Revisiting the Third World War

The latest issue of the British Journal for Military History has an interesting article by Jeffrey H. Michaels on Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War (1979), a fictionalized narrative of a potential NATO-Soviet conflict in the 1980s. Though it sparked a lot of attention at the time and sold more than 3 million copies, I don’t think posterity has been very kind to the book. The Third World War was a didactic narrative written as a thinly-veiled plea for more NATO conventional armaments, and a lot of the narrative choices haven’t aged well. Much of the political prognostication was laughably wrong – already discredited by the time its semi-sequel The Third World War: The Untold Story came out in 1982. As fiction, it was quickly overshadowed by Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising (1986), whose wargame underpinnings and multi-media afterlife are stories in themselves.

The Third World War is mostly of interest, then, as an artifact of Cold War policy debates played out in popular culture and as the first of what became quite a lot of late Cold War future war fiction (not just Red Storm Rising but also the Team Yankee series, Ralph Peters’s novel Red Army, Shelford Bidwell’s World War 3 [which Michaels says had its prospects mostly ruined by coming out shortly after Hackett’s book], and Kenneth Macksey’s First Clash: Canadians in World War Three, not to mention various games, TV shows, and movies).

Michaels’s article doesn’t change my mind about the qualities of the book itself, but by digging into Hackett’s papers at King’s College London he does reveal some interesting facts about its origins. For one thing, I had not realized how much Hackett played around with the entire scenario of the book as he developed it. His first outline called not for the brief, eighteen-day conflict in the final book, but a multi-year war of attrition in which NATO. That was scuppered by early readers who judged it too dispiriting. The inclusion of limited nuclear strikes on Birmingham and Minsk, which bring the war to an end (and which seem to me one of the more contrived aspects of Hackett’s narrative) were a late addition and a reversal of Hackett’s earlier opinion that nuclear strikes, if any, were likely to happen at sea or in space, not against the cities of a nuclear power. Also interesting: the description of the nuclear attack on Birmingham may have been borrowed from a classified study of just that situation made by Solly Zuckerman in 1961.

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