The work of historians is particularly useful, naturally, when it describes events that happened before the reader was born.

Accomplished historians can give readers at least a hint of the societal atmosphere — what people were saying and thinking and even feeling — during a period the readers didn’t actually experience.

But I was reminded recently of how compelling historical works can be, and how revealing, even when they deal with happenings that coincide with my own lifetime.

The source was a book, “The Dead Hand,” by David E. Hoffman, a longtime journalist and contributing editor to The Washington Post.

The main title to Hoffman’s 2009 book serves its purpose in luring the reader — who wouldn’t want to know what a “dead hand” is — but its subtitle, as subtitles are supposed to do, more fully explains its subject: “The untold story of the Cold War arms race and its dangerous legacy.”

Hoffman won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for “The Dead Hand.”

He deserved it.

Hoffman pulls off a feat that eludes many authors of similar histories. He deftly mixes the elements of a Tom Clancy-style military thriller, complete with hefty dollops of technical jargon, to craft a story that’s consistently exciting but never diverts the reader into a tedious, eye-watering slog through multisyllabic jargon.

Although the subtitle mentions the Cold War, Hoffman actually concentrates on the late stages of that conflict between the capitalist West, led by the U.S., and the communist eastern bloc defined by the Soviet Union.

The majority of the book covers the period between 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected to the first of his two terms as president, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Hoffman’s narrative is built largely around the interaction between Reagan and the reformist Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Although Hoffman’s focus is on the end of the Cold War, he also gives readers, by way of background, a brief but effective summary of the conflict’s origins and some of its more noteworthy events.

He also explains certain aspects of that era that sound ludicrous today — and perhaps seem all but inconceivable to readers for whom the Berlin Wall was never anything but souvenir chunks of graffitied concrete and a place where David Hasselhoff once performed so memorably.

As the 21st century nears its third decade it can indeed seem the height of folly that the world’s two superpowers for decades didn’t merely accept as a matter of course, but to various degrees endorsed, such notions as MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction.

This was the idea that because both the U.S. and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear arsenals more than sufficient to obliterate each other’s country — and much the greater part of its population — neither side would attack because to do so would guarantee the annihilation of both countries.

It was this precarious brand of “peace” in the midst of a “war” — which featured no actual battles between the two main antagonists — that lends such an absurdist aura to the post World War II geopolitical landscape.

I was prompted to pluck Hoffman’s book from the library shelf in part because I like to read about political and military history.

But what gave me a little thrill of anticipation as I scanned the outline printed on the jacket is that I actually lived through the period that makes up the bulk of Hoffman’s book. This piqued my curiosity in a way that a book examining, say, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which predated my birth by eight years, does not.

As I made my way through the chapters I realized just how thin my understanding was of those crucial latter days of the Cold War — a veneer of knowledge best measured in microns.

I could proffer my age as an explanation but that seems to me a flimsy excuse.

I was a teenager, or a young adult, during much of the period when Gorbachev and Reagan (and, in the final couple of years, George H.W. Bush) were meeting for historic summits in Reykjavik and other places to negotiate the partial dismantling of the fission and fusion stockpiles on which their countries had spent trillions of dollars and rubles.

But even if I had been too absorbed back then with MTV and school and largely fruitless attempts to impress certain girls, I have had ample time since to at least partially fill the yawning chasm in my education.

But until I read “The Dead Hand” I had scarcely even started that process.

I wasn’t even a third of the way through the book when I recognized that my version of the Cold War’s waning days was — and I’m being charitable to myself here — a sort of abbreviated Cliff’s Notes.

I could recite all the superficial clichés.

Reagan was a narrow-minded, bellicose former actor whose military spending spree gave the tottering Soviet Union a gentle push into an abyss where it was destined to plunge anyway. His reckless “evil empire” and “the bombing starts in five minutes” taunts served only to increase the risk of a catastrophe.

Gorbachev, meanwhile, was the true statesman, the reformer who, as his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize attests, deserved the greater share of the credit.

But the real world, suffice it to say, is rather more complicated than the lyrics of Don Henley or Jackson Browne might imply.

Hoffman obliterates such simplified portrayals. He shows, with a journalist’s eye for detail and an historian’s gift for placing events in context, how similar Reagan and Gorbachev were in their disdain for nuclear weapons.

I was surprised how eager Reagan was at times to curtail the arms race — often to the chagrin of his aides and advisers, who counseled moderation.

And I was stunned at how different the reality was in the Soviet Union compared with the popular conception of Gorbachev as a man who would have dismantled the Warsaw Pact much sooner if not for the stubborn ideologues in his own country and the jingoistic Reagan in the White House.

A thread throughout “The Dead Hand” is how the Soviets, continuing for years after Gorbachev’s ascension to power in 1985, pursued the most extensive — and thus terrifying — program of germ warfare in world history.

And this happened despite the Soviet Union having signed a biological weapons treaty in 1972, three years after the U.S. abandoned its offensive biological weapons program in 1969 at the order of President Richard Nixon.

To me the most chilling passages in Hoffman’s book aren’t those dealing with a potential atomic Armageddon — anyone who grew up, as I did, during the era of the TV movie “The Day After” knows that fear — but rather the prospect of the Soviet Union unleashing a genetically engineered strain of the plague that would resist all medical treatments.

It’s a prospect that persisted well into the 1990s, years after the Cold War supposedly had been won.

Indeed it persists even today. Hoffman notes in the epilogue that stockpiles of weapons and weapon ingredients that might remain, nuclear and otherwise, could present an irresistible enticement to terrorists and rogue nations that, though they lack the technological prowess and immense resources of the Soviet Union, also lack that nation’s inherent rationality.

Ultimately, Hoffman accomplished what I believe all historians strive to do — he enriched my understanding of the world.

And he made me reconsider what I thought I knew about a topic.

J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

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