From my Takimag column in February 2014:
World War III
February 05, 2014
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.
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. …
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 [far], 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.”
Read the whole thing there.