The Dead Hand by David E Hoffman

£9.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Dead Hand by David E Hoffman

Reviewed by Christopher Hirst

The sub-title "Reagan, Gorbachev and the untold story of the cold war arms race" is less than enticing, and the suggestion of dull worthiness is not dispelled by the book having won the Pulitzer Prize. But you're hooked from page one with an account of a mysterious epidemic in the Urals in 1979. It could be the screenplay for the new blockbuster, Contagion. "There are dead bodies, people still alive, lying together," wrote a doctor. "This is a nightmare. Something is very, very wrong." It certainly was. A leak of anthrax spores from a secret military microbiology facility killed 60.

Contagion gives way to Dr Strangelove as Hoffman moves on to an early warning station outside Moscow, where one night in 1983 the system flashed into life. A US missile attack on Russia was given the status of "High Reliability". Missiles would have been readied for launch against America but for a cool-headed colonel.

Every page of this big book about the final spasms of the US-Soviet arms race is packed with interest. Though Gorbachev and Reagan were convinced of the need to reduce arms stocks, weapons of mass destruction were inscribed in the military DNA of both superpowers. The title of Hoffman's chilling investigation was borrowed from a retaliatory system considered by Soviet leaders in the early Eighties that would operate if the normal command system were destroyed. "Computers would memorise the early warning and nuclear attack data... then order the retaliation without human control."

Eventually, Dead Hand was dropped but a response system called Perimeter was introduced in 1985. This last resort depended on "relatively junior duty officers" sitting in underground bunkers, who under certain conditions would press the button for nuclear response. "There would be no communications with the outside world, no negotiating... and no recalling the command rockets when launched."

When they first met in 1985, Gorbachev and Reagan represented superpowers with a joint stockpile of 60,000 nuclear warheads. Their agreement to dismantle this mountain of death prompted the attempted coup d'etat against Gorbachev in 1991. Today, their stockpile amounts to 23,000 nuclear warheads, 95 per cent of the world total. While urging the continued destruction of nuclear weapons, Hoffman concludes that a greater danger comes from terrorists developing pathogens.