2010 ALA Notable Books

January 28th, 2010

The Hawk and the Dove makes a cool list, along with some very good company.

Freya von Moltke: World War II hero dies

January 5th, 2010
Freya von Moltke: from the FvM Foundation and WSJ

Freya von Moltke: from the FvM Foundation and WSJ

Freya von Moltke, a hero of WW II, and the wife of a dear friend of George Kennan has just died. I interviewed her for the book about two years ago and she had fond memories of him. Here’s an essay, “Noble Man” that Kennan wrote about him. Here’s the WSJ obituary. And here’s the section from the book:

With the war over, Kennan wanted to find the opposition figures he had met while in the country, particularly a man named Helmuth von Moltke. And so, on May 10th, 1945, the day after the outpouring in Red Square, Kennan wrote to a colleague in the Foreign Service inquiring about the whereabouts of his old friend.

The two had first met in 1940, after Germany had begun its rampage through Europe but before it formally engaged the United States. At that secret get-together, the German had been reading The Federalist Papers. He was seeking, he said, guidance for how his country should reconstitute itself after it inevitably lost the war—a comforting thought for Kennan at a time when the Wehrmacht seemed invincible. The war had now ended as von Moltke, a member of Germany’s greatest military family, had foreseen. But Kennan had had no news of the man himself since 1941. Kennan sought not just a friend but a confirmation that Nazism had not infected all of Germany and that wise men who had resisted Hitler from the beginning had survived.

The big question for Germany was what would come next. The country that had driven two world wars in the past 30 years had descended into chaos. Its neighbors wanted to loot it, to break it apart, or to do both. Many people thought the country or culture was fundamentally deformed. The U.S. government’s Morgenthau Plan, named after the secretary of the Treasury, called for “converting Germany into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character.”

Kennan, however, believed Germany needed U.S. aid and assistance. A weak, abandoned Germany would soon become a province of Moscow. The only solution was to divide the nation and try to make the Western territories vigorous enough to resist Russian influence. A dismembered Germany, with the west serving as a buffer to the forces of totalitarianism, was preferable to a united Germany that could bring those forces to the North Sea.

To Kennan, this was just one of many lines the United States needed to draw through the map of Europe. The U.S. must split the world into “spheres of influence,” he declared with resignation. We would maintain influence in Western Europe; the Soviets could have Eastern Europe. There was not much point in hoping for a belt of neutral countries down the middle of the continent that Russia would just gobble them up. “We should accept as an accomplished fact the complete partition of Germany along the line of the Russian zone of occupation,” Kennan wrote.

Part of that planning, of course, meant finding people who could run a respectable, competent German government. And that is where von Moltke came in: he was the one man whom Kennan thought could do a reasonable job ruling this new country.

Word of von Moltke’s fate would not take long to reach Kennan. The brave but sensible man had survived the early years of the war, quietly hiding the depth of his opposition to Hitler. But the Nazis had arrested him in January 1944. He had remained active in prison, smuggling out passionate letters about the future of Germany to his wife, Freya, who then hid them in beehives in her garden. He survived a year, but the Allies did not defeat Germany fast enough. In January 1945, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany condemned von Moltke to death.

His final letters describe the scene in vivid detail. He was like a journalist reporting his own execution, down to a sketch of where everyone at the trial sat. He was as cool as Speer, if in service to a greater cause. “My dear heart, first I must say that quite obviously the last 24 hours of a life are in no way different from any others. I always imagined that one would feel shock, that one would say to oneself: Now the sun sets for the last time for you,” he wrote. “None of that is the case.” He would go calmly, feeling that God was on his side. His last letter read: “Only together do we constitute a human being. We are, as I wrote a few days ago, symbolically, created as one. That is true, literally true. Therefore, my love, I am certain that you will not lose me on this earth, not for a moment.”

In May 1945, Kennan argued the case for von Moltke’s rehabilitation in a letter to a State Department colleague. “I can personally think of no one who would eventually make a better political leader for other Germans.” The letter arrived four months after von Moltke was hanged.

Could Al Qaeda set off Russia’s Dead Hand nuclear system?

January 2nd, 2010

mf_deadhand_fA short while ago, I published a story in Wired about how the Soviet Union in the 1980s constructed a system that would allow it to semi-automatically respond to an American nuclear strike, even if everyone in the Kremlin and Defense Ministries was killed. As I explained in the article, the system is almost certainly still active.

Yesterday I got a good question from a reader: “what happens when someone like Al Qaeda detonates a bomb on Russian soil in an attempt to have a response triggered against the US?”

The answer is: Likely nothing.

Assuming the system works the same way as when it was constructed, there are three safeguards that would prevent this launch. The first is that the system lies idle most of the time. It has to be turned on specifically, during a crisis, when Russia is worried that the US is considering a strike. Secondly, if the system can communicate with the humans in command of the arsenal, it turns off. And, lastly, humans have to push the final button to launch.

So, to succeed in starting a nuclear conflagration, Al Qaeda would have to strike when U.S. and Russian tensions were at an extraordinary level; it would have to blow up the main command and control centers in Moscow; and, somehow, the men manning the system in a bunker would have to be convinced that the strike came from the U.S. All of that happening is extremely unlikely.

Best Books of 2009

December 30th, 2009

booksRicklibrarian has just posted a very helpful list of lists on the best books of 2009. It makes me think back to choose my favorite books of the year, and I’ve got two: Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Snakehead, a spectacular story about immigrant smuggling in Chinatown, and David Hoffman’s The Dead Hand, a fascinating look at the late days of the Soviet Union.

Did the Soviets really fear that Reagan would launch?

December 27th, 2009

A few weeks ago, I participated in a fascinating panel at the Kennedy Library with Ken Adelman,  head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Reagan. Afterwards, we got in an argument about whether the Soviet Union had really been afraid that the Reagan Administration was going to launch a first strike during 1981-1983, years that I have argued were the most dangerous of the Cold War.

I began by pointing to the numerous interviews given by former Soviet officials who point to those years as the ones in which they most feared an American strike. When I went to Moscow, reporting for the book, at least a half dozen former top Soviet officials all told me the same thing. Adelman, a charming man and a terrific debater, countered that this is just talk. And, if you look at what the Soviets did, there’s less evidence that they were afraid of us. After all, he argued, they never dispersed their bombers, nor did they increase the number of submarines they had at sea. If truly afraid, they would have done both, in order to better counter an American strike.

I countered that they did increase their submarine dispersal; and, while I don’t know for sure about the bombers, they were such a small part of the Soviet arsenal that I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t done so. I also pointed to Project Ryan, the massive Soviet spying effort initiated in those years to garner clues of a potential American strike; the creation of the Dead Hand system for semi-automatic retaliation in the event of an American strike; and the huge underground bunker, called Grot, built in the Urals during those years. Adelman remained unpersuaded.

I’m going to see him this afternoon though, and I hope to continue the argument and to report back more.

The full story of George Krimsky

November 21st, 2009

The AP has just published a very interesting piece telling the whole tale of George Krimsky, the reporter who tried to help Stalin’s grandson defect in the late 1970s. I learned about this in Kennan’s papers and reported it in my book; but this is a much fuller version.

G. Gordon Liddy

November 18th, 2009

Here’s a clip of a radio interview yesterday with G. Gordon Liddy: He was very interested in the odd story I tell in my book about Kissinger and Zumwalt.


November 3rd, 2009

colbertI appeared on Stephen Colbert’s marvelous show last night. He’s as smart as he is funny—and it’s the sort of interview that it’s impossible to prepare for. I appear about 15 minutes into this clip.

Doomsday Machines coming soon!

October 22nd, 2009

Here is a video of a talk I gave recently in Wisconsin. One funny moment came in the beginning when my host informed me that someone had walked out, muttering “I thought I was going to see Nietzsche’s grandson.”

Also, on Friday at 8pm, I’ll be speaking in New York City at the Doomsday Film Festival.

Live at Book Passage

October 17th, 2009 has just posted a video of a reading I did two weeks ago at Book Passage in Corte Madeira.