Apocalyptic Misunderstandings and the Creepiest “Dead Hand” Ever

Fallout Shelter Sign

Fallout shelters are one of the most ubiquitous and visible legacies of Americans’ Cold War nuclear fears. If the”Dead Hand” device still exists in some secret facility, as Nicolas Thompson suggests, they might just come back in style.
Source: “Fallout Shelter Sign” by Michael Pereckas. Used with permission.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hawk or a dove. In fact, the doves and hawks both got it wrong, suggests Nicholas Thompson. The Soviets’ mindsets and motivations fit “some combination” of both hawk and dove portrayals, but a few plans “about which neither hawks nor doves had any inkling” are still seriously disturbing.[1]

In “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s,” Thompson analyzes a set of interviews, “Soviet Intentions, 1965–1985,” that he obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and made public through the National Security Archive at George Washington University. (The documents are all available online.)

Thompson’s description of high-ranking Soviet generals’ accounts of the climate of preparation for nuclear war speaks more to fear than to aggression, and an overarching theme of these accounts was anxiety over America’s perceived itchiness to pull the trigger on its own nuclear arsenal. Thompson states that even though “the Soviet Union didn’t plan to launch an act of total aggression, they dreaded that the U.S. would.”[2]

The reasons for this deep-seated dread of American aggression came out of the Soviets’ factually precise, but perhaps misinterpreted, intelligence assessment of U.S. weapons technology. Thompson explains,

The Soviets believed this partly out of fear . . . But the most convincing, or at least the most cited, evidence of America’s nefarious purposes came from the Soviet satellite intelligence that American ICBMs were grouped closely together, not well protected by silos, and spaced near command centers. Surely, such poorly defended missiles couldn’t be intended for retaliatory purposes?[3]

The American assessment of Soviet nuclear arms followed a similar narrative. Though U.S. intelligence located and assessed the Soviet Union’s pattern of nuclear weapon facilities, their interpretation of underlying Soviet motivations and intentions may have been off base. Thompson writes,

Ironically, at the same time Soviet silo hardening had convinced Americans of Moscow’s aggressive intentions and its desired ability to figure a prolonged nuclear war. . . . In other words, Washington scared Moscow by not hardening silos, while Moscow scared Washington by doing so.[4]

This mutual misunderstanding had deeply disturbing consequences.

The Soviet’s assumption that the U.S. planned to strike first led to the “launch under attack” strategy, whereby “incoming missiles would lead to an immediate, flat-out response – aiming at American cities instead of at the (presumably empty) silos.”[5]

And then there is the “Dead Hand.” It sounds like it comes straight out of a science fiction movie – a doomsday device with an ominous name – but Thompson hints in an article in Wired that it could be fact. Even if a massive nuclear holocaust exterminated the entire Kremlin, the ghosts of Soviet past would supposedly be able to automatically launch a series of missiles that would assure the destruction of the enemy:

The system revolved around ‘command missiles’ hidden away and protected in heavily hardened silos designed to withstand extraordinary blasts, as well as massive electro-magnetic pulses. Each missile had the launch codes that could fire off a fleet of ICBMs on the ground that were targeted at American cities. The command missiles would soar above the radioactive ruin and send down low-frequency radio wave signals that would start the counter-attack.” [6]

If Dead Hand ever did exist in a tangible form, it would be deeply creepy in its own right. In the Wired article, Thompson goes a step further. He hints at a modern-day conspiracy to hide the device’s existence – and suggests that we still might have something to fear:

The system remains so shrouded that [former Soviet colonel Valery] Yarynich worries his continued openness [about the Dead Hand project] puts him in danger. He might have a point: One Soviet official who spoke with Americans about the system died in a mysterious fall down a staircase. But Yarynich takes the risk. He believes the world needs to know about Dead Hand. Because, after all, it is still in place.[7]

In the end, Thompson believes, “Peace was kept not only because both sides knew how damaging a war could be, but because both sides believed it would simply not be part of their national character to start one.”[8]

Let’s hope that this remains true today – just in case science fiction turns out to be science fact.

nagasaki bomb

In a 1945 radio address, President Truman summed up his hopes and fears for the atomic bomb: “I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb… It is an awful responsibility which has come to us… We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”[9]
Source: “Nagasaki Bomb,” U.S. Army / National Archives via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image.

[1] Thompson, Nicolas. “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s.” Journal of Contemporary History, 46 (2011): 149.

[2] Thompson, “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s,” 140.

[3] Thompson, “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s,” 140.

[4] Thompson, “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s,” 141.

[5] Thompson, “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s,” 141.

[6] Thompson, “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s,” 142.

[7] Thompson, Nicolas. “Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine.” Wired Magazine online (September 21, 2009).

[8] Thompson, “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s,” 149.

[9] Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference by President Harry S. Truman, Delivered from the White House at 10 p.m, August 9, 1945. Quote selection from Wikipedia, “Nagasaki.”


One response to “Apocalyptic Misunderstandings and the Creepiest “Dead Hand” Ever

  1. Whoa. The Dead Hand is far spookier than anything Hallowe’en could proffer.
    Been thinking about this a lot recently: our White Cliffs tunnels third level- the top secret Dumpy level, the centre of operations in the case of Nuclear war- is open for a short spell, to mark the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.

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