is safe from the weapons the superpowers had once developed to destroy each other.