poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

March 31, 2010

START up the Hot Tub Cold War Time Machine!

Contents: Russia Today‘s “Crosstalk” discusses Gorby and perestroika, WBEZ‘s “Worldview” discusses nuclear disarmament, and David Hoffman (the homely guy who wrote The Oligarchs, not the hot guy I want to run against Daley) writes about the Cold War arms race. Bust out your vhs of War Games and tight-roll your jeans, we’re goin’ on a trip…

No, I was just kidding about the jeans! Please! Stop!

I. CrossTalk: “How should Gorbachev’s perestroika be remembered?”

Starring: Stephen Cohen (with whom I am in love, and with his wife too, actually, I think we’d make a fabulous threesome…), Mary Dejevsky (whom I aso really like, but not in that way) and some other people. One of whom is the host, Peter Lavelle. I don’t know how Peter got that job, but I’m pretty sure I should have it.

Nuggets of wisdom:

~Mary: “The Russia of today and the Russia of perestroika are totally, totally different countries.” It irritates her that this perspective is seemingly lost in Western reporting about Russia today. Like, Russia currently, not the tv station…

~Peter (eternally frustrated): The frequent references to Stalinism when talking about modern Russia in Western journalism doesn’t help us understand either modern Russia or perestroika.

~Stephen (eternally forlorn): Reporting on Russia during the Cold War was even better than it is today… grumble grumble gumble…

~VCIOM (not a guest, a poll): A growing number of Russians actually see perestroika as a positive thing, though that number is still under 40%.

~Stephen : De-democratization (me: can we just call it “mocratization?”) began with Yeltsin, not Putin. Me: Kasparov agrees, you know…

~Mary (eternally sane): The ailing state of reporting on Russia is due to the cost-cutting measures in journalism that has shut or pared down bureaus in Moscow and the loss of Russian language and cultural expertise in the West. And young people’s and intellectuals’ sense of history, which dates back only to the 1990’s. They remember the 1990’s as an era of ideological freedom, and find today comparatively worse. Most Russians who can remember the 80’s and 70’s find today comparatively better.

~Stephen: Only two other people share his view that American policy toward post-Soviet Russia since 1992 has been a dangerous disaster because the U.S. has not changed its policy re: Nato expansion and because there exists no organized opposition calling for better relations with Russia. Stephen, get out more! You are not alone. I bet I can find at least 2 people right now who agree with you! Me, and, oh, probably everyone who reads this blog. Which is at least 2 other people. Stop awfulizing, Stephen. You are not as alone as you feel.

Except for in the way that, existentially, we are all alone…

II. Worldview: “President Obama’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Vision.”

Starring: Joseph Gerson, peacenik. And host, Jerome McDonnell. I don’t know how Jerome got that job, but he’s freaking brilliant at it, thank god. He should take over Charlie Rose’s show when he dies. (A terrifying potential power vacuum my friends and I fret about when Charlie’s not looking so well.)

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs and Director of the Peace and Economic Security Program for the American Friends Service Committee. His most recent book is titled Empire and the Bomb: How the United States Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.
Listen here.

Nuggets of wisdom:

~Re: “realists”: The idea of nuclear weapons ensuring the peace is like ensuring the peace by handing out hand guns to school kids. Even people like George Shultz (me: George Shultz, fer chrisssake!) have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to pursue real nuclear disarmament.

~Obama is investing in nuclear labs (and I’d add missile defense) as a compromise so Republicans will vote to ratify the New START. (me: Good luck with that, Barack. Remember all those compromises we made in the health care bill? Remember how many Republicans voted for it? If you held a vote banning the feeding of infants to sharks for entertainment, the fuckers would vote “no.”)

~The U.S. maintains a 1st Strike mandate defense policy. Official policy is that nukes can be used not just as deterrents. Madness.

~”8 years from now the U.S. and Russia will still have over 90% of world’s nuclear weapons.” Madness! Gorby, come back!

~Young people don’t remember or are not aware of nuclear freeze movement of the 1980’s. Without the Soviet threat, people are not afraid, but we still have the weapons. After the Cold War people just stopped thinking about it, were exhausted. (<– I think the theme of exhaustion is one of the least explored and most important aspects of the Cold War, actually. I've been thinking about it a lot lately. It's exhausting.)

~Gerson says the nuclear freeze movement forced Reagan to negotiate with Soviets which in turn ended the Cold War. (me: Well, if it makes him feel better.)

~Nuclear weapons: outta sight out of mind. No one even knows where they are. It's an abstract idea, which makes it difficult to organize around, make people care about.

If you want to join Gerson's peace movement, Click here!

… Before I continue, I think it is important to note that however much of a dreamy hippie you think Gerson is, Cohen has repeatedly asserted that the current American posture toward Russia persists because there is no opposition lobby to it, like there was during the nuclear freeze movement. Personally, I think we should start a lobby. But we don’t have one. At least Gerson is trying. Ya know? … I’m serious about the lobbying thing. Anyone got some money? If a hippie can get a lobby, surely we can too.

III. David Hoffman’s The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy.


During the Cold War, world superpowers amassed nuclear arsenals containing the explosive power of one million Hiroshimas. The Soviet Union secretly plotted to create the “Dead Hand,” a system designed to launch an automatic retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States, and developed a fearsome biological warfare machine. President Ronald Reagan, hoping to awe the Soviets into submission, pushed hard for the creation of space-based missile defenses.

In the first full account of how the arms race finally ended, The Dead Hand provides an unprecedented look at the inner motives and secret decisions of each side. Drawing on top-secret documents from deep inside the Kremlin, memoirs, and interviews in both Russia and the United States, David Hoffman introduces the scientists, soldiers, diplomats, and spies who saw the world sliding toward disaster and tells the gripping story of how Reagan, Gorbachev, and many others struggled to bring the madness to an end. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the danger continued, and the United States began a race against time to keep nuclear and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists and and rogue states.

So I read this book. Or, I’ve been reading it – not yet finished. Because it is so freaking tedious to read. But I’ll come back to that. I picked up this book because I hd just finished reading Hoffman’s previous opus, The Oligarchs, which was astonishingly informative and exquisitely written. I guess I was expecting the same from The Dead Hand. It is true, data about nuclear warheads is not something that normally holds my attention. But honestly, neither do business schemes. Plus, with the New START, the anniversaries of the ends of the Cold War, the appearances of a New Cold War, it’s not like I just didn’t have my heart in it. Plus, biological warfare! How can that be boring? Hoffman’s gritty, detailed, fly-on-the-wall narration, filled with anecdotes and atmosphere, that made The Oligarchs such a page turner is replaced in The Dead Hand with rote historian banalities. Blech. Lots of on such and such a date so and so called so and so to set up a meeting with so and so and nothing ever came out of the meeting. Kill me now. Worse, it is not as well organized as his previous book. Which was, I must say, painstakingly well organized, so he’s set the bar high on all accounts. The Dead Hand follows a vaguely chronological order, but within the chapters things get messy and you have to flip back a few pages to find out what year it is. It lacks flow. More disappointing is that it lacks the narrative arc of The Oligarchs, which was a classic Shakespearean plot. It’s not like there weren’t historical events in the nuclear arms race to re-create that same kind of narrative crescendo. It just drags. Maybe Hoffman’s only fault is choosing to write about … negotiations. Week after week, month after month, year after year of … negotiations. The people who were in the room the first time were probably bored too, and thinking, “Haven’t we already been over this part before?” There is also the difficulty of conveying the tension and crisis of events that happen in minutes or seconds when writing a larger, epic, even, story.

That said … I have incredibly high standards for prose. I generally won’t touch 99% of the stuff that’s written. The Dead Hand is probably on par with most quality history writing. Most importantly, I think everyone under 35 should read this book! Ignore everything I just criticized the book for. That criticism was for those of us who have the luxury to read, or not read, this book. The rest of you don’t pass class until you’ve read The Dead Hand. Because I’m sick and tired of listening to smug young realists downplay the importance and difficulty and necessity of nuclear disarmament treaties. Damn it. Kids these days. I don’t care how they dress (but tight-rolling your jeans? for real?), what music they like, what sexual mores they have, what drugs they do. Don’t care. But I do care that everyone forgot to teach them about human civilization pre-2001. Yes, I am being curmudgeonly and rude. But while you were busy not being born yet, or watching Sesame Street, the rest of us managed to scare ourselves shitless over the prospect of nuclear war. Since you missed the initiation into the scared shitless club, we need to do something so we don’t have to go through it all again.

Why do we read history? That’s right, children.

Yes, I am a bitch. If that’s what I have to be to save the world, so be it. 🙂

Ok, thanks for reading!


  1. Hey SALT negotiations were a thing of the Nixon-Kissinger Era. I don’t think realism opposes mutual arms reductions agreements. In fact, it’s the neocons today who are most suspicious of signing treaties with Russia:

    (1) It engages Moscow in the one dimension Russia still a superpower (nuclear weapons), treating the Kremlin like it’s more important “than it really is.”
    (2) It degrades the U.S. security umbrella for our freedom-loving, pacifist allies in the Far East and Eastern Europe.
    (3) It limits America’s ability to rearm ICBMs and other delivery systems with conventional warheads, thus threatening the wasteful system of military-industrial overkill that sustains the hawk elite in Washington.

    Arms control, clearly, is an enemy of democracy, apple pie, and mud wrestling. From my dead, cold hands.

    Comment by A Good Treaty — March 31, 2010 @ 9:18 PM | Reply

    • No disagreements there. The problem with realism is that reality is open to interpretation… 😉

      But you’ve reminded me of another complaint about Hoffman’s book. It never questions the role and influence of the MIC in the Soviet Union, but dismisses out of hand the political influence of America’s Military Industrial Complex, as well as its role in the economy. Which is just very odd. So odd I just ignored it.

      Comment by poemless — April 1, 2010 @ 11:49 AM | Reply

    • If (1) is their actual line of reasoning, neocons must be superbly stupid.

      To explain why treaties are necessary… What would you say about a system of space-based nuclear warheads which following a radio command can descend from the low Earth orbit and hit its targets? Such system was operational once in the Soviet Union and was prohibited by international treaties. Just google for R-36 orbital.

      Comment by Evgeny — April 2, 2010 @ 5:02 AM | Reply

      • Neocons must be superbly stupid?

        Why … I’ve never heard such madness…


        Comment by poemless — April 2, 2010 @ 9:23 AM | Reply

  2. Poemless, have a look at the following discussion thread:


    Certainly there can be something of interest for you. Just to say, those guys basically have a background of technology, not humanities.

    Comment by Evgeny — April 1, 2010 @ 6:34 AM | Reply

    • Yes, I am afraid it is far too technical for me. I wouldn’t even understand a lot of that in English! Though I did look at the link at the end about Perimeter. It’s still in use?! OMG. I suppose any American equivalent is then too? Grief. Hasn’t everyone seen War Games yet? You can’t win that war!!

      Comment by poemless — April 1, 2010 @ 11:54 AM | Reply

  3. What?! Undergraduates needing to read bad prose in order to graduate because the ideas are important and may be good for them?! Why I never HEARD of such a thing!

    Now, if you also demanded that students also had to listen to, say, insipid 1980s-era please-don’t-kill-us-all pop music to go along with the anti-nuclear-war ideas (I’ve got my eye on YOU, Sting!), THEN I think we can drag you into The Hague …

    Comment by EdgewaterJoe — April 2, 2010 @ 9:18 AM | Reply

    • OMG don’t make me post this, Joe:

      Comment by poemless — April 2, 2010 @ 9:22 AM | Reply

      • That’s the way you want it?

        Okay, then, that’s the way you’ll GET it!

        Comment by EdgewaterJoe — April 2, 2010 @ 12:24 PM | Reply

        • Awesome.

          BTW, what do you think of this new theme? I like everything about it but the freaky small font…

          Comment by poemless — April 2, 2010 @ 12:26 PM | Reply

          • The embedding of the video was automatic, and the type (if you can) should be adjusted … it’s cleaner, but I dunno, I kinda miss the pen. Neat basis of a logo for you, IMHO.

            … wait, you LIKED “Russians”?! 😉

            Comment by EdgewaterJoe — April 2, 2010 @ 1:47 PM | Reply

            • No, I didn’t like that song – actually. But that’s another story…

              The pen always annoyed me.

              OTOH, anyone with poor eyesight will need a magnifying glass to read this. OTOH, I love how it is more compact looking.

              Comment by poemless — April 2, 2010 @ 2:01 PM | Reply

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