David E. Hoffman: Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race

By Camilla Groom

Watch the event here. 

With detailed insider knowledge David E Hoffman told the story of how the president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and the US president Ronald Reagan prevented the escalation of the Cold War into a full-blown conflict.

As a reporter for the Washington Post Hoffman followed Reagan throughout his campaign and subsequent presidency but found him to be something of an enigma – “he was a terrific actor, he played roles”.

Neither Hoffman nor his fellow journalists knew what his private papers later revealed, that Reagan was in favour of disarmament.  Today support for nuclear deterrents is one of the foreign policy benchmarks for Republicans, said Hoffman, but Reagan held a different perspective, which became more apparent later in his presidency.

Gorbachev was a similarly unlikely candidate for change – as a Soviet Communist he rarely deviated from the party line. According to Hoffman, by the time Gorbachev was made General Secretary in 1985 he had already concluded that by reducing the vast sums spent on defence and the Cold War he could bridge the gap  between what Hoffman termed “the rotten lives” that most Russians led, and the country’s substantial resources.

The title of Hoffman‘s book The Dead Hand refers to a semi-automatic system developed by the Russians in the 1980s whereby three people who remained in the bunker were able to start the nuclear retaliation should everyone else be wiped out by a US attack.

The major problem, said Hoffman was that the Americans never knew about it – the Russians forgot that an effective deterrent needed to be common knowledge, said Hoffman.

It is not known how much Gorbachev knew about the development of biological weapons in the 1980s and he denied all knowledge when questioned by a concerned British prime minsister Margaret Thatcher and Reagan’s chief of staff James Baker.  Whether the real Gorbachev was a “participant or saviour?” remains unknown, said Hoffman.

But if a more hawkish character been leading the Soviet Union, things could have turned out very differently.

Instead of following through with the Generals’ plans, Gorbachev “put them in the bottom drawer” and ignored them, said Hoffman, who added that “without Gorbachev the Cold War would not have ended”.

As for Reagan, he “played an enormous role too” in ending the Cold War, but, concluded Hoffman “needed a partner” in order to do so.