Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Professor Coat's ruminations on nostalgia are brought into high relief by this new book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, reviewed today in the New York Times. The book is a compendium of the more frightening aspects of Soviet nuclear and defense policy. The "Dead Hand" of the title refers to a mechanism designed to enable low-level officers to launch their arsenal if the elite were wiped out in a massive American attack. "Those officers were the twitching fingers of a dead hand," writes Dwight Garner in his review. The book is apparently chock full of unnerving scenes: desperate unemployed chemical warfare experts walking the streets, creepy innovations in germ warfare, and blundering K.G.B. assumptions about the world beyond their borders. I wonder if the international system was any more stable than it is now. The sum total of conflict was probably kept in restraint by the Soviet-American confrontation, but nothing done or contemplated by North Korea or Iran, or any terrorist organization, is half as frightening as what for the Soviets was a matter of everyday policy.