05/16/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rethinking Reagan: Conversation with David E. Hoffman (Part I)

With the Reagan Centennial Celebrations set to begin in just less than a year, is conducting a series of conversations with noted Reagan historians. The goal of the series, "Rethinking Reagan," is to evaluate the Reagan years through a modern lens by comparing the Ronald Reagan presented through recently released documents, including his personal diary, to the man they came to know through their own experiences covering, researching and writing about Reagan.


Conversation with David E. Hoffman (author of "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy,") on what it was like to revisit the Reagan years over twenty years after covering the Reagan Administration; nuclear weapons negotiations then and now; why the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved; and how Reagan failed to understand that the Soviet military was just as dysfunctional as the Soviet economy.

February 4th, 2010
Pacific Palisades, CA

JSE: Mr. Hoffman, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me to discuss your latest book, "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy."

DH: Let me start off by telling you a little bit about who I am. I started with Reagan by covering the 1980 campaign at a time when no one thought Reagan had a chance of winning. In 1982 I came to The Washington Post to help Lou Cannon cover the White House. During that time I got to cover U.S.-Soviet relations, including both the Geneva and then the Reykjavik Summits. I later went on to become the Moscow Bureau Chief for The Washington Post, foreign editor and then assistant managing editor for foreign news.

I wrote The Dead Hand to create a history in stereo by using both White House documents and Soviet documents showing what Reagan and Gorbachev were both thinking at the same time.

JSE: Your use of Soviet documents really impressed me because you were able to utilize some Soviet documents that have never before been used. In particular, the way you recount the internal Soviet discussions after the shoot down of KAL 007 in September 1983 really stood out in my mind. How were you able to get access to these Soviet documents?

DH: In terms of the KAL disaster, the second investigation in 1990 was really the most important investigation. In 1990, the International Civil Aviation Organization went back and the Soviets turned over all the transcripts of all the radio intercepts. Looking back, it turned out that the flaw in the famous 1983 intercept that was released was that it was just a fragment. If President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz had looked at the whole transcript in 1983, they would have seen that the Soviet system was dysfunctional, that the Soviets made a horrible mistake, and they made it because their system was falling apart.

That was one bit of the Soviet system that Reagan just didn't get. He understood that the domestic side of the Soviet economy was broken. He understood that it was a dead-end political system, but he always sort of thought that the military was 10 feet tall. Reagan thought that the military had the first claim on resources, that they were strong and powerful.

One of the revelations of my book is actually that the rot of the Soviet system, the rot that caused the breadlines, was also seeping into the military, and the shoot down of the Korean airliner was a case study of that rot: the radars didn't work properly and communications equipment failed, and as a result they made a mistake. But they didn't shoot down deliberately. I think it was just complete incompetence...

I covered the KAL incident for The Washington Post, and it really was a metaphor for the whole Cold War. The rush to judgment, this ideology often times got in the way of the facts and led to misunderstandings ... the whole business when Gorbachev came to power and the CIA just can't get it right because they are so fixed on their own ideology.

JSE: In the book you are able to recreate the Soviet internal deliberations on how to react to President Reagan's claim that the Soviets knew they were shooting down a commercial airliner. How were you able to get these documents?

DH: The core documents in this book, which are unusual and valuable to future historians, are the files from a guy named Vitaly Katayev. He was a professional staff member in the central committee of the Communist Party, which was called the Defense Department or the Defense Industry Department. This department was in charge of arms control and the entire military industrial complex, known as the VPK. The military industrial complex was a real thing for them. Katayev was one of two senior staff members in this department, he reported to a Politburo member whose name was Lev Zaikov. Zaikov was appointed by Gorbachev and was in charge of VPK. So, Katayev was in the catbird seat, he had a great view of the entire decision making on arms control and strategic weapons all during this period.

Katayev's documents are all now at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University... His documents were the first time we were seeing not what the Soviets supplied to us in their speeches, but what they were saying to each other.

I also found a whole series of important documents in the Katayev collection on biological weapons. These documents became the core of The Dead Hand because these materials show for the first time that at the very highest levels of the Soviet system there were discussions and they knew about this illegal biological weapons program, including meetings in the Kremlin. Katayev was actually a note taker at one of these important meetings.

JSE: How many total pages do you think are in the Katayev collection?

DH: Thousands. There are also a lot of computer floppy disks. All are available at the Hoover Institution.

JSE: Computer disks from the 1980s are at the Reagan Library and I think most are still unused because they don't have the technology. How did you deal with the technology issues?

DH: That was also a nightmare for me. These disks were all on 1980s word processors and computer systems that don't exist anymore, and they were in Russian.
I was able to convert them, slowly and carefully, but the important thing is that this is the first collection of really inside material about many of these high level deliberations. We have just never had access like this before.

In Reagan's presidency, a lot was made of the Sary-Shagan laser that could shoot down satellites. I found documents in which the physicist Yevgeny Velikhov suggested that the Americans be allowed to go inspect the laser to prove to the Pentagon that it couldn't shoot down satellites. I found the staff report of the central committee. The report said, "No, no, we can't let the American's go - they'll see that it doesn't work!" That was in 1987, but two years later it was proposed again by Velikhov that the Americans should be allowed to inspect the laser to see for themselves that it was really just an old piece of equipment that couldn't do any of the things the Pentagon was claiming it could do. And they went. So it was really interesting for me to see the internal deliberations that we never knew before. It was about weakness - it was about the Soviet's admitting that they had this weakness.

I wonder what Reagan would say today if we sat down with him and said, "Here was the Soviet military bulletin that you put out saying that they had this laser, and here is your radio speech in October saying they had this laser, and here are their internal documents where they say they actually can't let the Americans see it because it doesn't work."

That was one of my central points: that the Soviet system was more rickety and more subject to problems than Reagan understood.

JSE: It is probably a completely different feeling for you now, looking back on a period that you covered, than when you covered it over 20 years ago. One example that comes to mind, looking back it looks like it was just paranoia coming out of the White House in terms of Soviet military capabilities. What was your impression at the time, and how has it now changed, if at all?

DH: I wrote a story in 1985 in which I devoted a long time to how the SDI was launched. Here I am, 25 years later, now able to read Reagan's diaries, to reinvestigate it. Of course I found that I missed a lot of things.

One of the things I missed about Reagan was the weight he gave to the opinions of outsiders. Obviously he gave a lot of weight to the Joint Chiefs and to insiders, but I found that people outside, some of them quite remote from the center of power, had a lot of influence on Reagan. He then blended all these various inputs that he got into what he decided to do. And you see in the case of SDI, not only the back and forth with the Joint Chiefs, which is quiet fascinating, but the role of these outsiders, including Edward Teller and Admiral James Watkins, who was chief of naval operations. This whole thing, SDI, comes together - it was never ever vetted or proposed by the American government - it was something he thought up based on all these bits and pieces. That is really quite extraordinary - if I had known that that was how SDI was created in 1985, I would have been a lot richer intellectually as a reporter.

I'll give you another example, and I'm not afraid to admit it. I covered Reagan's 1980 campaign pretty thoroughly, and I never caught on to his views about nuclear weapons and abolition. Reagan kept that pretty disguised, and certainly if you were a reporter and read all the speeches, like the VFW speech in August, you would come away with the impression that he wanted to buildup American military and nuclear weapons, and not that he was reckless, but certainly that he was in favor of a buildup. Never once in those speeches did I catch on that he was an abolitionist. Failure on my part, maybe. Good acting on his part, maybe. But, it is quiet a thing to go back and read the diaries of a guy that you covered and didn't have a clue about.

JSE: In terms of abolishing nuclear weapons, I'm convinced that Reagan held a general belief that nuclear weapons should be abolished because the world would be better without nuclear weapons, but I'm not convinced that Reagan was really ready to go down that road. Going back to your point, it is interesting to think that if he really knew what was going on inside the Soviet Union, that they were really militarily falling apart, why not make a serious move towards Gorbachev's proposal in 1986 to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000?

DH: I would put it slightly differently. You ask a good question, but here is what I would say: If Reagan was really such an abolitionist, why did the first term pass - when there were many opportunities before Gorbachev - to get agreement on a nuclear weapons treaty. This is a question that my critics have asked sometimes, which is, if he was such a nuclear abolitionist, why didn't he take up the chance in 1982 and 1983 to move ahead on START? He could have done business then, he could have moved earlier. Reagan's answer was that he was waiting for the right partner, and so on.

When Gorbachev came to power in March of 1985, Reagan was already thinking in big terms about change. Certainly in 1986, Gorbachev proposed elimination of all nuclear weapons. There is this really great moment when Secretary of State Shultz comes over to brief Reagan, and Reagan is already looking at the paper, and Reagan looks up at Shultz and says, "Well, why wait to the year 2000?" So, you know you can ask, why didn't Reagan move sooner in 1985 and 1986?

And then they get to Reykjavik...couldn't they have done it a year earlier? The answer, I think, is that Reagan didn't know about Gorbachev's radical intentions because our intelligence didn't tell him. And because Deputy Director of the CIA Bill Gates and CIA Director Bill Casey politicized it, and ideologically we see in their writings that they told Reagan that Gorbachev was not a radical reformer.

So the second missed opportunity, I think was in that period. Reykjavik could have been the grand moment - the greatest arms control deal in history had Reagan really understood Gorbachev. Then we find out by 1987, when Reagan gets the INF Treaty, he himself begins to see that Gorbachev is for real. But Gates by 1987 didn't see it. So, again, Reagan by 1988 had one more really great opportunity to close the deal started at Reykjavik, to get the 50 % cut in strategic weapons and he fluffs it. By 1988 Reagan seems so ready to leave that they just don't get to that treaty. There is a fair amount of expert opinion that thinks that had they really wanted to, they could have got that Treaty (at the Moscow Summit).

In December 1988, after the elections, Gorbachev makes a speech at the UN basically reversing the whole Cold War - pulling the Soviets out of Europe. So, I think there are 3 big missed opportunities in the Reagan timeline where you could ask, if he was really so determined to abolish nuclear weapons, why didn't he do more?

JSE: That's what I took from reading all the summit transcripts.

DH: The thing about Reagan is this: He wasn't always as good in implementing things as he was in believing in them.

There is this big scene after Reykjavik - Reagan went to Reykjavik without talking to Admiral Crowe (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). When Reagan gets back, Crowe gives him a lecture telling him that he made a mistake. I think that this example just shows that there was a haphazard nature to American foreign policy under Reagan that undermined Reagan's goals, and it was because of his method as a manager, his inattention to the details, that sometimes you had this haphazard thing.

My answer to why Reagan didn't do more is not that he didn't believe, just that he missed opportunities because of the dysfunctional way that the American presidency and establishment work. And also you have to remember that nuclear deterrence and the Cold War mindset ran extremely deep in Washington, and if Reagan believed it and wanted to change it - most of the time his aides just smiled at him and didn't act.

There is a really important scene where Shultz has to tell the guys at the State Department that this (nuclear abolition) is really what Reagan believes. They didn't believe it was a belief that ran against all the conventional wisdom of Washington.

JSE: On the theme of nuclear abolition and going against conventional thought, much has been made of Prime Minister Thatcher reprimanding President Reagan for talking too much about abolishing nuclear weapons - moving towards zero - because she really thought nuclear weapons were needed not only as a deterrent but as a way to make sure they (both the U.S. and British defense budgets) were getting the defense funding that was needed.

DH: I don' t fully understand her motives. But you are right, she was strongly in favor of nuclear deterrence and there was a really great scene where after Gorbachev visits Thatcher in December 1984, she comes to Washington to give Reagan a briefing on what she heard. She also hears him for the first time talk about SDI, and she was appalled. They have only recently declassified some of this material in which you see how different her views were. She didn't buy into SDI hardly at all, but she was very much committed to the traditional notion of nuclear deterrence.

JSE: Going back to The Dead Hand, I was really struck by the fact that at the height of the arms buildup the U.S. and Soviet Union combined had about 60,000 nuclear weapons. Today, after all the arms control treaties, there are still about 23,000 nuclear weapons. How many does it really take? What's the point of all these weapons?

DH: We still have far too many. Given the world that we live in, and the asymmetric threats that we face, which are guerilla warfare and terrorism, I think that the United States could easily do with half the weapons we currently have. We are now in negotiations with the Russians to get down to 1,500, but, the question is, what security does 1,500 give you that 700 doesn't give you, or 500, and if the Chinese have 200 and both the British and French have in the low 100's, why do we have to be at 1,500?

I basically came out of this research feeling that this is a problem of the legacy of the Cold War mindset being allowed to persist. Who are we deterring? Are we deterring North Korea with all these weapons? Iran? One way to look at it is: We helped build the Moscow stock markets, our advisers went there and told them how to create a market and we helped build it. I want to know, is that on our target list today? Are we going to shoot down the market we helped build? You know, Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly, which is the biggest company in Russia, trades on the New York Stock Exchange. So I want to know, are they going to target Wall Street where their stock is traded too? That is how ridiculous this is. We are no longer adversaries. The two countries have 95% of the nuclear weapons. If we had the political will to go down to several hundred we would be just as safe.

The Treaty that Obama is about to sign, in total, is going to cover probably fewer than 4,000. So what about all the rest? When do we get around to dealing with the tactical nuclear weapons? When do we decide we don't need to keep a warehouse in reserve? And lastly, I really strongly believe in de-alerting. We still have land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert as do the Russians, and we each say we do it because of the other side. The truth is that neither side needs to be on hair-trigger alert anymore. We could create a delay of a week. Move the warheads somewhere else.

JSE: It's ironic that we built all these nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear strike, and our biggest fear is still a nuclear attack, and all these nuclear weapons provide zero deterrence against someone in any American city with a nuke strapped to their back.

DH: That's exactly right. It's asymmetric, those missiles are not going to stop the crazy man.

One of my favorite moments of this whole history is at Reykjavik. It's getting near the end and they have this moment when they are going back and forth and Reagan had told Gorbachev over and over again that this was like chemical weapons and the gas mask and SDI would deter missiles just like the gas mask would be a deterrent to gas.

Reagan also used to tell Gorbachev that SDI would keep some maniac from launching a nuclear attack. At one point Gorbachev got so upset he just turned to Reagan and said, "I'm sick and tired of hearing about your gas masks and your maniacs."

JSE: Right, no SDI is going to stop the backpack nukes.

DH: Even now we are still having a national debate over ballistic missile defense. I know that the technology gets better. But I wonder if it will really work. I tend to think, in this time when we worry about Bin Laden and terrorism, you have to wonder... even though we are not making the investment Reagan talked about, is it really worth it to try and think about how to hit a bullet with a bullet. Because that is what is involved.

JSE: The title from your book comes from the Soviet semi-automatic system of retaliation. Didn't the United States also have a similar system?

DH: The one feature of the Soviet system is that little rockets would fly off across the country to issue orders to the big rockets. That little command rockets system was something we tried but we didn't give the rocket instructions to launch big missiles. We just put a tape in it to broadcast the launch order. We never really created such a semi-automatic system as they had. We always had a command and control system in which humans, specifically the President, had the last call.

There is a lovely moment where Tom Reed (Special Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Affairs) is talking to Reagan in 1982 about command and control and continuity of government. During this time period there was a lot of concern that command and control was pretty weak. They talked to Reagan about what to do, they had a whole system to evacuate the president in the case of a nuclear attack. Tom Reed recalled that Reagan said the following: "I don't want to get in any helicopter. That is George's (Vice President Bush) job. If there is a nuclear attack, I want to sit here in the Oval Office and make the decisions." I thought that was pretty amazing. After that they built a system whereby they wouldn't evacuate the president but they would evacuate the presidency. Reagan would sit in the Oval Office until the last second.

I actually came away from this project more of an admirer of Reagan than when I began. I obviously was a skeptical reporter when I covered him and did my best, but reading his diaries made me see a lot more about a certain kind of authenticity of views, a certain genuineness of views.

For example, in January of 1986 Gorbachev announced a plan to liquidate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. That was the day that Shultz comes over and Reagan said, "Why wait till 2000?" In his diary that night, I'd like to read it to you because it shows you what I'm talking about.

"Jan. 15, 1986: Gorbachev is surprisingly calling for arms reductions which will rid the world of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Of course he has a couple of zingers in there that we will have to work around, but at the very least it is a h--l of a propaganda move. We'd be hard put to explain how we could turn it down."

If you had told me that Reagan felt that way on that night, I would have fallen out of my chair, because that is not the position that was presented to the public. He saw what Gorbachev was doing, and he really believed. I think that analytically, we often times made a mistake with Reagan by stereotyping... Reagan didn't help, he was a master actor and spin doctor. Now you can read what he really felt in these diaries. I think his role in ending the Cold War, though not as great as Gorbachev's, I'd give him second place. Reagan was a revolutionary - for an American president to have these views, and actually act on them - sometimes despite his aides and despite American policy, and sometimes he acted recklessly.

JSE: For example?

DH: The Reykjavik moment of great importance is marred by the imprecision of the language in the American statements. Not only the language at the Summit when they are talking to Gorbachev and propose these odd two paragraphs that didn't match, even afterwards, when the issue came up. It was imprecise when they mentioned whether they were talking about all strategic missiles or all ballistic missiles. How can you be sloppy about getting rid of all nuclear weapons? But they were. And as I said before, there was this sometimes haphazard nature to the whole process around Reagan. It was just breathtaking.

I think Reagan made one really big analytical mistake himself, which the book shows. If you read his Westminster speech, one of the greatest speeches a Cold War president ever gave, the Westminster speech is prescient about the Soviet system, it is incisive, it gets it almost exactly right, and I am talking about the Soviet system that I saw and understood, except for one thing - the military. Reagan could not make that final leap into realizing the Soviet military was suffering. I wish I was able to make that leap at the time, but no one in fact had made that leap. Nobody really made the leap until the records came out later. That was a really big analytical error that intelligence also had trouble seeing. Again, had he seen that, and also knew of Gorbachev's radical intentions, he might have gone further earlier in arms control negotiations. That is my major criticism.

But, how does a guy like Reagan jump out of his ideological skin and ask the question that needed to be asked? I don't know.

JSE: Especially when he is not even getting accurate intelligence?

DH: If you look at my discussion of the CIA's first assessment of Gorbachev, and how DCI Casey put a cover note on top of the intelligence assessment to Reagan, Casey really contradicted what the CIA study really said. We don't know what Reagan thought when he got that: was Casey correct, or the agency staff? In this case it turned out that Casey was wrong, but knowing Casey, Reagan probably weighed that heavily.

JSE: In my research on the Reagan years, the big question I constantly ask myself is how we got from 1981 - a time when the Cold War seemed to have no end in sight - to 1989, when the Cold War was over. I'm still not sure we really know how we got there.

DH: That is what this book is about... That is what I've devoted myself to trying to tell. It is a complex story, not a straight line, there are still some unknowns, but I think that if anything, that is what The Dead Hand tries to do.

On the issue of what caused the Soviet Union to collapse, that is another set of issues, and a lot of it had nothing to do with Reagan. The verb I like to say is that he nudged it. But the Soviet Union imploded of its own weight. People often make this argument, the group I would call the triumphalists, they make the argument that Reagan ended the Cold War, Star Wars ended the Cold War, SDI bankrupted the Soviet Union. It is all hogwash. The Soviet Union bankrupted itself.

I report in the book that Gorbachev was given a colossal proposal to build a Soviet Star Wars system like the U.S. was building ... The proposal is in Katayev's files at the Hoover Institution, and Gorbachev didn't do it. Had he done it, you could make the case that Star Wars bankrupted the Soviet Union, but the truth is that Gorbachev didn't do it.

The bankruptcy of the Soviet Union had a lot to do with the kind of system it was, and oil prices, and less to do with Reagan. I say in the book that I hope it is a little bit of a counterweight to the triumphalists view - I don't think the record supports the triumphalists argument. Most of them had no concept of what was happening in Moscow. That is again why I tried to create a history in stereo, so that the reader can understand what was happening on both sides.