TERRY GROSS, host:
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 hand?
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 program.
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 confined.
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 protection.
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 scare.
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 why.
(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.
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 time.
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.
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 thinking.
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."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.