Missile Defense Didn’t Win the Cold War

The real doomsday machine, the Russian response to Star Wars, and other Soviet-era mysteries finally decoded.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the history of the Cold War arms race is still shrouded by myths. Some of these seem to have a life of their own, such as the claim that U.S. President Ronald Reagan single-handedly bankrupted the Soviet Union with his Strategic Defense Initiative. And others, though less known, have proven just as durable, such as the Soviet suspicion that the United States maintained a hidden germ warfare program, as the Kremlin did, in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.

But the emergence of new evidence — including memoirs from both sides and internal documents, some of which I’ve just obtained for my new book chronicling the late Cold War arms race — has allowed some misconceptions to be dispelled. As Russia and the United States once again joust over arms control and global influence, it’s useful to take a cold-eyed look at some of the old legends, and the lessons learned from them.

In at least one case, fiction was not far from fact. Recall that in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, the Soviets warn they possess a doomsday device that will automatically destroy life on Earth if they are attacked.

As it turns out, something similar really did exist. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Soviet leaders feared decapitation — a bolt-from-the-blue strike that would wipe them out before they could get out of the Kremlin. And they had reason to; the United States had advertised this as part of its nuclear strategy.

The Soviets were especially worried about the decision that an ailing leader like Leonid Brezhnev would have to make if faced with a warning of nuclear attack. He would have only minutes to decide, and the alert information might not be clear or certain. What if he hesitated? What if he made a mistake and issued a launch order based on a faulty warning?

The Soviet designers responded with an ingenious and incredible answer. They actually built a doomsday machine that would guarantee retaliation — launching all the nuclear missiles — if the leader’s hand went limp. Now some details of the system have come to light in documents and interviews with officials who were involved. I have detailed the history and rationale of this doomsday machine in my new book. The system was in effect a switch that would allow the Soviet leader to delegate the decision about retaliation to someone else. An ailing general secretary could activate the system if he received a warning of attack, and thus might avoid the mistake of launching all the nuclear missiles based on a false alarm. Should the enemy missiles actually arrive and destroy the Kremlin, there would be guaranteed retaliation.

Originally, the Soviet Union devised a totally automated, computer-driven retaliatory system known as the Dead Hand. If all the leaders and all the regular command systems were destroyed, computers would memorize the early-warning and nuclear attack data, wait out the onslaught, and then order retaliation without human control. This system would, basically, turn over the fate of mankind to machines.

However, this idea was too frightening for the Soviet designers and leaders, and they did not build it. Instead, they constructed a modified system, quite elaborate, known as Perimeter. Instead of machines, Perimeter had a human firewall to make the fateful decision — a small group of duty officers buried deep underground in a concrete globe-shaped bunker. If certain conditions were met, including seismic data showing that a nuclear explosion had already detonated on Soviet soil, and if the Kremlin communications were down, these duty officers could launch a series of small command rockets in superhardened silos. Like robots, the command rockets would then fly across the country and issue the launch order to the intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Perimeter system was tested in November 1984 and put on combat duty in early 1985. But the Soviet Union kept this system a secret, and many features of it were not known to the United States until after the Cold War.

Perimeter was put on duty just as the tide turned in the Soviet leadership. Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to general secretary in March 1985 raised many questions for which Washington did not have answers: Was he truly a reformer, or an old-school type with new-style rhetoric? British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared of Gorbachev in late 1984: "We can do business together." But it took the CIA and the White House a lot longer to figure it out, a delay that arguably influenced the Cold War’s final act of the 1980s.

The CIA’s first major assessment of Gorbachev by the Office of Soviet Analysis, in June 1985, was titled "Gorbachev, The New Broom." (See sidebar.) The paper, released to me under the Freedom of Information Act, observed that Gorbachev was setting a fresh new style, that he was "the most aggressive and activist leader since Khrushchev." But there were doubts about how far he would go in making substantive change. "Gorbachev is gambling that an attack on corruption and inefficiency, not radical reform, will turn the domestic situation around," the CIA concluded. On foreign policy, the CIA expected Gorbachev would "concentrate on cultivating an image of strength, not conciliation."


The CIA’s assessment was sent to Reagan on June 27, 1985. CIA Director William Casey attached a personal cover note that was far more skeptical, then-deputy director for intelligence Robert Gates recorded in his memoir. Casey wrote that Gorbachev and those around him "are not reformers and liberalizers either in Soviet domestic or foreign policy."

Casey could not have been more wrong.

Inside the Kremlin, the tune was changing. We now know from Anatoly Chernyaev’s memoirs that in his first weeks, Gorbachev demanded a rewrite of a Communist Party program. "It must not be propagandistic babble about endless achievements," Gorbachev wrote on the document, "the kind of stuff that you used to write for Brezhnev and [Konstantin] Chernenko, but rather include specific proposals for a truly radical transformation of the economy." This was just the beginning. Chernyaev, then deputy head of the International Department of the Central Committee, wondered, "Is this really happening? It’s too good to be true."

This was a moment when Reagan could have used fresh and penetrating insights into Gorbachev’s thinking. If he had seen Gorbachev’s notes about radical economic reform, he might have realized that Gorbachev had people around him who were thinking in new ways, and he might have moved with alacrity to do business with Gorbachev. But it took much longer to find out.

Reagan’s own presidential campaign had been based on another Cold War misconception: the fear of a so-called "window of vulnerability" of American land-based missiles to Soviet attack. Reagan and other conservatives claimed the United States faced such a threat because the larger number of Soviet warheads could, by the 1980s, wipe out the U.S. land-based missile force. But new information casts doubt on whether the window really existed. Previously undisclosed Soviet flight test data analyzed and published by Pavel Podvig of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation suggests the Soviet missiles were not as accurate as thought.

For example, a 1978 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate asserted that had the Soviet Union initiated an attack on American missile silos then, only about 400 would have survived a two-on-one strike. But using the new flight test data, found in the notebooks of Soviet defense official Vitaly Katayev, Podvig estimated that about 800 would have survived. The United States "significantly overestimated the accuracy that Soviet missiles were able to demonstrate in the late 1970s and early 1980s," he concluded in an essay in the journal International Security.

The discrepancy lies in the fact that the Soviets lagged on technology for guidance systems to make their missiles more accurate. Although accuracy improved later on, the fears of a "window of vulnerability" were overstated.

Reagan’s ambitious plan for a globe-spanning antiballistic missile shield, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), generated its own set of myths, the most stubborn being that it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thatcher once called it "the final straw for the Evil Empire." Reagan said it would make nuclear weapons obsolete. But this triumphalism was, and is, badly one-sided.

Although Kremlin leaders were indeed puzzled and worried about the missile defense plan, top Soviet physicists debunked it. They correctly concluded that Reagan’s plan, dubbed "Star Wars," probably would not work, at least not right away, and certainly not as Reagan claimed when he announced it in March 1983.

After taking office in 1985, documents show that Gorbachev weighed a range of responses, from building a vast and expensive Soviet version of "Star Wars" to building a huge new missile force to doing nothing and talking Reagan out of the idea. He eventually chose the last option. But at the same time Gorbachev was waging a fierce internal battle against his powerful military and military-industrial complex to slow what he called the "speeding locomotive" of the arms race.

Fresh details about Gorbachev’s struggle are contained in internal memos and private notes kept by Katayev. For example, in the spring and early summer of 1985, just months after Gorbachev took power, the directors, designers, and constructors of satellites, space boosters, radars, and lasers produced a colossal Soviet "Star Wars" plan for his approval. There were two major umbrella programs, each of which included a sprawling array of projects, ranging from fundamental exploratory research to building equipment ready for flight tests. For all the imposing scope and cost, the grand package concealed deep cracks in the system. Some of the programs, started years earlier, lacked results or purpose, or were starved for resources. Others were nearly abandoned or obsolete, hoping for a rebirth.

Gorbachev could have approved this plan and started another ruinous round of the arms race. But he did not. Because of his restraint, and because of the limitations of Soviet technology, the early plans for a grandiose Soviet "Star Wars" never came to fruition. The Soviet Union eventually went bankrupt, but not because of SDI.

Nonetheless, SDI confounded the Soviets: Why was the United States spending so much money for something that their own experts said wouldn’t work? "What is it being done for?" the Soviet specialists asked themselves, according to Katayev. "In the name of what are the Americans, famous for their pragmatism, opening their wallet for the most grandiose project in the history of the United States when the technical and economic risks of a crash exceed all thinkable limits?"

"Or," Katayev wrote, "is there still something different behind this curtain?" To the Soviet specialists on strategic weapons, Katayev said, Reagan’s zeal for his dream led them "from the very beginning to think about the possibility of political bluff and hoax." They pondered whether it was a "Hollywood village of veneer and cardboard."

Katayev, whose notebooks are now deposited at the Hoover Institution, said that the KGB made it a high priority to gather intelligence on "American policy on the militarization of space." An avalanche of intelligence reporting began to flow to Moscow, and stacks of it crossed Katayev’s desk. What the agents and Soviet military analysts feared the most, Katayev realized, was underestimating the seriousness of the threat — so, instead, they overestimated it. No one could honestly declare that Star Wars would not work, so the spies reported that it might. They flooded the system with reports of the threat; before long, the military-industrial complex geared up to respond. Starting in 1985 and continuing through the decade, Katayev recalled that about 10 cables a day came through his offices in the Central Committee on political-military and technical issues. Of them, 30 to 40 percent dealt with Star Wars and missile defense. Katayev wondered whether the Americans were deliberately trying to choke Moscow with fear by leaking a flood of information.

Just as the Soviets misunderstood the SDI story, so too did the United States misjudge Soviet thinking on biological weapons. Experts in the United States and Britain thought germ warfare simply made no sense in the nuclear age, and on Nov. 25, 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon announced that the United States would unilaterally stop all offensive biological weapons research and destroy its stocks. Although Nixon’s motives seem to have been largely political — demonstrating statesmanship — one part of his calculation was that such weapons were simply no longer necessary. National security advisor Henry Kissinger’s talking points for the decision said of biological weapons (BW), "We do not need BW for deterrence when we have nuclears."

In 1972, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, a four-page agreement that banned the development and production of biological weapons and the means for delivering them. The treaty was weak — there were no on-site inspection mechanisms and no organization to monitor compliance. Each country was to police itself.

The Soviet Union began to violate the treaty almost as soon as the ink was dry, launching the largest biological warfare program humankind had ever known. It was camouflaged with deep secrecy. In the years that followed, the Soviets attempted to use genetic engineering to create pathogens that could cause unstoppable diseases. They built factories to make anthrax by the ton if the order came from Moscow.

Many of the Soviet germ warfare scientists told me they thought that despite Nixon’s announcement, the United States had a similar, secret program, hidden somewhere. After all, their program was disguised inside a civilian organization, so wouldn’t the Americans do the same thing?

There are lessons for today in these musty old misunderstandings of the Cold War, one of the most striking being that there is nothing more valuable than penetrating intelligence. If United States had possessed better information about Gorbachev’s early inclinations, perhaps the Cold War would have taken a different course. Certainly Reagan might have engaged him sooner.

The most revealing intelligence is the hardest to get and involves cultivating human sources who are hidden deep in another world. We face the same difficulties today trying to learn what is going on in terrorist groups and tracking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It’s devilishly challenging work, and there’s no substitute for it.

In this new season of arms control negotiations, both Russia and the United States should heed Reagan’s favorite slogan, "Trust but verify." It has stood the test of time.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook