Listen free for 30 days

The Dead Hand

The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy
Narrated by: Bob Walter
Length: 20 hrs and 46 mins
Categories: History, American
4.5 out of 5 stars (133 ratings)

£7.99/month after 30 days. Cancel anytime

Summary

Pulitzer Prize, General Nonfiction, 2010

This riveting narrative history of the end of the arms race sheds new light on the frightening last chapters of the Cold War and the legacy of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that remain a threat today.

During the Cold War, world superpowers amassed nuclear arsenals containing the explosive power of one million Hiroshimas. The Soviet Union secretly plotted to create the "Dead Hand," a system designed to launch an automatic retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States, and developed a fearsome biological warfare machine. President Ronald Reagan, hoping to awe the Soviets into submission, pushed hard for the creation of space-based missile defenses.

In the first full account of how the arms race finally ended, The Dead Hand provides an unprecedented look at the inner motives and secret decisions of each side. Drawing on top-secret documents from deep inside the Kremlin, memoirs, and interviews in both Russia and the United States, David Hoffman introduces the scientists, soldiers, diplomats, and spies who saw the world sliding toward disaster and tells the gripping story of how Reagan, Gorbachev, and many others struggled to bring the madness to an end. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the danger continued, and the United States began a race against time to keep nuclear and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists and and rogue states.

©2009 David Hoffman (P)2009 Random House

Critic reviews

"A stunning feat of research and narrative. Terrifying." (John le Carré)
"In The Dead Hand, David Hoffman has uncovered some of the Cold War's most persistent and consequential secrets - plans and systems designed to wage war with weapons of mass destruction, and even to place the prospective end of civilization on a kind of automatic pilot. The book's revelations are shocking; its narrative is intelligent and gripping. This is a tour de force of investigative history." (Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens)

What members say

Average customer ratings

Overall

  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    83
  • 4 Stars
    36
  • 3 Stars
    11
  • 2 Stars
    2
  • 1 Stars
    1

Performance

  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    81
  • 4 Stars
    22
  • 3 Stars
    5
  • 2 Stars
    2
  • 1 Stars
    1

Story

  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    82
  • 4 Stars
    19
  • 3 Stars
    7
  • 2 Stars
    1
  • 1 Stars
    2

Reviews - Please select the tabs below to change the source of reviews.

Sort by:
Filter by:
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Gripping story of the cold war arms race

Any additional comments?

This is an excellent retelling of the nuclear arms race between east and west, including the not so well known history of the biological weapons race. It's a fascinating period of history when world war three actually seemed like a possibility. The main focus is on the later Reagan/Gorbachev era. Superbly read. Highly recommended.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

A great review

Like other recent history narratives, this was an enthralling canter through some of the critical years of the Cold War and its aftermath. The only reason I’m not recording it as a 5* listen is that it seemed to lack a focus, or boundaries - it didn’t cover all the Cold War, or cover all the Nuclear weapon issues or all the BW issues. Instead, it tended to dip in and out of moments and issues - with extraordinary detail, granted - so that I was left better educated but rather unsure what the central thesis was. I personally preferred Schloss’s Command and Control, which had a particular focus and a linking narrative. But none of that should take away from the fact this was an extremely well researched, written and read audiobook that kept my attention throughout.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Thorough, Detailed but often a bit boring

I read this because I wanted to learn more about the cold war. This book provides a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the development of biological and nuclear weapons and negotiations for their reduction. It focuses mainly on the stories of Russian politicians and scientists that were responsible for the development and cover-up of weapons.



My problem with the book is that the story of the cold war - although horrifying and ridiculous is not all that gripping. Changes to the stance of either side or successes in bringing about the end of the cold war are not clearly directly related to the events that happen in it. There is a long stand-off, a series of submits and then the end comes about because of social change within Europe. For me the book gets too lost in the details of the careers of specific people whose part in the overall story isn't significant.



On this audio version there is also a glitch so that the audio jumps at (if I remember correctly) about 9 hours in so we lose a section.



No doubt this is a thorough review of the events of the cold war, but I suspect the abridged version covers more than enough for most people.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

EXCELLENT BOOK!!!

David Hoffman well documented and extraordinary way of writing shows us the race of the superpowers to keep their supremacy at any cost. A must read for everyone who wants to understand how governments use their power and funds to create weapons that can destroy our world in a blink.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Amazing disturbing even terrifying detail of what has gone on beneath the radar.

I thoroughly recommend this book. The immense amount of research needed to produce this untold story can only be imagined. The second half of the book is especially disturbing as it details Russia’s nuclear and biological warfare programmes. A five star book.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Gorby noooo!

This is an extremely intriguing insight into the people and events of the Cold War arms race.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

superb narration

Started slow but then suckered me in and I really enjoyed it. the narrator did I great job - sounded like Ronald Reagan (though he wasn't doing an impression, his voice was just similar)

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Fantastic and very accurate account...

Fantastic and more importantly accurate account of some of the cold war and the collapse of the USSR and the chaos that ensued.
great narrator

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Fantasic

The reading is very good and keeping you in the story. the story is well written and constructed which make it easy to follow and to diggest.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Great history

Absolutely loved this book and such an amazing piece of history that is still with us to this day.

Sort by:
Filter by:
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Brian
  • Brian
  • 16-11-10

Eye opening

I would strongly disagree with the reviewer who called it "asinine." The author is not sympathetic to one side or another, he mostly presents a factual history of the end of the cold war. He DOES however attempt to relate what Gorbachev and Reagan were thinking during tense moments by quoting from their personal notes and diaries. It does allow the author to paint a more human picture of Gorbachev, one of a man who was interested in ending the arms race. Perhaps this ins't palatable to someone who grew up mid-century and understandably objects to any gentle portrayal of Soviet leadership.

It also paints an interesting picture of Reagan - who like Bush II - was obsessed by technological possibility. It makes Reagan seem almost naive in his conviction that technology could somehow bring peace to the world through SDI. The moment where Gorbachev offers Reagan complete nuclear disarmament in exchange for non-deployment of space based lasers - only to have Reagan reject the offer - is amazing. Having grown up at the end of the last century, much of this material is new relative to what you learn in standard history courses (and I took plenty of them). It's been a truly enlightening read to understand how we've arrived at our current state. A recent issue of Foreign Affairs has an essay suggesting that we are still in a cold war defense mentality - expanding our weapons systems and technology - when in fact this strategy no longer serves our national interest. And this book explains exactly why we think this way.

With regard to content - the "asinine" reviewer is correct. There isn't much about The Dead Hand aside from a general overview. But the true purpose of the book is to help understand the development and legacy of weapons of mass destruction created by the Soviets. It is easily one of the best audiobooks I've ever listened to and an essential read to understand the end of the cold war.

42 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Andrew
  • Andrew
  • 01-07-10

Credible study into Russia's weapons programmes

This certainly was an in depth study of the weapons systems created by both the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent America; the politics surrounding them, and the consequences of their creation. It is clear the author researched the subject deeply in this academic standard publication. That some subjects were only discussed in passing was because they were peripheral to the subject of the book; lightly covered is not the same as simplistic and this is far from simplistic book.
It is rare to find a book of this standard in audible. Usually they are in university bookstores. That Foreign Affairs rates this book highly speaks for itself also. More please.
Essential listening for cold war students.

27 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Terry Masters
  • Terry Masters
  • 11-07-15

Good Read, But No So Much About the Dead Hand

This book is a well-researched informative read, although the title is somewhat misleading: while the Dead Hand and nuclear weapons are covered, more detailed exposition is devoted to Soviet-era chemical and biological weapons programs and the relevant political/diplomatic events preceding and during the unraveling of the USSR. Reagan and Gorbachev are discussed at length, as is the history and operation of the Soviet anthrax program. Nuclear weapons and pre-1980 US-USSR relations and weapons programs are covered, but to a lesser extent than one might expect given the book's title.

Though my curiosity re: the dead hand hasn't been fully satiated, there are some fascinating details and insights in this book. The author has succeeded in shedding some new light on a topic shrouded in secrecy, and, as such, helped communicate the terrible nature of these weapons, the political dynamics that led to their creation, and the successes and failures of the mechanisms setup to curb their proliferation.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Roy
  • Roy
  • 23-10-10

Informative

This book fills the listener in on what took place during the Cold War Arms Race and humanizes it in terms of the key players. Gripping, alarming, troubling - everything you thought took place did, but not always in the way(s) you thought. For example, it came as a deep revelation to Ronald Regan that the Russians were afraid of the US and what the leadership might do. His thinking was turned on its head. This is a history of the Cold War and how it came to an end. More importantly, it is informative history filled with insights and lessons to be drawn. Hoffman's detailed research of Russian and US documents and remembrance yields here a very valuabe addition to our understanding of that era. Hoffman's writing is wonderful and the reading of Bob Walter is more than adquate for the task. This is not dry history...it is worth the time of anyone even tangentially interested in the period covered.

18 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Victor
  • Victor
  • 03-02-14

Well researched with a lot of Soviet perspective

Would you consider the audio edition of The Dead Hand to be better than the print version?

This is an excellent book on Cold War history. What makes it unique is that there is a lot of discussion of what actually happened in the Soviet Union and what Soviet leaders where thinking which is severely lacking in other books on this topic. To get a true picture of historical events, you must always consider both sides of the story before you can start to see past the propaganda to what really happened. This book is the best source I have found for this so far.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

I was unaware of the extent of the Soviet bio-weapons programs. Shocking and scary stuff.

Any additional comments?

Well worth the time if you are interested in Cold War history. Highly recommended.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for David
  • David
  • 10-06-13

Life can only be understood in retrospect ....

This is an extraordinary story, compellingly told from different perspectives - from the victims of an anthrax 'accident' at a secret laboratory, to a well-informed scientist defecting to the West, to Reagan and Gorbachev's private thoughts as they struggled to understand each other's beliefs, motives and ultimate goals. Living through this period of history simply provided the signpost events that were public knowledge at the time - and little or nothing of the context in which those events were set, or the secrets that are required to truly make sense of what was happening. David Hoffman does an extraordinary job in weaving multiple historical strands into a grand tapestry. The fears that we common people harboured about nuclear annihilation, or chemical or biological devastation were well placed, and if not for some well-intentioned people on both sides of the divide, and a lot of luck, those fears might well have been realised. It places the current fears concerning weapons proliferation in the Middle East - particularly in Iran - into stark relief. It also emphasises the absolute necessity of open, honest dialogue, and accurate knowledge in dealing with belligerent states. Bob Walter does a superb job of narration, and convinced me of his command of Russian pronunciation. Highly recommended.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Geoffrey
  • Geoffrey
  • 21-01-13

Thoroughly researched and compellingly conveyed

Would you listen to The Dead Hand again? Why?

For those interested in the Cold War and its legacy this is a terrific book. Three things remain with me after listening to it. First, the massive resources, both human and material, that were devoted to either our mutual destruction or the prevention of our mutual destruction (depending on where in the mad circle you choose to begin your analysis) are a sad comment on human nature. Second, notwithstanding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the danger remains and is likely greater. Third, the legacy of the arms race is not merely nuclear weapons but also biological weapons, and given the relative ease of making those weapons the danger they pose is that much greater.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Dead Hand?

The specific events that I remember from the news assumed a greater signifance and were put in context. The Chernobyl disaster for example and the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007.

What does Bob Walter bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

Mr. Walter read the book well. There is a hint of accent in the words attributed to Eastern European characters but it is not over done. He did not insert himself into the account by conveying belief or disbelief at various claims made by the participants in these events.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Soopie
  • Soopie
  • 11-09-11

Interesting and Scary

I lived through these times but purposely did not read the paper or listen to the news. I knew I had no control over events and I did not want to think about them. As I child of the 60's who went to a school which had a sign with an arrow to the "Fall Out Shelter" I assumed that nuclear war was a matter of when. I half heard the news through th 80's through osmosis.

This book was great. Now the greatest danger is past it is great to read about it. I think the author gives Reagen far too much credit. Gorbachev truly deserves credit for really trying a new way. Maybe Reagen deserves credit for realizing Gorbachev was a truly different leader.

Anyways we were lucky that a nuclear war didn't happen by accident.

There is still a lot of scary stuff in existence in the world - pathogens and chemicals and nuclear materials. But somehow it feels a lot more under control.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for nate carlson
  • nate carlson
  • 30-09-19

Simultaneously fascinating and terrifying.

Listen to this book to fill in the gaps in knowledge surrounding Cold War politicking and weapons programs. This was a riveting listen for all 20 hours. Bravo Mr Hoffman.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for john
  • john
  • 29-08-19

Must read! History is repeating itself as we speak in regards to this topic!

This book was absolutely fascinating and a lot eye opening! I couldn’t get enough of the fact filled first hand accounts of Cold War history. It’s written and narrated so well. I felt like I was in the 80’s and 90’s again but this time with a birds eye view of events that shaped the world. If you watched the HBO series “Chernobyl” you will appreciate this book. It is brimming with inside details of events we heard of and so many that were covered up. I loved the show “The Americans” I imagine this book was key in the research they did on the show. The writer of “The Americans” was a retired CIA agent. It has a familiar Cold War tone. After listening to this book I have a new appreciation for the nuclear arms agreement that took several administrations and regimes to establish. I’m saddened for the previous stewards of peace that this arms agreement recently has fallen to the waste bin. It’s almost a crime that this book isn’t mandatory reading for all political science majors or politicians on a global front. I was blown away (for lack of a better term) when several chapters into the book it was disclosed what “The Dead Hand” is. It’s has nothing to do with poker and Wild Bill Hickok! I’m now awakened to the threat of biological weapons. Our future may be determined by a biological or chemical event that we should fear as much if not more than nuclear. I had to listen to a couple chapters twice just to be sure I actually heard what I heard! If this book falls of deaf ears we will all pay the price. If you want a behind the scenes view of events that changed the world or will change the world then read this book. It flies by and your jaw will be dropped! David E Hoffman’s gift to future generations. I hope someone important is listening.

1 person found this helpful