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'Dead Hand' Re-Examines The Cold War Arms Race

Journalist David E. Hoffman revisits the high stakes maneuverings of the Cold War arms race and details the inner-workings of the Soviet nuclear program in his new book.


Other segments from the episode on October 8, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 8, 2009: Interview with David E. Hoffman; Review of Nicole Mitchell's latest album "Renegade."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Dead Hand' Re-Examines The Cold War Arms Race


This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross.

In one popular version of recent history, President Ronald Reagan
precipitated the end of the Cold War through his words tear down this
wall, and his decision to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative, a
missile shield that was nicknamed Star Wars. A new book reveals how
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev really reacted to those two things,
and credits Gorbachev for being the agent of change in the Cold War. The
book, “Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its
Dangerous Legacy,” uses new evidence - contemporaneous documents,
diaries as well as new interviews - to investigate how Gorbachev and
Reagan actually viewed each other and the dangers we faced from Soviet
weapons we didn’t even know existed. The author is my guest David
Hoffman. He covered the White House during the Reagan years for the
Washington Post and later became the paper’s Moscow bureau chief and
assistant managing editor for Foreign News.

David Hoffman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let’s start with a sense of how
scary things actually got during the Cold War. You call 1983 the year of
the war scare. Let’s start with a good example of why you call it that.
Shortly after Reagan had called the Soviet Union the evil empire in
September of 1983, a Soviet early-warning station received signals that
an American missile attack had begun. Would you describe what happened
at this Soviet early-warning station?

Mr. DAVID HOFFMAN (Author, “Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War
Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy”): Yes. The man on duty was a
specialist in this early-warning system. He knew all of its ins and outs
and its failures and he had helped build it. And he was on duty that
night when a large red light began flashing on the big map. And this
light would flash when there were signs from the satellite of a possible
missile launch. At first, he thought it could be an error - just one
missile. Why would they launch just one missile if this was nuclear war?
But what really frightened him was not too long after that, the whole
thing went red, and this time he saw a banner of words across the top of
the screen he had never seen before that said there was more than one -
there were five missiles launched.

And this really caused him to feel, as he said, his legs were paralyzed.
But he calmly and coolly went through the checklist and the routine -
what to do to see if it was for real. And in the end, he made an
instinctive, a guts decision, that it was a false alarm. And he called
his bosses and said it’s a false alarm.

GROSS: So, it was instinctual. It wasn’t empirical. He had no evidence
that it was a false alarm.

Mr. HOFFMAN: A lot of this is instinctual but he did run some checks.
They were very difficult because the check was to look through something
like a periscope or a telescope and he didn’t see any missiles coming.
But the system in front of him that was set up to be a warning system
was flashing red. So, the instinct was to take the data that he had and
make a call.

GROSS: So, say he made the wrong call. Say he believed the warning
system that said five missiles were heading to the Soviet Union. What
would he have done?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, he would have picked up that phone and told the
headquarters this. And they would have then passed the signal further up
the chain. The chain didn’t go much further than to the Kremlin and the
general staff of the Soviet military. And if it was confirmed that there
were missiles coming or further evidence - there were additional sensors
as time went by - they would wake up the general secretary and the top
military officials - the defense minister - and they’d have to make a
decision about what to do.

And what to do could’ve meant, first of all, asking themselves what
evidence do we have that we’re under attack. But there’s only minutes,
Terry, to make a decision like this. You know, this is one of the most
excruciating scenarios you can imagine if you are the leader of the
United States or the Soviet Union. You have only minutes. And if you
have a fellow in an early-warning station saying, yes, the map is
flashing red, you know, do you press the button based on this
fragmentary information?

Gorbachev told me once in an interview that his greatest fear was that
it would be a flock of geese and somebody would make a mistake.

GROSS: Now, your book is called “The Dead Hand,” and this refers to a
retaliatory system, a kind of automated retaliatory system that Soviets
created. Would you talk about what the dead hand is?

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, the Soviets had a series of very, very old
leaders who had a lot of difficulties governing – Brezhnev, Andropov,
Chernenko. And in this time when their leadership was aging, they gave
some thought to those crucial minutes I described, when you have to make
such a difficult decision. And they thought that they could help those
leaders by creating an alternative system so that the leader could just
press a button that would say: I delegate this to somebody else. I don't
know if there are missiles coming or not. Somebody else decide.

And if that was the case, he would flip on a system that would send a
signal to a deep underground bunker in the shape of a globe where three
duty officers sat. If there were real missiles and the Kremlin were hit
and the Soviet leadership was wiped out, which is what they feared,
those three guys in that deep underground bunker would have to decide
whether to launch very small command rockets that would take off, fly
across the huge vast territory of the Soviet Union and launch all their
remaining missiles.

Now, the Soviets had once thought about creating a fully automatic
system. Sort of a machine, a doomsday machine, that would launch without
any human action at all. When they drew that blueprint up and looked at
it, they thought, you know, this is absolutely crazy. We need a human
firewall. So, that’s where those three guys in the bunker came into
play. But they could only act if the Soviet leader had flipped on the
switch, if their sensors indicated they were really under attack. And
there’s been a big debate about the nature of those three guys. Would
those three guys in the bunker make a decision that they had been
drilled in training for years to make, go down the checklist, if all
signs are go, would they launch the missiles? Or would they be real
people in a crisis situation feeling the shockwaves of nuclear
explosions and wondering what’s the point?

And that answer has never been given. But we know that that system was
built. It was called Perimeter - that was its codename - and it was
designed as a semiautomatic retaliatory system. It would take the
pressure off the Soviet leader. It would provide them a backup in case
they were attacked and the Soviet leaders were wiped out. But it still
left the fate of the earth in the hands of three duty officers deep in
an underground bunker.

GROSS: So, you’ve just described this semiautomatic retaliatory missile
system that the Soviets created. The Soviets kept this system secret,
even though you could argue that it would’ve contributed to the strategy
of deterrence through mutually-assured destruction. Because if the U.S.
knew that the Soviets had this semiautomatic retaliatory system it might
have given the U.S. pause about ever launching a nuclear strike - not
that there weren’t already reasons to pause, but this would be yet
another one. Why do you think the Soviets kept the system secret?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think this was characteristic of the Soviet Union. They
made a lot of really stupid decisions about secrecy. They kept…

GROSS: You think that was a stupid decision?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes, because, as you just pointed out, it would’ve had some
deterrent value if they had told the Americans: If you wipe out our
leadership, we have a way to retaliate. That would cause us to think
twice. But because we didn’t know about it, they built this elaborate
system and they hid it so that it had no deterrent value, and therefore
I think it was more dangerous.

GROSS: How did they hide it?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, one thing is, I mentioned that they would launch this

little command rockets that would order all the other rockets. Those
were disguised so that we couldn’t see that they were any different.
They built this bunker deep underground, and they kept it so secret that
even though we had arms control treaties and discussions with them about
missiles and warheads, this never appeared in any of those discussions.

GROSS: Do you know if the Soviets ever came close to using the dead

Mr. HOFFMAN: Nobody knows for sure. I think probably they drilled on it.
I know it was built. I know that they gave it its final flight test in
November of 1984, and they put it on combat duty early in 1985. And in
the book, I interview the man who brought it to final combat duty and
who did a lot of the engineering and the wiring. And it’s a real system,
and it really exists.

GROSS: How does he feel about it now?

Mr. HOFFMAN: This man who worked on it, his name is Vlaryarinich(ph),
feels that the system is actually a symbol of one of the things we
should think about how to take down after the Cold War. He worked on it,
but he would like to see both the United States and Russia sit down at a
table with the blueprints and take this stuff down, shall we say unplug
it, because it really is a relic from an earlier era.

GROSS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, it’s still plugged in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Are you saying this system is still plugged in?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Terry, we don’t really know if there’s still a switch in
the Kremlin. But that aside, I think the command rockets, the bunker,
the entire perimeter system is still there and waiting. And I think the
command system part of it is still functioning.

The Soviet Union collapsed, and it’s possible that when the Soviet Union
collapsed and became all these independent countries, including the
large one, Russia, and the others, that they changed the command system
so that there isn’t a switch for the Dead Hand right in the Kremlin. I
don’t know, but I’ve been told that that command structure may have
changed. But I do know that the men in the bunker are still there. The
system is still alive. It’s still a command system.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is journalist David Hoffman.
He’s the author of the new book “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the
Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy.” Let’s take a short break
here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is journalist David Hoffman,
and he’s a former White House correspondent for the Washington Post. He
covered the Soviet Union for the Washington Post. Now he has a new book
called “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and
its Dangerous Legacy.”

GROSS: President Reagan had pushed to develop the Strategic Defense
Initiative, the missile shield. Would you describe what Reagan hoped to
achieve with the missile shield?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, Reagan said in the second inaugural address that he
hoped to make nuclear weapons obsolete. In fact, he never accomplished
that. The nuclear weapons are still with us. But the missile shield
project was a dream of Reagan’s, a vision. And it was sort of a ghost
invention, you know, it never was really built on that scale, but the
talk about it had a big, big impact in Moscow.

GROSS: What was the impact the talk of it had in Moscow?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, this is really interesting because, you know, for
many years, we were at the mercy of what the Soviets told us in their
propaganda, in their speeches, in their newspapers. And one of the
things I feel I really accomplished in this book is I got original
documents of what they were saying to each other back then about the
Strategic Defense Initiative. And Gorbachev went through a period of
metamorphosis, of evolution in his thinking. Because at first, when he
first came in, you know, maybe three months after he first took office,
he’s just become the Soviet leader, all the big rocket designers and
constructors in the Soviet Union brought to him a gigantic plan to build
their own Strategic Defense Initiative.

And you can just imagine these guys’ eyes were gleaming at the whole
idea that they’d get more contracts, there’d be more rockets. And
Gorbachev basically looked at them, and he put this plan in the bottom
drawer. He didn’t actually tell them to go out and build it. He was not
fully in control at this time. He had to out-fox them, but he out-waited
them. So the first thing that I think is really important in answer to
the question is Gorbachev did not build his own.

GROSS: But an important implication of what you’re saying is the
Strategic Defense Initiative, that Reagan wanted to make nuclear weapons
obsolete, nearly escalated the arms race. And it was only because
Gorbachev put all this on the back burner and tried to stall it that it
didn’t escalate the arms race.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, let’s go to the next stage. What happened next?
Gorbachev also entertained the idea that instead of building his own
missile defense, he could just do something that the Soviets did very
well, and that would be build more missiles. And this was also a real
plan that I discovered in the documents. Some of the planners said look,
why don’t we overwhelm Reagan’s idea, and let’s take one of our
missiles, the SS-18 - it was the biggest missile in the Soviet arsenal.
At the time, by treaty, it had 10 warheads on each missile. They had
308. Some of those guys said look, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, let’s
put 38 warheads on every single missile. We will triple, quadruple the
number of warheads, and that will overwhelm Reagan’s shield. And
Gorbachev actually raised this with Reagan once at their Geneva Summit
in 1985. It was still his first year. But you know, Terry, Gorbachev
didn’t want to do that, either. He did not want an arms race in space,
and he did not want an arms race on earth. And that in some ways is part
of his contribution. He did not respond to Reagan’s Star Wars by
building his own or building more-dangerous warheads.

GROSS: Now, you say that there were physicists in the Soviet Union who
thought that Reagan’s idea of this missile shield was basically
technically impossible now, that there’s no way the Americans were going
to actually succeed. And there were many – you say there were scientists
in the Soviet Union that were wondering: The Americans must know that

they can’t succeed with this, so why are they going forward?

Mr. HOFFMAN: The physicist was Yuvguini Pavlovich Belikov(ph), and he
told Gorbachev, he said, you know, in the late ‘70s and the early 1980s,
before you came to power, we studied this extensively. And we’re certain
that the physics involved are such that Reagan will never be able to
succeed at shooting down missiles with a laser and that it’ll be
extremely difficult to shoot missiles down in mid-flight. It’s like
hitting a bullet with a bullet.

But of course, this led to a big discussion about Belikov’s conclusion
because the experts in the Soviet Union said - especially a year or two
after Reagan’s speech or three or four years after Reagan’s speech - the
experts said, you know, we really admire the Americans. They are
pragmatic. They build things for reasons, and they do things because
there’s a goal. And we can’t figure out, we cannot understand: Why is
the United States, under Ronald Reagan, spending so much money for
something that we don’t think will work?

GROSS: Do you feel you can answer that question any better now than you
could then, when you were covering the Reagan White House?

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, their answer was to wonder if this was some kind
of iceberg, if there was some huge, hidden part of it. And their answer
was that Reagan was secretly trying to prevent the military-industrial
complex in America from going bankrupt. Well, that was kind of a silly
answer, but it reflected their own military-industrial complex, which
was huge. So their attempts to understand this were confounded. They
were puzzled for years.

I think that Reagan was the kind of person who brought different ideas
together that many people could only see existing independently, and he
fastened them together. And the Star Wars idea appealed to him because
first of all, he really believed that it was possible to do away with
nuclear weapons. He was not one of those deterrence guys that existed

through the Cold War who thought that mutual assured destruction was a
good idea. So the first part was he did have this nuclear abolitionism
that was hidden from us for a long time. And certainly, it was hidden
from me as a correspondent when I was covering him. I didn’t realize it.

Secondly, the joint chiefs of staff in the American military told Reagan
that we have a problem. Congress won’t approve any more big missiles.
The Soviets have many more than we do. What do we do? Reagan saw this as
sort of a way to leap over the canyon for the fact that Congress
wouldn’t give him any more missiles. We’ll build a defense, and we’ll
make them all obsolete.

So Reagan put these ideas together, and then some scientists also told
him, maybe it was possible. Maybe if we do enough research, maybe we can
actually succeed at this. And Reagan had this innate faith in American
technology and innovation, and all this blended together, and that’s
what he was about.

GROSS: You said that some Soviets thought that the real reason why the
Americans were building the missile defense was to prevent the military-
industrial complex from going bankrupt. At the same time, it sounds
like, from your book, that one of the reasons why Gorbachev did not want
the Soviet Union to build their counterpart of Star Wars was he thought
it would bankrupt the Soviet Union.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think that’s exactly right, Terry. Gorbachev was a
visionary. He well understood the military burden on his own country.
And when he took office, and those guys brought him those big plans, if
he had gone along with them like a lot of his predecessors did and built
a Soviet Star Wars, it might’ve bankrupted the Soviet Union. But you
know, there’s been a long myth that Reagan’s Star Wars forced the Soviet
Union to collapse, forced it into bankruptcy. But that’s not really what
happened. Certainly, Reagan’s vision gave them a fright, but in the end,
Reagan didn’t build it, the Soviet Union didn’t build one. And the
Soviet Union imploded of its own weight and its own failures.

Gorbachev was trying to stop that. He was trying to save his country,
and you know, he didn’t really succeed at that, but he might’ve saved
the world.

GROSS: Let’s talk about probably the most famous words that President
Reagan ever uttered, words that were credited by many with helping to
end the Cold War. And would you quote that for us, please?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Reagan was at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. General
Secretary Gorbachev, Reagan declared, if you seek peace, if you seek
prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek
liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

GROSS: Okay, and for many people, those words really kind of set it off
and, you know, led to the end of the Cold War and reflected President
Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War. What impact did you learn those
words actually had on the Soviet leadership?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, Gorbachev was a little bit irritated because he felt
that he had already done a lot and was doing a lot to help end the Cold
War. And this occurred in 1987, when he and Reagan were already well
past Reykjavik and moving toward signing a really important treaty,
which they signed that December, that was the first treaty that wiped
out an entire class of nuclear weapons. It was the European Missiles
Treaty. Those missiles had terrified the Europeans for many years, and
so this was the period when Reagan and Gorbachev were really working
together to get something done.

GROSS: So he was irritated. It wasn’t a spur to tear down the wall, it
was kind of like, don’t you get what I’m already doing here, how hard
I’m trying?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Gorbachev didn’t really understand Reagan nor his rhetoric,
and he felt when Reagan gave that speech at the Brandenburg Gate it was
public relations. Gorbachev felt he was already well on his way towards
slowing down the arms race and that he was also beginning to loosen the
tight grip on Eastern Europe and telling the leaders there that they
would have to find their own way. So actually Gorbachev was the agent of
change over and over again, the person who was thinking way ahead of
Reagan about how to change the world and make it more peaceful and safe.

GROSS: David Hoffman will be back in the second half of the show. His
new book is called “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms
Race and its Dangerous Legacy.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with David Hoffman,
author of the new book "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War
Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy." It's based on documents from inside
the Kremlin as well as diaries, memoirs, records of politburo
discussions and interviews. Hoffman covered the Reagan White House for
the Washington Post and became the paper's Moscow bureau chief after the
Cold War.

Now you write that even during Gorbachev's struggle for disarmament
there was this huge bioweapons and chemical weapons program that was
going at full speed in the Soviet Union. Did Gorbachev know about that?

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, this is a very, very important discovery in my
book because I just finished telling you that Gorbachev was trying to
break the arms race, but this is the one exception and the one
unexplained dark side of the arms race - the illicit side. It was
largely biological weapons.

The Soviet Union had built the largest germ warfare program the world
had ever seen, and at least by 1990, I found documents that Gorbachev
knew about it. I believe, and others believe, that he knew earlier. And
this dark side of the arms race continued when he was a Soviet leader
and it's not clear entirely how hard he may have tried to stop it or if
he tried or what he even knew about it. There are several people inside
the Soviet system who say that as early as 1986 Gorbachev signed an
order, a five-year plan for the biological weapons system. I've never
seen that order. But I do disclose in my book, and I have seen a summary
of the actions of the Central Committee, which is a high level decision-
making body, starting in 1986, there is a resolution in December on
biological weapons.

The first document that actually goes to Gorbachev that I found is not
until 1990, but I found earlier documents that show that his Foreign

Minister, Shevardnadze and his military officials were deeply involved
in it.

GROSS: You know, it makes the whole thing sound a little hypocritical.
Here's, you know, Gorbachev kind of, you know, leading the charge on if
not disarmament, at least limiting, slowing the arms race, but at the
same time there's this illicit growing biological and chemical weapons

Mr. HOFFMAN: There are two sides to Gorbachev that come out of this
research and a lot of the documents I found really shocked me. I found
agendas of meetings with actual names of the attendees checked off, and
at the top of the meeting list, it said: a meeting to discuss work on
special problems. It was so secret, Terry, that they didn’t even write
the word biological weapons on the piece of paper for themselves. They
called it special problems.

GROSS: So what were some of the things that were developing in this
biological and chemical weapons program?

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, the biological weapons program was especially
diabolical because the Soviet Union had lagged in microbiology during
Stalin's time and, you know, the United States and the West were making
great leaps in the life sciences, especially in genetic engineering. So
after the Soviet leaders signed a biological weapons convention and it
went into effect in 1975, they turned around and, secretly and
undercover, started this massive program to build biological weapons by
using genetic engineering.

What they were going to do would be to interfere with - to redesign the
genes of pathogens, to turn them into agents and diseases that the world
had never known, so that if they were used in wartime there'd be no
vaccine, there'd be no antidote. And this would have a horrific affect
on the battlefield or in cities against an enemy that was unprepared.

GROSS: And it could spread around the world, right? I mean, germs aren't

Mr. HOFFMAN: Not only that, but the Soviet military liked to have germ
warfare agents that were contagious.

GROSS: Wow. I mean weren't they thinking about how the Soviets would
also get infected?

Mr. HOFFMAN: They were. And one of the things that really frightened us
is when the first defector came out with the story about this, and we
looked down the list of things they were developing, it was bad enough
that we saw they were working with smallpox and working with anthrax and
other diseases, but one of the fourth or fifth things on the list was we

found that they were working on protective measures to protect
themselves. So we realized that they were actually thinking about what
would happen if they used these because they were designing their own

GROSS: Did any of the germs that they were designing or the anthrax or
the smallpox ever get out and infect people? I know there was an anthrax

Mr. HOFFMAN: Terry, this was more than a scare. There was an epidemic -
an outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk, an industrial city in the Ural
Mountains in 1979. More than 64 people died, and I think that this
secret - the cover-up of this particular outbreak from a nearby military
microbiology facility went on for years. And it kind of became the
symbol for the entire program, because if - the Soviets were asked over
and over again what happened there. And they said at international
meetings and to the press, they said well, it was just contaminated
meat. It was a natural outbreak. But this, of course, wasn’t the truth.
The truth was there had been a leak from this facility, we don't exactly
know how. But they never fessed up to that.

GROSS: So what's - where are all the germs now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How secured are they?

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, one of the things we discovered after the Soviet
Union collapsed was that they didn't only have that one small episode in
Sverdlovsk but that they had gone further and built factories. I'm
talking about big, industrial factories to produce anthrax and smallpox.
And one of these factories they built in far away Kazakhstan, in a small
town called Stepnogorsk,. And they built a factory to create tons of
anthrax agents if war came.

So after the Soviet collapsed, some of these factories were abandoned,
not completely abandoned because they were moth-balled. They were
sitting there in Kazakhstan and an American diplomat found them and some
of them have been destroyed. But I would add that this is not the end of
the story because three of the military's microbiology laboratories in
Russia today have never opened their doors to outsiders. And we don’t
know what's going on there and whether or not work on dangerous
pathogens is still going on.

And I would remind listeners that the United States renounced biological
weapons in 1969. President Nixon said we didn’t need them and we got rid
of our program and closed it down. And when I say renounced it, I mean
we renounced the use of offensive biological weapons for warfare.
Obviously, we continue to study defense. But the Soviet Union created
this giant system called Biopreparat. And everybody was told
Biopreparat, that was for making medicines and pharmaceuticals when, in
fact, deep underneath it was the germ warfare research program.

GROSS: You got to read a lot of communications between President Reagan
and Gorbachev. And I'm wondering: What are some of the things you
learned about how they really felt about each other and what they were
saying to each other behind the scenes, not in the more public comments?

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, it’s fascinating because I think both of them
were both romantics and revolutionaries in entirely different
directions. You know, Gorbachev was moved, in all the years he was a
party apparatchik, to see the poverty of his own people. And when he
finally became Soviet leader, he was not going to come to work in the
morning and say I'm going to end the arms race. He actually came to work
in the morning and said, I have to save my country. And he had a lot of
experience with this - living standards that were low with the huge
strain that his military put on the country.

And Reagan came from a country that was prospering and he was the
champion really of that prosperity, of the march of capitalism. His
anti-communism was well known for decades. But when Reagan came to
office he also harbored this somewhat inner idea that once he came to
work every morning he could make nuclear weapons obsolete. And I must
tell you, as a reporter who covered him all those years, I wrote a lot
about U.S.-Soviet relations and I certainly tried to understand what
Reagan was thinking from their public statements. But this deep nuclear
abolition that he harbored, that he thought about, now comes through.
And it comes through in some of his private writings. We now can read
his diary entries and understand more what he was really thinking. When
there was that movie that was put out during Reagan's term called "The
Day After," which depicted the horrible consequences of nuclear winter
after a nuclear attack, Reagan watched that movie and it had a profound
affect on him. Those who were around him recalled that he was depressed
for a couple of days.

So when these two guys come together they are a little bit of a chemical
reaction because they both have dreams and they both have needs that are
radically different. And I think it took them a little while - certainly
Reykjavik and the experience of almost going all the way toward
abolition and then pulling back - they began to see other whole. And by
1987 they really have a productive year, they eliminate the European
missiles, and then it all stops.

In 1988 Reagan really doesn’t put the muscle in his last year behind
getting deeper cuts in weapons. And by 1989, a new president comes in
the United States who's not as interested. And Gorbachev's enthusiasm...

GROSS: This is H.W. Bush you’re talking about.

Mr. HOFFMAN: That's right, George H.W. Bush. And another thing happens
in Moscow, of course: Gorbachev begins to have real domestic troubles in
1989. His power begins to wane.

GROSS: I still want to get back to the movie "The Day After" a second.
This is the movie that, you know, made-for-TV movie that depicted a
nuclear attack on the United States and how horrible it would be. I'm
always a little confounded and disturbed when I hear how moved President
Reagan was about that. And here’s why: Everything that was in that movie
about what would happen, I’d already heard that from so many experts,
from doctors, from physicists, from, you know, political experts.
Journalists were writing about it. And to think that Reagan didn’t know
this, that he hadn't thought about the extent of that devastation until
seeing a made-for-TV movie, when the information was already out there.
What does that say?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Terry, he was a Hollywood man through and through and to
him, a made-for-TV movie was much more powerful than all of those
briefing books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don’t know. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: Look, in his diary Reagan wrote: Columbus Day, in the
morning at Camp David I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the
air November 20. It's called "The Day After." It has Lawrence, Kansas,
wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It's powerfully done - all $7
million worth. It's very effective. It left me greatly depressed. So
far, they haven't sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to
have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.

Those were Reagan's words written in his own diary at the time. That's
not a press release. That's the man speaking.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: And Edmund Morris, his official biographer said that Reagan
was dazed by this film and four days later was still fighting off the
depression caused by "The Day After."

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is journalist David Hoffman.
He's the author of the new book "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the
Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy." Let's take a short break
here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is journalist David Hoffman.
We're talking about his new book "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the
Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy."

Just give us a sense of the arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet
Union - the extent of the nuclear weapons and biological weapons that
were out there and maybe out of control.

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there were still
tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. And we didn’t know it at the time,
but the Soviets had had a very lax system for keeping track of nuclear
materials. So there was uranium and plutonium spread over this country.
Remember, the Soviet Union was 11 time zones. And furthermore, there was
the secret biological weapons that we didn’t know much about, and there
were chemical weapons, which we did know where they were located. And,
of course, since the Soviet Union collapsed and there were a lot of
individual new countries - Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus all had
nuclear weapons on their soil.

Furthermore, the Soviets had stationed thousands of these small so-
called tactical weapons all around and they had to bring those back on
trains, on rickety trains, as fast as they could. So it was a scary

GROSS: Describe Operation Sapphire and how that worked?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Operation Sapphire was one of the most dramatic moments in
these years just after the Soviet collapse. An American diplomat, Andy
Webber, got a tip from a man who was in charge of a metals factory in
Kazakhstan. Andy was a diplomat in Kazakhstan. He got a tip on a piece
of paper. And the tip was that there were hundreds of pounds of highly
enriched uranium. And by that I mean uranium that could be used for
making a nuclear weapon in a warehouse, in this metals factory.

So Webber told people in Washington, and they organized a tiger team, an
emergency team, and they worked with the Kazakhs who didn’t really want
the stuff. They found that the uranium had been abandoned by the Soviets
after the collapse. It had been put there because they were building a
new submarine and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the submarine project
was abandoned. All this uranium, 90 percent enriched, laying in big
canisters that look like hotel coffee pots, on sheets of plywood, in a
Kazakh warehouse.

So the United States paid millions of dollars to the Kazakhs and
conducted a secret operation. It was not announced ahead of time. A
group of 35 Americans flew there in secret, in big transport planes,
packed up that uranium over a month, and then on a cold snowy day put it
into those C5 transport planes and flew it all the way back to the
United States. And the reason they did this is that the Iranians were
looking all over Central Asia for this kind of uranium. And if Iran had
gotten its hands on it, it certainly would have help accelerate their
efforts to build a nuclear weapon.

GROSS: So the Americans paid Kazakhstan millions of dollars to take
their uranium away. Were we in a way trying to outbid a potential
Iranian bid for that uranium?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Absolutely. And we didn’t want Iran to get to the point
where they could make a bid.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: We’re one step ahead of them. The Kazakhs wanted to be rid
of it. Remember, their country had been the nuclear testing site for the
Soviet Union. They had health problems. There was too much of these
nuclear materials around for them. So - and we knew they wanted to get
rid of it. They also inherited a bunch of nuclear weapons when the
Soviet Union collapsed, and they gave those back to Russia. So I think
it was kind of an open-bazaar time, and one of the things that really
shocked the Americans when they went to do this is they found a crate of
beryllium. Beryllium is an element that is used to making nuclear
weapons. And the crate had an address on it: Tehran.

GROSS: And we still have a lot of that threat out there. There are still
weapons out there. There are still biological and nuclear weapons out
there. So there’s still a lot of work to be done right, right? I mean,
you know, out there from the Soviet Union days.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, we’ve been gradually and slowly cutting up some of
the rockets and missiles and nuclear weapons. We are very, very slowly
getting rid of the chemical weapons, but they also are still there. I’ll
just give you an example. You remember the Tokyo subway attack, when Aum
Shinrikyo put that Sarin, that nerve gas - that was 159 ounces of nerve
gas, which caused that terrible Tokyo subway disaster. But today, still,
in a warehouse in Southern Russia, in a place called Shchuch’ye, there
are tons and tons and tons of munitions filled with that nerve gas.
We’re – the Russians have only in the past year started up a factory to
gradually get rid of that stuff. Those projectiles filled with nerve gas
sit there today.

GROSS: Do you feel like there is any lessons from your book about the
end of the Cold War that could be applied to how to handle Iran, how to
deal with Iran, now that Iran seems to be very close to developing a
nuclear weapon?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes, there are some really important lessons. One of them
is that old slogan of Reagan’s, you know, trust but verify. One of the
things I found when I was going through these documents of what the
Soviets were saying to themselves inside the Kremlin is that they were
not interested really in getting caught cheating. And when we would talk
about rigorous and tough verification, that we were going to check
things, they listened. It was only when we weren’t looking, when we had
that biological weapons treaty that had no verification, that they felt
free to cheat.

One lesson, of course, it’s just really, really important, to make sure
you go ahead with this thing that jargon calls verification. The second
thing is this. When Gorbachev came in and had these radical notions
about how he was going to slow the arms race and save his country from
ruin, we didn’t see it. In fact, we were so locked into the Cold War
that we saw in Gorbachev maybe a younger Andropov, a younger Brezhnev,
an old orthodox guy maybe in a better suit.

And our intelligence about Gorbachev in those early years was way behind
the curve. And this is an important lesson for Iran. When we see that
the Iranians are building a new nuclear enrichment facility, what do we
really know about what they’re thinking? So the second lesson is you
need really good intelligence, you need to know what your enemy is

GROSS: David Hoffman, I really want to thank you for talking with us. I
really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Mr. HOFFMAN: My pleasure.

GROSS: David Hoffman’s new book is called “The Dead Hand: The Untold
Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy.”
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Nicole Mitchell’s ‘Renegade’ Jazz


Flutist Nicole Mitchell is a key player on Chicago’s jazz scene,
improvising in various small groups, writing for her own ensembles, and
making a small shelf’s worth of CDs. Recently she’s written music in
honor of two women who inspired her - Alice Coltrane and Michelle Obama.
The Obama tribute, “Honoring Grace,” premiered at Chicago’s Spertus
Museum in September. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Mitchell’s music
strikes a rare balance between the adventurous and accessible.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: To me, Nicole Mitchell is one of the most engaging
composer- performers in jazz now. She’s a terrific improviser on flute
and piccolo with a clear and forceful sound. But she writes well for
improvisers too. Starts with catchy phrases that seem almost too simple
and then brings on the complications. Her new album “Renegades” matches
exploratory playing with deep rhythm grooves and a tight ensemble blend.
The group is new to record, her Black Earth Strings – flute, three
strings and Shirazette Tinnin’s percussion. A lineup of flute and
strings may have you picturing jazz and pastels, but this is a tough
little quintet - 80 percent women, by the way.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The band is new. But two players are long time Mitchell
allies. Tomeka Reid’s cello beats up the ensemble sound and the
excellent bass player, Josh Abrams, ties everyone’s time together.
Nicole Mitchell has worked with larger and smaller bands but this
quintet feels like a good fit, just large enough to juggle polyrhythmic
cycles and small enough to keep textures transparent and give everyone
pivotal roles. They got that interlocking groove thing down.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Nicole Mitchell is a mainstay of Chicago’s Association for
the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization which ignores
boundaries between musical genres. In that spirit, her violinist is a
classical musician blooming as an improviser, Renee Baker. Mixing jazz
and classical players doesn’t always work, but Mitchell gets the best
out of both, gets chamber music delicacy and cohesion with strong
individuals and a propulsive beat.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: As a composer, Nicole Mitchell has ranged between the high
art of last year’s xenogenesis sweep and populist anthems of self
improvement. One of those makes a token appearance here. Like most
artists who test their expressive range, she does some things better
than others. But the album “Renegades” finds her zeroing in on what she
does best, which means Nicole Mitchell’s music just keeps getting

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches at the University of Kansas. And he is a
jazz columnist for He reviewed “Renegades,” the new album by
flutist Nicole Mitchell and her ensemble Black Earth Strings on the
Delmark label.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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