Military history

—————  INTRODUCTION  —————

This book is the story of people—presidents, scientists, engineers, diplomats, soldiers, spies, scholars, politicians and others—who sought to brake the speeding locomotive of the arms race. They recoiled from the balance of terror out of personal experience as designers and stewards of the weapons, or because of their own fears of the consequences of war, or because of the burdens that the arsenals placed on their peoples.

At the center of the drama are two key figures, both of them romantics and revolutionaries, who sensed the rising danger and challenged the established order. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, abhorred the use of force and championed openness and “new thinking” in hopes of saving his troubled country. Ronald Reagan, fortieth president of the United States, was a master communicator and beacon of ideals who had an unwavering faith in the triumph of capitalism and American ingenuity. He dreamed of making nuclear weapons obsolete, once and for all.

They were not alone. Many others with imagination, determination, guile and conscience sought to rein in the danger. The goal of the book is to tell the story of how the Cold War arms race came to an end, and of its legacy of peril—and to tell it from both sides. Too often in the past, the history has been obscured by American triumphalism, which reflected only one side, or by secrecy and disinformation in Moscow, which masked what really happened inside the Soviet Union and why. With fresh evidence, it is now possible to see more clearly the deliberations that unfolded behind closed doors in the Kremlin during Gorbachev’s tumultuous rule. It was there, in arguments, meetings, documents and phone calls, that Gorbachev, deftly maneuvering and cajoling, faced off against the entrenched and powerful forces of the military-industrial complex and began a radical change in direction. It was there Gorbachev decided to abandon whole missile systems; turn the Soviet Union away from global confrontation; cut military spending and troops in Europe; and take the blueprint for a colossal Soviet “Star Wars” missile defense system, which designers and engineers had laid on his desk, and bury it in his bottom drawer. It is also possible with the new evidence, especially diaries and contemporaneous documents, to see more clearly how Gorbachev and Reagan viewed each other, how their perceptions fed into actions and how they wrestled with their own internal conflicts, ideology and an enormous stockpile of mistrust to lead the world, haltingly, out of the years of confrontation.

While nuclear weapons were the overwhelming threat of the epoch, another frightening weapon of mass casualty was being grown in flasks and fermenters. From 1975 to 1991, the Soviet Union covertly built the largest biological weapons program in the world. Soviet scientists experimented with genetic engineering to create pathogens that could cause unstoppable diseases. If the orders came, Soviet factory directors were ready to produce bacteria by the ton that could sicken and kill millions of people. The book explores the origins and expansion of this illicit, sprawling endeavor, for which Russia has yet to give a full accounting.

Much of the writing about the end of the Cold War stops at the moment the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, or when the Soviet flag was lowered on the Kremlin in December 1991. This book attempts to go further. It begins with the peak of tensions in the early 1980s, leads us through the remarkable events of the Reagan and Gorbachev years and then shows how the Soviet collapse gave way to a race against time, an urgent search for the nuclear and biological hazards that were left behind.

The book will begin with the “war scare” of 1983, a period of confrontation, anger and danger. But to understand it, we must first see the gathering storm in the decades that preceded it, a great contest of wills, a duel of deterrence. The atomic bomb was never used in combat in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, 1947–1991. Rather, the two sides held each other in a balance of terror by deploying thousands of nuclear weapons on missiles, submarines and strategic bombers. Over decades, the danger intensified as the weapons were invented and reinvented to carry enormous destructive power, enhanced by ever-faster delivery, superaccuracy and invulnerability.

In the words of one of the early nuclear strategists, Bernard Brodie, the atomic bomb was the “absolute weapon” that would change warfare forever.1 The bomb greatly increased the chance that it would be regular people who would die at the start. As a group of six Harvard professors put it in a study in 1983: “For the first time in history, nuclear weapons offer the possibility of destroying a country before one has defeated or destroyed its armed forces.” And nuclear war would certainly come faster than any war in history. It might be over in a matter of hours. It might start before leaders could rethink their decisions or change their minds. It could lead to the death of millions of people even before a false alarm was discovered to be false.2

At the outset of the Cold War, the United States threatened the Soviet Union with a single, devastating blow aimed at cities and industry. The first American nuclear weapons each weighed thousands of pounds, and were to be carried by lumbering strategic bombers that would take hours to reach their targets. By contrast, a half century later, the warhead on a missile could be delivered across oceans in thirty minutes. Rear Admiral G. P. Nanos, director of Strategic Systems Programs in the U.S. Navy, said in 1997 that if one drew a circle with a radius the length of the Trident submarine—560 feet—the warheads on a Trident II D5 missile could be accurately targeted into that circle from a distance of four thousand nautical miles.3

But this achievement in power and deadly accuracy inspired a profound dread among those who might one day have to press the button launching those missiles.

In the United States, a master plan for carrying out a nuclear war was first drafted in 1960, at the end of President Dwight Eisenhower’s term. The scope of the Single Integrated Operational Plan was awesome. Given adequate warning time, the United States and allies would launch their entire strategic force of about 3,500 nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, China and satellite states. Eisenhower dispatched his science adviser, George B. Kistiakowsky, to the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command in Offutt, Nebraska, on November 3–5, 1960, to study the newly drafted plan. Kistiakowsky reported back that the plan would “lead to unnecessary and undesirable overkill.” Eisenhower confided to Captain E. P. “Pete” Aurand, his naval aide, that the estimates—the sheer number of targets, the redundant bombs for each—“frighten the devil out of me.”4

President John F. Kennedy was no less unsettled. Briefed on the war plan on September 14, 1961, he commented afterward to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “And we call ourselves the human race.”5

Kennedy and his defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, were uneasy with the Eisenhower-era idea of massive retaliation. They felt the threat of a single, enormous nuclear strike did not fit the more fragmented and complex competition they faced with the Soviet Union as tensions flared first over Berlin and then over Cuba. When the war plan was revised in the spring and summer of 1962, the new plan gave the president more flexibility and choices in waging a possible nuclear attack, including the ability to hold back forces in reserve, to avoid population centers and industry and to leave out some countries as targets. A key feature of the new plan, put into effect just before the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, was to aim largely at Soviet weapons, and not at cities and industry, an idea known as counterforce. If one thinks of cocked pistols aimed at each other, counterforce was an effort to shoot the gun out of the hand of the enemy.6 It seemed to be more humane to aim at missiles rather than cities, but counterforce also raised deeply disturbing questions. Could it make the use of nuclear weapons more tempting, since it implied a limited nuclear strike was possible? And to be successful, would the counterforce option have to be carried out first—to shoot before you were shot, to preempt an attack? This was the haunting fear of many decades to come, the idea of a disarming, bolt-from-the-blue first strike.

While Kennedy wanted to spare the cities, McNamara realized over time that it was impossible to aim at every Soviet weapon without unleashing an expensive new round of the arms race, an escalation with no end in sight. As a result, McNamara shifted to a strategy that he called “assured destruction,” which required building the number of weapons needed to destroy 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet population and 50 percent of the industrial base. McNamara capped the number of Minuteman missiles to be built at one thousand. His analysts concluded, “The main reason for stopping at 1,000 Minuteman missiles, 41 Polaris submarines and some 500 strategic bombers is that having more would not be worth the cost.” McNamara hoped that the Soviets would also reach a plateau—and stop building.7 A critic of McNamara proposed adding “mutual” to “assured destruction” and the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction, known pointedly as MAD, was born. For many Americans, this idea of equal vulnerability and mutual deterrence came to define the Cold War.8

Locked in global confrontation, the United States and the Soviet Union were each rooted in centuries of radically different history, geography, culture and experience. Peering through a veil of suspicion, the superpowers often wrongly judged each other’s intentions and actions. They engaged in deceptions that only deepened the dangers. As the Harvard professors observed in 1983, “The United States cannot predict Soviet behavior because it has too little information about what goes on inside the Soviet Union; the Soviets cannot predict American behavior because they have too much information.”

An early but telling example was the so-called missile gap. The Soviet Union announced on August 26, 1957, the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range, and successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit on October 4. For the next four years, Premier Nikita Khrushchev misled the West with claims that the Soviet Union was turning out missiles “like sausages,” that super-missiles were in “serial production” and “mass production.” John F. Kennedy raised alarms about the “missile gap” in his 1960 campaign, but found out that it didn’t exist.9 Khrushchev had concealed weakness—by bluffing.

A disaster was narrowly averted in the Cuban crisis of October 1962, when Khrushchev took an enormous gamble by stationing nuclear weapons and missiles on the island. The brinksmanship ended as both Kennedy and Khrushchev exercised restraint. But long after Khrushchev withdrew the weapons, and after his ouster in 1964, the Cuban crisis lingered in the minds of Soviet leaders, who feared inferiority to the United States. Starting in the mid-1960s, Soviet missile production zoomed upward; hundreds were rolled out every year.

The Soviet Union, looking through an entirely different prism than the United States, saw nuclear weapons as a blunt instrument for deterrence. If attacked, they would respond with crushing punishment. By many accounts, in the early decades they did not adopt the limited nuclear options that were embraced in the United States; they thought that the use of even one atomic bomb would trigger escalation, so they prepared for all-out war.10 They did not put much stock in the American idea that mutual vulnerability could lead to stability. They feared both powers would be constantly striving to get ahead, and they threw their resources into the quest. When the Soviet Union finally reached approximate parity with the United States in the early 1970s, the thinking began to change. Instead of threatening a preemptive first strike, as in the earlier years, they moved toward a posture of preparing for assured retaliation, a second strike. At this time they also began the first strategic arms control negotiations with the United States, and détente blossomed.11

The Soviet buildup was driven by a powerful and hidden force, the defense industrialists. Leonid Brezhnev ruled by consensus over a dysfunctional group of aging sycophants, and by the mid-1970s, Brezhnev was in such ill health that he largely ceased to lead. The industrialists filled the vacuum. They had great influence over what weapons would be produced, by some accounts even more than the military. A striking example was the climax of an intense internal conflict over the next generation of intercontinental ballistic missile. In July 1969, at a vacation lodge near Yalta, a vexed Brezhnev assembled his top military leaders and missile designers. The competition pitted two of the most storied designers, Mikhail Yangel and Vladimir Chelomei, against each other. Yangel proposed a four-warhead missile, the SS-17, designed to fit in newly constructed, hardened silos, best to ensure retaliation if the Soviet Union were attacked, but expensive. Chelomei had initially proposed to upgrade his older SS-11 missile in existing silos, which were not hardened, but offered the military more warheads more cheaply, perfect for threatening a preemptive first strike at the enemy. At the time of the Yalta meeting, Chelomei shifted gears and proposed a new missile, the SS-19, with six warheads, which would also require new, expensive hardened silos. Mstislav Keldysh, president of the Academy of Sciences, who had Brezhnev’s confidence, was appointed to head a commission to resolve the dispute. At Yalta he took the floor and lamented that in all the rush to build missiles, the country had not even decided on a strategic doctrine: whether the purpose was to threaten a first strike, or to preserve the force for retaliation. But Keldysh could not settle the rivalry. In the end, all three missile options were approved at great cost, the kind of decision that would eventually bankrupt the Soviet Union.12

In the 1970s, the United States began to deploy a Minuteman III missile that could carry up to three warheads instead of just one. The new device was called a Multiple Independently-targetable Re-Entry Vehicle, or MIRV, and it would allow each of the three warheads to aim at separate targets, leading to a new surge in the size of the arsenals. The Soviets matched and surpassed this technology, and in the mid-1970s began the deployment of a new generation of land-based missiles. One of them, the SS-18, could carry a payload seven to eight times as large as the American missile. In fact, there were plans at one point to put as many as thirty-eight warheads atop each giant SS-18.

As the arsenals grew, so did the complexity of the U.S. war plan. On January 27, 1969, a week after taking office, President Richard Nixon went to the Pentagon for a briefing on the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP). “It didn’t fill him with enthusiasm,” recalled Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security adviser and later secretary of state. In the event of nuclear war, Nixon was told, he would have three functional tasks: Alpha, for strikes on the most urgent military targets; Bravo, for secondary military targets; and Charlie, for industrial and urban targets. If the president ordered an attack of Alpha and Bravo, urban areas would be spared. All three would mean total war. But the choices Nixon would face in an emergency were mind-numbingly complex. There were five attack options constructed from the three main tasks, and as many as ninety lesser variations.13 On May 11, 1969, Nixon flew on the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, a Boeing 707 filled with communications gear, and participated in a nuclear war exercise. His chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, wrote in his diary, “Pretty scary. They went through the whole intelligence and operational briefings—with interruptions, etc. to make it realistic.” Haldeman added that Nixon “asked a lot of questions about our nuclear capability and kill results. Obviously worries about the lightly tossed-about millions of deaths.”14

The same fears troubled Soviet leaders. In 1972, the General Staff presented to the leadership results of a study of a possible nuclear war after a first strike by the United States. They reported: the military had been reduced to one-thousandth of its strength; 80 million citizens were dead; 85 percent of Soviet industry was in ruins. Brezhnev and Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin were visibly terrified by what they heard, according to Adrian Danilevich, a general who took part. Next, three launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles with dummy warheads were planned. Brezhnev was provided a button in the exercise and he was to push it at the proper moment. Defense Minister Andrei Grechko was standing next to Brezhnev, and Danilevich next to Grechko. “When the time came to push the button,” Danilevich recalled, “Brezhnev was visibly shaken and pale and his hand trembled and he asked Grechko several times for assurances that the action would not have any real world consequences.” Brezhnev turned to Grechko and asked, “‘Are you sure this is just an exercise?’”15

Recognizing the overwhelming destructive power of nuclear weapons, Nixon decided in 1969 that the United States would renounce biological weapons. In 1972, more than seventy nations, including the Soviet Union and the United States, signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, a four-page international agreement banning the development and production of biological weapons, and the means of delivering them. The treaty entered into force in 1975. But the Soviet Union promptly betrayed its signature on the treaty. Brezhnev approved a secret plan to covertly expand Soviet germ warfare efforts under the cover of a civilian enterprise. The Soviet program grew and grew into a dark underside of the arms race.

The biological weapons treaty came at the peak of détente, Nixon’s policy to wrap the Soviet Union in a web of new international agreements and understandings that would make the Cold War manageable and less threatening. A centerpiece of détente was the signing of the SALT I agreement in Moscow on May 26, 1972, by Nixon and Brezhnev. The most significant part of this agreement was the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, which effectively ended the prospect of an expensive arms race in missile defenses.16 But on offensive arms, the long-range missiles that were growing in size and destructive capacity, the SALT I agreement was basically just a stopgap measure. It froze fixed launchers for land-based and submarine-based missiles on each side, but included no precise numbers of missiles or warheads to be frozen. The core argument for the SALT I treaty and détente was that equal levels of missiles and launchers were not as important as the overall strategic balance, and in that the two sides were roughly equal. If the United States stopped the cycle of building new missiles, the reasoning went, it was likely the Soviets would too. Kissinger said, “And one of the questions which we have to ask ourselves as a country is what in the name of God is strategic superiority? What is the significance of it, politically, militarily, operationally, at these levels of numbers? What do you do with it?”17

Détente foundered in the late 1970s, in part on fears in the West that the Soviet Union was reaching for strategic superiority. A small band of defense policy conservatives and hawkish strategists in the United States raised alarms about Soviet intentions and actions. Albert Wohlstetter of the University of Chicago published a series of influential articles questioning whether the U.S. intelligence community had underestimated Soviet military spending and weapons modernization. Paul Nitze, who for a generation had been one of the “wise men” of the U.S. government, an arms control negotiator on SALT I and former secretary of the navy, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in January 1976 that warned the Soviets were not satisfied with parity or essential equivalence in nuclear weapons, but “will continue to pursue a nuclear superiority that is not merely quantitative but designed to produce a theoretical war-winning capability.”18

These claims—that the Soviet Union was seeking superiority over the United States and preparing to fight and win a nuclear war—could not be proven, but they gained a foothold in the United States at a time of deep uncertainty in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. In 1976, the Central Intelligence Agency carried out an extraordinary competition to examine Soviet intentions. It set up two separate teams to assess the available intelligence, pitting the agency’s own analysts against a team of outsiders. Both teams were given the same raw material. The CIA insiders were Team A, and the outsiders Team B. The outsiders were led by Richard Pipes, professor of history at Harvard, long a fierce critic of Soviet communism; the others on Team B were also drawn from critics of détente who had been warning of a Soviet quest for military superiority. When finished in November, the Team B report on Soviet intentions was unequivocal that Moscow was on a dangerous drive for supremacy, and that the CIA had badly underestimated it. Soviet leaders “think not in terms of nuclear stability, mutual assured destruction or strategic sufficiency, but of an effective nuclear war-fighting capability,” they wrote.19

On the other side of the exercise, Team A did not share the shrill sense of alarm. They said the Soviets might want to achieve nuclear war-fighting capability and superiority, but that it wasn’t a realistic, practical goal. When completed, the overall yearly intelligence estimate hewed to Team A’s view that the Soviets “cannot be certain about future U.S. behavior or about their own future strategic capabilities relative to those of the U.S.” The State Department’s top intelligence official was even more cautious. Soviet leaders, he said, “do not entertain, as a practical objective in the foreseeable future, the achievement of what could reasonably be characterized as a ‘war winning’ or ‘war survival’ posture.”20

In later years, many of the findings of Team B were found to have been overstated. Soviet missile accuracy and the pace of weapons modernization were exaggerated. But at the time, the conclusions seemed ominous, hammering another nail into the coffin of détente. In July 1977, Pipes wrote an article in the journal Commentary titled “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War.” Soon after work was finished on Team B, Nitze, Pipes and others helped to found an advocacy group, the Committee on the Present Danger, to raise public alarm about the Soviet military buildup. The committee’s board included Ronald Reagan, the former California governor, who had presidential ambitions and a base of support among social, economic and defense conservatives. The committee campaigned from 1977 to 1979 against a SALT II treaty, then under negotiation, distributing maps showing the American cities that could be destroyed by a single Soviet SS-18 missile.21

The Soviet leadership, with Brezhnev ailing, blundered in this period, deploying the SS-20 Pioneer, a new generation of medium-range missiles in Europe, apparently not anticipating that this would lead to apprehension in the United States and among its allies. NATO responded with a proposal to negotiate, but also to deploy Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe as a counterweight. A new arms race was getting underway. The leaders in Moscow stumbled again with the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. President Jimmy Carter, who had signed the SALT II treaty with Brezhnev, pulled back the treaty from the Senate, and détente was dead.

In the summer of 1980, Carter was facing a reelection challenge from Reagan and deepening tensions with Moscow. He approved two secret directives on nuclear war. Presidential Directive 58, signed June 30, called for a multibillion-dollar program to protect the president and other government leaders from a nuclear attack. Presidential Directive 59, signed July 25, put into effect a revised and expanded list of targeting choices a president would have at his disposal in the event of nuclear war. The new plan focused on attacking the Soviet political leadership, as well as military targets and war-supporting industry, and it envisioned limited nuclear strikes as well as a protracted conflict. Carter ordered upgrades for communications and improved satellites that would allow a president to choose military targets in real time after a nuclear exchange had begun. According to a senior Pentagon official, Presidential Directive 59 was developed in part to let the Soviet leadership know something very specific and frightening: they had been personally placed in the American nuclear crosshairs.22

By 1982, the combined strategic arsenals of the superpowers held the explosive power of approximately 1 million Hiroshimas. Even with their huge arsenal, Soviet leaders feared they could perish in a decapitating missile attack before they had a chance to respond. They drew up plans for a system to guarantee a retaliatory strike. They envisioned a fully automatic system, known as the Dead Hand, in which a computer alone would issue the order to launch. But they had second thoughts, and instead created a modified system in which the decision to launch all the land-based missiles would be made by a small crew of duty officers surviving deep underground in a globe-shaped concrete bunker. The system was fully tested in November 1984 and placed on duty a few months later. At the climax of mistrust between the superpowers, one of them had built a Doomsday Machine.

The book is based on interviews, memoirs, diaries, news accounts and archival materials. An invaluable source was a collection of internal documents from the Defense Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Revealed here for the first time, these papers shed new light on the decisions and thinking of key Soviet participants in the Gorbachev years. They show how Gorbachev stood up to the generals and the powerful military-industrial complex, and also how the Soviet Union concealed the germ warfare program. The papers were collected by Vitaly Katayev, an aviation and rocket designer by training. In 1974, Katayev was transferred from the missile complex in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, to become a staff man on the Central Committee, in the heart of the Kremlin decision making, where he remained for almost two decades, often writing meticulous entries in his journals and preserving sheaves of original documents. Katayev knew the missiles, the designers and the political leaders. Like many others in this story, he came to realize, from his own experience, that the arms race had become a competition of colossal excess.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, new and unexpected threats surfaced almost immediately. Rickety trains hauled nuclear warheads back from Eastern Europe and Central Asia into Russia; tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium lay unguarded in warehouses; microbiologists and nuclear bomb designers were in desperate straits. This book traces the struggle of individuals to seize the moment and contain the danger. They were only partly successful. Today, the weapons to destroy civilization, the legacy of the Cold War, are still with us. They are the Dead Hand of our time, a lethal machine that haunts the globe long after the demise of the men who created it.

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