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“The Dead Hand” by David E. Hoffman Critical Essay

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Updated: Dec 27th, 2019

Summary of the Thesis

After the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there were still huge amounts of nuclear weapons that left on the face of the earth. In an interview, David Hoffman who is the author of the book, The Dead End, stated that at the present moment, the world has over 23,000 nuclear warheads (Hoffman, 2010). These are weapons that are capable of destroying the world over a million times.

It is due to this fact that Hoffman was astonished by the amount of nuclear power that USA and Russia has at the present moment. This is almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

With these stunning facts, Hoffman was curious to re-examine the history of how USA and USSR assembled these huge amounts of destructive power, the dangers that the world was facing and the individuals who were responsible of bringing the arms race to an end. This is the main thesis of the book, The Dead End.

Other books that have been written about the cold war only represent the American perspective of the story. Due to this fact, these books normally credit the US under the administration of Ronal Reagan to have ended the war. However, Hoffman has brought in a new perspective into the issue that has changed history as we know it. He was an editor at Washington during the cold war.

As a result, he had first hand information of what was going on with regards to the arms race from the perspective of the Americans. On the other hand, Hoffman was also privileged to work in Moscow during the beginning of the 21st century.

While at Moscow, he was privileged to get concrete evidence that revealed the Russians point of view of the cold war. With the combination of this information, Hoffman has brought out a clear understanding of how these two super powers viewed the arms race and the efforts was put to end the cold war.

Critical Analysis of the Book

The cold war lasted from 1946 to 1991. During this time, there was political, military and economic tension between USSR and the Western Powers primarily the United States. USSR and US were competing for superiority and improving the status of national security. Instead of increasing peace and security in the world, the cold the outcome of the cold war was an increase in tension among these states.

In addition, the entire world was at the risk of coming to extinction. This is because these countries (the United States and USSR) built massive nuclear and chemical weapons that would end the world at an instance. The cold war however took a turn in during the 1980s.

This was the time when the war was at its peak. After Ronald Reagan was elected the president of the United States and Gorbachev became the president of USSR, it was expected that the intensity of the cold war would increase.

Both of these states felt that is was essential to protect and prepare themselves for a nuclear attack. To ensure that this goal is achieved, it was expected that these countries would undertake massive nuclear projects. However, this was not to happen as these leaders decided to take a different path, a path that did not aim at increasing nuclear and military power but to end the arms race.

The books begins with an outbreak of anthrax in areas that surround Sverdlovsk in late 1979. There were reported deaths of individuals at hospital facilities No. 20 and 24. The deaths kept on increasing with time. The symptoms that these individuals showed suggested that they had been infected by anthrax (Hoffman, 2010).

To ensure that this diagnosis was correct, autopsies of the dead bodies were conducted. Although it is against the medical profession to conduct autopsies for dead bodies from antrax, the state made the doctors and pathologists to continue with the exercise (Hoffman, 2010). An analysis of these bodies showed that the lungs and other internal organs had been badly damaged by the anthrax spores (Hoffman, 2010).

It was believed that these spores had leaked from compound 19. This facility comprised of laboratories that were used for the development and testing of deadly pathogens (Hoffman, 2010). Anthrax was one of the spores that was being tested.

It appeared that the spores had been accidentally released from the compound into the atmosphere, infected and killed many workers of compound 19 and many other individuals who were living in the vicinity. Indeed, USSR was developing anthrax and other pathogens to be used as biological weapons against its enemies in case war erupted. This was among the main objective of USSR during the cold war.

Russia also felt that it was essential to have a defensive mechanism in case of a nuclear missile attack. It had built several bases that would detect any missile that was towards them. In addition, the country had built many nuclear missiles and atomic warheads for its defence. This ensured that the country was ready to defend itself in case a nuclear war occurred.

On the other hand, the Americans were also keen to know what their rivals were doing in terms of the manufacture of nuclear weapons. To defend themselves from a nuclear attack, USA had also embarked on several nuclear projects. In 1979, Ronald Reagan visited the North American Air defence Command centre that was located at the Cheyenne Mountains in Colorado.

While at the facility, he was shown how the country will react in case of a nuclear attack. However, he was stunned to know that in case of an SS-18 missile attack from USSR, the nation will be vulnerable to the attack. To make the matters worse, the nation will only have around 10 to 15 minutes to react before the blast. This was not enough to conduct an evacuation operation. As a result, many innocent lives may be lost.

The only option that the United States had was to retaliate by launching another missile to its enemies. This in turn implied that more innocent lives will be lost in the Soviet Union. Reagan thus saw that the only outcome that a nuclear war had was to kill innocent lives.

This was immoral and no possible good can ever come out of it. However, once elected as president, Reagan launched the Star Wars project that protected the nation from a nuclear attack from space (Hoffman, 2010).

Despite the nuclear power that they had, the Soviet Union felt inferior to the United States. This was due to Star Wars project. People at the Soviet Union expected that Gorbachev would retaliate by coming up with a newer and deadlier project. However, he did not. Due to this, senior generals and physicist suggested various options to the president. The first option was to embark on a better space defence program than Star wars.

Other felt that the Soviet Union should follow a different path from that of the United States. They suggested that the president should build more SS-18 missiles that had 38 warheads in each missile. This was an increase from the 10 warheads that a normal SS-18 had. The outcome of this missile would be 18 times stronger that the nuclear bomb that was used in Hiroshima. Gorbachev did not act on any of this.

It was until after the outcome of the Chernobyl disaster that Gorbachev finally decided to eliminate all the nuclear weapons by the end of the 20th century. At this time, Reagan realised that Gorbachev had the same ideologies as him with regards to nuclear weapons.

This led to a number of summits that negotiated the end of the production of nuclear weapons. Although no agreement was arrived at, the arms race came to an end in 1991. By 1991, the Soviet Union was disintegrated and this led to the end of the cold war.

Strengths of the Book

The book gives a deep explanation of the events that were going on during the cold war from the two sides that were involved; USA and USSR. From the explanations of the book, it is evident that the arms race came about as a result of fear of inferiority and threats of an attack from the other side. However, the book has shown that both sides wanted the arms race to come to an end.

Ronal Reagan and President Gorbachev exhibited this. The efforts that these individuals put had a remarkable impact on ending the arms race. From this book, one is able to understand the factors that led to the growth and development of the arms race and the reasons that it was brought to an end.


Hoffman, D. (2010). The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. Washington: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

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