Air University Review, March-April 1983

1985 Revisited

Major Steven E. Cady

The year 1978 witnessed publication of The Third World War: August 1985, a thought-provoking work by retired British General Sir John Hackett and an advisory team of experts. Hackett’s purpose was to present his thesis that the only alternative to a nuclear holocaust in World War III is for the West to be prepared adequately to wage the most advanced conventional war against the Soviet Union and its satellites. To dramatize his argument, Hackett constructed a detailed account of a hypothetical three-week war between West and East erupting and ending in August 1985. In that war, a West much more powerful in conventional weapons and armed forces than are the United States and Europe today just barely manages to bring the Soviet onslaught to a halt. The Soviet Union’s failure to achieve victory swiftly triggers its disintegration.

With the world five years closer to 1985 but with the West not significantly closer to being fully prepared for a conventional world war, Hackett and an expanded team of advisers have brought forth a revised version of their World War III account.* The purpose of the new, equally challenging book is the same, as is the fundamental story line, but with 1985 only two years away, an increased sense of urgency envelops the reader.

* General Sir John Hackett, The Third World War: The Untold Story (New York: Macmillan, 1982, $15.75), 400 pages.

A Soviet incursion into Yugoslavia in July 1985 is blunted by defeat at the hands of the U.S. Marine Corps, an incident publicized worldwide. This embarrassment accelerates the Soviet decision to invade and conquer West Germany, the Benelux nations, Scandinavia, and south-central Europe, and to gain control of the Dardanelles—in ten days, according to plan—and then call for negotiations with the United States from a position of strength. The Warsaw Pact forces advancing into West Germany meet with greater than expected resistance and are brought to a virtual standstill far short of their objective, the Rhine River. Mounting allied counterattacks, the defection of some satellite and even Russian military units, and anti-Soviet partisan operations behind the lines compel Soviet retreats in West Germany. In a last-ditch effort to frighten the West into negotiations, the Russians explode a nuclear missile over Birmingham, England, devastating that city. In retaliation, four American and British nuclear missiles destroy Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia. With disorganization and revolt in the Soviet sphere increasing rapidly, Ukrainian nationalists seize control of the Russian Politburo, and the Ukraine and other Soviet constituent republics declare their national independence. The threat to the West from the Soviet Union has ended.

Although Hackett’s two books narrate the same fictional war, there is very little duplication between them, and the differences in the two accounts are striking. The first book presented the war almost entirely from the West’s perspective; the second book devotes major sections to examining events from the Soviet view. As an apt illustration of this shift, Book 1 included a chapter dealing with the nuclear destruction of Birmingham; Book 2 has replaced it with a chapter describing the devastation of Minsk. The change in emphasis reflects the addition of two Russian expatriates to the author’s team of advisers: Viktor Suvorov (an assumed name) and Vladimir Bukovsky.

The first book concentrates on the war in West Germany, with comparatively brief sections regarding air and sea operations in the North Atlantic and concurrent events in the Middle East and southern Africa. The second book expends much space on relevant political considerations and/or military events in Ireland, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and Central America, the Middle East, and the Far East. It also provides more detailed information about the Soviet war at sea throughout the world and about the conflict in space and includes extended analyses both of the underlying causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse and of the resulting altered world situation.

In addition, Book 2 takes cognizance of major real-world events occurring after publication of Book 1. These include actual and planned new American and Soviet weapons and weapon systems; the regime change in Iran; the Iraq-Iran war; Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and return of the Sinai to Egypt; Poland’s Solidarity union; China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979; the influx of 125,000 Cubans into Florida in 1980; and many others.

Not everyone goes along with Hackett’s perspective and ideas. Take John Skow, one of Time magazine’s regular contributors, for instance. He denigrated the thrust of Hackett’s first book as merely a request to support "our local military-industrial complex." He dismisses the theme of the new book in similar terms: it is "to trust the West’s stalwart military men and give them whatever costly whizbangs they ask for." Skow accuses the author of galling "Blimpish prejudice," "a tone of righteous contempt," "lip-smacking language," and making the "military mind seem demented." Such outright calumny is totally unjustified. Where the future—the very survival—of the United States and of the entire civilized world depends on pursuing the exactly right course of action, every basic option requires the most serious, intense, and prolonged consideration. Anything less could well be suicidal. Hackett, like many intelligent and knowledgeable individuals, supports one of the primary options available to Western society.

That much said, legitimate doubts about the value of Hackett’s books, particularly as distinguished from his ideas, must nevertheless be raised. First is the phenomenally rapid obsolescence built into them. Depending on what happens in the next few years, the issue that concerns Hackett may have been resolved by 1985. It appears much more likely, however, still to be around, possibly in a somewhat modified or escalated form. What then? Reading about an imagined world war known not to have occurred will hardly be a popular exercise, so that the lifetime of Hackett’s works is limited severely by the date he has assigned to World War III. Within just a few years, both of his World War III books will be gathering dust on library shelves, side by side with the predictive literature of H. G. Wells. Books setting the war farther into the future, or arguing the author’s position directly, in more general terms, without dressing it up in a fictional war, while perhaps not selling as well, would have an indisputably longer lifetime.

Next, both works mention the author’s fundamental premise a number of times. Yet, it seems virtually to disappear amid detailed descriptions of weapons and weapon systems; equally lengthy recitals of opposing tactics and strategies; vivid, absorbing portrayals of battlefield action; and chilling accounts of the nuclear devastation wrought in Birmingham and Minsk.

The many narrative distractions are reinforced by even more numerous ones of a technical nature. British spellings (programme, gaol, manoeuvre) and metric measurements are used throughout, as are the military’s reversed dates and 24-hour clocks. The texts of both books are saturated with largely unfamiliar names—of persons, places, ships, missiles, satellites, tanks, and guns; the writing teems with strange acronyms and abbreviations—l43 different ones used repeatedly in Book 1, 160 in Book 2; and the author displays a penchant for employing characteristically British and/or military words and expressions, and highly literary and foreign terms (exiguous, conspectus, rapprochement, Dies Irae, roulement, Taoiseach): terms so uncommon that the average reader needs several dictionaries at his side really to understand what Hackett is saying. To what does all this amount? To the fact that about the only audience capable of reading the author’s works with ease is that one which does not need to be persuaded that he is right: military officers on both sides of the Atlantic. However many copies of the two books may be sold, their central argument is lost on most readers in the confusion.

More significantly, Hackett has selected a particular one of an infinity of possible futures, many of which include no kind of world war at all between now and, say, the year 2000. What real-world probability attaches to his choice? Some of the features of his world only a few years hence seem thoroughly implausible to common sense and to intuition: the acceptance of divorce, contraception, and abortion in currently Catholic Ireland; an Israel neutralized by both American and Soviet guarantees of its territorial integrity; a militarily powerful and politically resolute Egypt; the awakening of all NATO nations to the serious nature of the Soviet threat during the period 1979-85 (Book 1) or 1982-85 (Book 2); restoration of the draft in the United States; Sweden’s willingness to go to war against the Soviet Union rather than permit Russian military planes to overfly its territory; the instant decision of the French to commit their forces to NATO, despite Russian assurances that France would not be attacked; NATO’s surprisingly light naval losses in the North Atlantic; the refusal of NATO’s commander to order the use of tactical nuclear weapons in spite of serious battlefield reverses; NATO’s ability nevertheless to bring the Soviet advance through central Europe to a halt; the strategically nonnuclear character of World War III; and a quick overthrow of the Soviet government by its own citizens.

If an average probability of 1 in 10 is arbitrarily assigned to each of the events just enumerated as materializing by 1985 (or even 1987) in the real world, the probability of all of them coming into being within the next three (or five) years is only one in one trillion. Conceding the fact that human history is dotted with events that seemed most unlikely shortly before they occurred—the recent Falkland Islands war and the sudden dispersal of the Palestine Liberation Organization around the Arab world are good examples—a scenario as wildly implausible as the one constructed by Hackett and his advisers detracts very sharply from the force of their argument. It becomes extremely difficult for the reader to perceive a moral in Hackett’s patently unreal world, which is applicable to today’s actual world.

Finally, there is nothing to suggest that the nations of western Europe are currently motivated to raise their levels of preparedness for conventional war to those of the Warsaw Pact nations; that the United States is willing to compensate for their unpreparedness by stationing several million heavily armed and equipped American troops on European soil; that the European nations would permit such a massive influx of American military power; or that the Soviet Union would watch this military buildup without launching an attack on western Europe, and perhaps on the United States as well, to abort it.

It also stands to reason that the West can match conventional Soviet military might in one of only two ways: either by lowering its standard of living almost to the Soviet level or by plunging recklessly toward national bankruptcy. No Western government is willing to adopt either course; any government that did would soon be toppled or voted out of office.

Hackett sidesteps the resulting critical dilemma for the West by maintaining that:

• Western superiority over the Communist bloc in electronic communications and weaponry is so extraordinary;

• The decision-making and initiative-taking ability of junior officers made imperative by the flexibility of today’s conventional warfare is so much greater in the West than in the East; and

• The organization and cohesiveness of American and West European military units are so superior to those of Soviet and satellite units that properly equipped and supplied Western troops, planes, and ships can hold their own against Communist forces four or five times their number.

To me, such unbounded faith in Western qualitative superiority looks like wishful thinking of the most dangerous sort. A crash program educating the public both here and in western Europe to the stark realities of the world situation, teaching it to understand and accept a life of personal sacrifice for as long as it takes—for decades to come, if need be—seems like a much safer and more realistic solution to the dilemma. Let each reader decide for himself!

Air Command and Staff College
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


Major Steven E. Cady (B.A., Texas Lutheran College; M.S., University of Southern California) is a student at Air Command and Staff College. His previous assignments were in General Officer Matters, Hq USAF, in Plans and Policy, Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as executive officer and electronic warfare officer at Loring AFB, Marine. Major Cady is a Distinguished Graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and a previous contributor to the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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