With the 100th anniversary of World War I upcoming and old enmities between America and Russia resurging in contemporary form—for example, Glenn Beck recently said, “I will stand with GLAAD against…hetero-fascism” in Russia—due to the approach of that gayest of sporting events, the Winter Olympics, I thought it worth taking a look back at the war that didn’t happen: the one between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
So I dug out my battered copy of Sir John Hackett’s 1978 sci-fi novel, The Third World War: August 1985, which scared the hell out of me when I received it as a Christmas present on December 25, 1979, the day the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In response to the invasion, Jimmy Carter canceled American participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and instituted draft registration.
This bestseller is little remembered today, although its dry, logistics-oriented tale pleading for more defense spending has enjoyed an odd afterlife by inspiring Max Brooks’s zombie apocalypse novel World War Z that became last summer’s Brad Pitt blockbuster (which has provided me with no end of punning titles such as “World War G” and “World War T”).
General Hackett was an Australian-born scholar-soldier in the tradition of T. E. Lawrence. During World War II he was wounded in Syria and North Africa before leading the 4th Parachute Brigade drop behind German lines in the epic failure at Arnhem (as memorialized in the movie a A Bridge Too Far). After four months, he escaped.
In the late 1960s Hackett commanded the British Army of the Rhine, where he was appalled that NATO didn’t have the conventional military strength to repel a Warsaw Pact invasion without resorting first to nuclear weapons. In early 1977, near the nadir of Anglo-American resolve, the retired Hackett gathered six friends to help him write a book-length account of a 1985 donnybrook between the Red Army and a substantially strengthened NATO.
Spoiler Alert: We win, but only because we started rearming in the late 1970s.
As a page-turner, The Third World War is less than scintillating. The book begins with a few vignettes of the first day of fighting but soon devolves into a headquarter staff officer’s view of battle.
Tom Clancy’s 1986 bestseller Red Storm Rising is a more vivid read, in part because of Hackett’s military training. Hackett saw infinitely more combat than Clancy, but battle in 1980s Europe would have been such a horrifying metal storm that the best mental refuge was into military abstraction. As historian John Keegan explained in The Face of Battle, military drilling is intended to promote the opposite of literary imagination:
…the rote-learning and repetitive form and the categorical, reductive quality of officer-training has an important and intended—if subordinate—psychological effect. Anti-militarists would call it de-personalizing and even de-humanizing. But given…that battles are going to happen, it is powerfully beneficial. For by teaching the young officer to organize his intake of sensations, to reduce the events of combat to as few and as easily recognizable a set of elements as possible, to categorize under manageable headings the noise, blast, passage of missiles and confusion of human movement which will assail him on the battlefield, so that they can be described—to his men, to his superiors, to himself—as “incoming fire,” “outgoing fire,” “airstrike,” “company-strength attack,” one is helping him to avert the onset of fear or, worse, of panic.…
I spent a fair amount of time in 1980 pondering what battle on the Rhine would be like for me personally, and panic seemed the most likely and natural reaction.
Any would-be Hari Seldons confident they can write future history should note the numerous events that the seven British insiders didn’t get quite right about the actual 1985. For example, the Shah of Iran emerges from clearing Soviet allies from the Persian Gulf almost too strong for his North Atlantic friends’ liking. In our world, however, just eleven months after Hackett and friends finished their manuscript the Shah fell to the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose unexpected irruption into modern history always reminds me of the unplanned-for Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.
On the other hand, although The Third World War didn’t foresee the election of a Polish Pope in October 1978, Poland is properly central to its storyline anyway.
Rereading The Third World War after 34 eventful years, I’m surprised by how much Hackett and colleagues got right. They portray the future Soviet empire in the mid-1980s as muscle-bound but brittle, in imminent danger of falling apart into its score of constituent nations unless the Kremlin can keep ginning up foreign-policy triumphs to overawe potential separatists within its walls. But the Soviet Union’s weaknesses make it potentially dangerous.
Moreover, Hackett and friends rightly identified Poland as the key domino that would undermine the Soviet empire in the 1980s and little pro-Western Slovenia as its equivalent within Yugoslavia. Most importantly, they correctly predicted a revival of “national self-respect” in the West. That their book sold three million copies stands as both effect and cause of that fortunate development.
The Third World War’s plot seems plausible enough in retrospect: Anti-Soviet unrest in Poland leads Moscow to attempt to bully neutral post-Tito Yugoslavia back into the fold. To aid secessionists, the Republican president dispatches a few US Marines across the Italian border into Slovenia, where they unexpectedly stumble into a firefight with Soviet armor.
The Kremlin then dusts off its contingency plan to convert summer war games in East Germany into a full-scale invasion of West Germany. Writing in 1987, the British survivors sum up:
The purpose of the war had after all been largely political—to exploit the conventional weakness of the West in order to humiliate the U.S. and to re-establish absolutism in the Eastern Europe as the only safeguard against dissidence and fragmentation.
Instead of coming through the Fulda Gap toward Frankfurt, the heart of American power, the Warsaw Pact drives across the North German plain held by the British, Belgian, Dutch, Canadian, and German units that Hackett once co-commanded.
As in 1914, when the German chancellor assumed Britain would sit out the war, the Soviet strategy depends heavily upon French neutrality. But the French go to war alongside NATO. (Hackett correctly anticipated that the socialist Francois Mitterrand would prove more anti-Soviet than his Gaullist predecessor.)
Still, within a week the Red Army’s tanks have smashed across the Rhine and into the Netherlands. But when the Soviets try to roll down the west bank of the Rhine, that proves a bridge too, just as the same region did for Brigadier Hackett in 1944.
With French ports and airfields welcoming the colossal resupply effort from America, NATO launches a counteroffensive into the flanks of the Warsaw Pact supply lines. With the Red Army staggered, the Poles rise up. In a few days the Kremlin’s prospects deteriorate from control of Europe all the way to the English Channel to the loss of the empire, including even Czarist acquisitions such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
The Kremlin hawks then see their salvation in a deal with the Americans to abandon Western Europe in return for no intercontinental nuclear exchange. To prove their utter seriousness, the Soviets nuke Birmingham, England, while proposing “to the United States a bilateral status quo and the division of the world into two spheres of influence. The two superpowers had more interests in common than either had with its allies.”
But the American president, Sunbelt conservative Governor Thompson (i.e., Reagan), and the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Plumber (i.e., Thatcher), instantaneously order a joint counterstrike to annihilate Minsk in what’s now Belarus. The Soviet republics revolt against Moscow’s rule and a coup leads to the breakup of the Soviet Union (as happened in 1991).
The book’s limited nuclear exchange has often been criticized as implausible, but Hackett and his fellow Brits appear to have had a very specific concern—that of the Soviets successfully driving a wedge between North America and Western Europe—that their ending was designed to forestall in the real world by depicting the NATO allies utterly refusing to consider a separate peace.
Going nuclear first had been a money-saving NATO policy in the 1950s when the US was technologically dominant, but as the Soviets developed their capacity to slam the American homeland as hard as the US could hit Russia, the almost unmentionably unsettling thought emerged in Western European minds: Why in the world would America fight a strategic nuclear war for Western Europe? After all, would we Western Europeans choose to endure nuclear destruction to save America? Not bloody likely.
In the Second Punic War between Rome and North Africa’s Carthage, Hannibal and his elephants had famously invaded Italy by way of the Alps and defeated the Romans in three battles. But even the great general could not convince enough Italian cities to join him to ultimately win the war. Italian villagers reasoned that someday the Carthaginians would go home to their own continent, while they would be stuck in Europe with the angry Romans. Similarly, the US had its own perfectly nice continent, so how confident could the Western Europeans feel that the Americans would start a nuclear war to save their continent for them?
But if the US wouldn’t go nuclear to save Europe, what would be the point of fighting a losing conventional war? Why not negotiate the best Finland-style deal possible with the Soviets during peacetime?
Hackett explains this insidious logic in an Author’s Note:
This is not to suggest that a war is bound to happen, or even that it is likely. If, however, there could be no question that, in the event of war, the Warsaw Pact would win, the free countries of the West would be in no position to withstand political pressure from the USSR, which would enjoy the fruits of a military victory without having to fight for it.
For partisan reasons, distrust of the US was mostly articulated during the Cold War on the European left. But some independent-minded men of the right, such as the intensely rational Enoch Powell, came to similar conclusions. Most notably, the conservative nationalist Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO in 1967.
The way out of this conundrum, Hackett suggested, was for the NATO countries to outspend the Warsaw Pact on conventional arms. And that’s exactly what happened. The NATO partners each agreed to boost defense spending three percent annually from 1979-1986, and the Reagan Administration greatly exceeded that promise. This proved so successful that the Soviets gave up without a fight.
While not a wholly accurate prophecy (fortunately), The Third World War turned out to be one of the more effective books in history. As Karl Marx said, and General Hackett might have agreed: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
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