On May 1, 1978, London-based Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd. published The Third World War: August 1985: A Future History, a work of near-future speculative fiction by Sir John Hackett, a retired general in the British Army, and a group of co-authors that, according to the publisher, included an admiral, an economist, and a diplomat, all with experience either as NATO officers or with international relations and matters dealing with the Soviet Union.
The Third World War is not a conventional novel with a set of typical Tom Clancy-style dramatis personae; instead, it is presented in the style of a non-fiction historical account of a war between the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and the West, with a specific focus on a Pact invasion of West Germany published in London (presumably by Sidgwick & Jackson) in 1987.
The Cold War Heats Up
“Black Horse One Zero, Black Horse One Zero, this is Shovel Six. Confirming Charlie One’s sighting as follows: large armored formation passed through inter-German border Zero Three Zero Five Zulu approximate brigade in size. Composed of Papa Tango 76s, Bravo Tango Romeo 62s, and Tango 72s. Inform Black Horse Six that Shovel is engaging. Out.”The Third World War: August 1985
In this – I suppose we can now call it “alternative history” – version of the mid-1980s, the situation is vastly different from what really happened between late 1984 and August of 1985. The Third World War: August 1985 tells us that at the end of President Jimmy Carter’s second term and during the first months of a new Republican Administration, the Soviet Union stirred up a hornet’s nest of scattered international crises, culminating in a Russian incursion into Yugoslavia, which in turn led to a U.S.-Soviet confrontation in that unstable region of Southeast Europe.
Hackett and his co-authors describe a world in chaos; with turmoil in Latin America, Africa, and Southwest Asia (the pro-Western Shah of Iran has made his nation a regional power there, and the Soviets are not happy about it), and there is trouble stirring in Asia as well.
Thus, when the incoming Republican President takes office, his first eight months are dominated by a series of crises, including unrest in Eastern Europe and the arrest of a U.S. TV crew that covered an incident in East Germany, that come to a crescendo with a Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe, with West Germany being – as depicted in most Cold War-turned-hot scenarios in literature, including Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee: A Novel of World War III and Clancy’s Red Storm Rising – the main theater of the Third World War.
Unlike the First World War, which went on for four years, and the Second World War, which lasted six years, the conflict in The Third World War: August 1985 is short – it begins on August 4 and ends 18 days later. Nevertheless, for all its brevity, the conflict imagined by Hackett and his co-authors is global in scale and not only features a conventional land campaign in West Germany and Denmark, but also:
- Fierce aerial battles over Central Europe
- A third Battle of the Atlantic, featuring a U.S. naval effort to send reinforcements to Europe via ship in an operation code-named CAVALRY
- The use of NASA’s Space Transportation System (aka the Space Shuttle) for military purposes
- Brushfire wars between South Africa and Soviet client states in Africa
- The use of nuclear weapons by one side to counter reverses on the battlefield
- Unintended consequences of the war
The book’s authors are:
- General Sir John Hackett
- Air Chief Marshal Sir John Barraclough
- Brigadier Kenneth Hunt
- Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch
- Norman Macrae
- Major-General John Strawson
- Sir Bernard Burrows
“Black Horse One Zero, Black Horse One Zero, this is Shovel Six. Confirming Charlie One’s sighting as follows: large armored formation passed through inter-German border Zero Three Zero Five Zulu approximate brigade in size. Composed of Papa Tango 76s, Bravo Tango Romeo 62s, and Tango 72s. Inform Black Horse Six that Shovel is engaging. Out.”
Captain Jack Langtry, Troop Commander, Troop L, 3 Squadron in 11 Armored Cavalry Regiment was speaking into his microphone early on the morning of 4 August 1985 as he stood on hill 402 at Wildech, looking across the border zone at East German Eisenach. In the dawn light he saw scores of armored vehicles moving rapidly toward him on both sides of the autobahn. Langtry knew what this was: the advanced guard of an attacking Soviet formation. It could not be anything else.
The 11th Cavalry formed the main strength of the V US Corps covering force, whose job was to give the Corps maximum time in a delaying action. To the north was Kassel, out of the Corps area. To the south the Fulda Gap opened up, dangerously close to the border only 15 kilometers away.
Langtry’s fifteen Shillelagh-firing Sheridan light tanks were in hull defilade along the high ground overlooking the autobahn that ran from the border to Bad Hersfeld, directly behind him. His three platoons had practiced engaging an enemy on this same route many times. Today it was for real. He gripped his microphone and heard his voice give the command, “Shovel, this is Six. Engage at will. Out.” Almost before his hand relaxed on the mike switch he heard the roar of Shillelagh missiles leaving fifteen tubes, guided on their way to targets in the sad gray August morning. – Chapter 1: August Dawn: The First Blows, The Third World War: August 1985
Back in 1979, I saw this book featured in Book-of-the-Month advertising inserts in magazines and junk mail solicitations hoping to attract new members – I still remember my eyes being drawn to the U.S. hardcover edition (published by Macmillan), with its stark beige dust jacket unadorned by gaudy graphics but dominated by the title The Third World War: August 1985 rendered in ominous looking Courier font in black-and-gray tones.
I didn’t join the Book-of-the-Month Club; back then most of my allowance was reserved for my small-but-growing Star Wars collection, and my mom would probably not have been too thrilled if I signed up for a subscription that she would probably have to help me with as far as making sure I stuck to the commitment of buying X number of books within a period of Y years. She had once been a member of the Club when we lived in Bogota (over there, it was called Club de Lectores), and some of the books – all of them in Spanish, of course – that she had bought as a member were now in the bookcase in our living room.
There was a Waldenbooks store at the nearby Midway Mall (it was renamed Mall of the Americas in 1987, and in May of 2022 it was renamed again, this time as Midway Crossings), which at the time was only nine years old and was the closest “big mall” to East Wind Lake Village; I probably saw the hardcover edition during one of my book-buying expeditions, but since I was mainly interested in World War II books or – you guessed it – Star Wars, I never bothered picking up a copy to browse through it.
Eventually, though, Berkley Books published an illustrated paperback edition that had an insert of photos – taken during NATO and Warsaw Pact maneuvers in the late 1970s and presented as “historical pictures from the war,” complete with plausible – but fictional – cutlines tied into the scenario created by Hackett and his co-authors.
I think – I’m not sure – that I bought the paperback when I was in high school; I had never read a work of fiction presented in the style of a history book, and although I found it somewhat dry and academic at times, its “simulated textbook” tone was compelling, even though by then some of the background stuff – such as Carter serving two terms as President and Iran not under the theocracy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran – was out-of-date, to put it mildly.
Still, despite those departures from reality, The Third World War: August 1985 grabbed me with its first chapter, which is a selection of excerpts from various postwar books about the war that focus on incidents from the first day of hostilities, August 4, 1985. The detailed accounts of NATO defenders desperately fighting – and dying – to slow down the Soviet onslaught were vivid, and since many of the writers of The Third World War had seen combat – Hackett had been one of the two brigade commanders present at Arnhem during 1944’s Operation Market-Garden and rose in the postwar British Army to command the British Army on the Rhine – those little “eyewitness accounts” had a ring of authenticity that overrode the other incongruities of the book’s narrative.
Apparently, the authors not only wanted to tell an “invasion literature” story a la H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (without, of course, the Martians) and revive a somewhat out-of-style (at least in the late 1970s) literary genre, but also to express their concerns that the Western Alliance was not ready for a possible war with the Warsaw Pact at the time of The Third World War’s publication.
In the late 1970s. professional military men in Britain and America, particularly those from the World War II and the early Cold War eras feared that politicians, especially liberal ones who were skeptical about the need to increase military spending, did not take the Soviet threat seriously. They hoped that by writing a book about what might happen if some of the defense spending measures by NATO countries such as West Germany, the U.S., and the United Kingdom were reversed or proved too little too late if war came in the next few years, the public would take note and pressure their representatives in Congress or Whitehall to accept increases in defense spending and thus avert a defeat in a conventional war between East and West.
The Third World War was written at a time when NATO forces were beginning to field some of the new weapons systems depicted in Microprose/Bird’s Eye Games’ recently-released computer wargame Regiments. The authors note that the Americans have, by 1985, introduced the early variants of the M1 Abrams main battle tank and M2/M3 family of Bradley fighting vehicles, which in those days of the Carter one-term Presidency were still being tested and not even officially named.
Simply put, the message of The Third World War is this: the Soviet Union is a menace to the security of the West. The Soviets might not want a war – clearly, they are not suicidal – but they are willing to exploit any regional turmoil in the world, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America – that will benefit their standing in the context of the Cold War. And if there is a miscalculation by either side, a third world war may occur sooner rather than later, so we need to be prepared, even if it means spending more tax revenue on defense.
The Third World War is not just a faux combat history about the war that didn’t happen. It is an earnest – if conservative-leaning – attempt to predict the future based on what was happening in late 1977 and early 1978,
The eight chapters that follow the glimpses of the war’s first day examine the world situation in 1984 and the various policies – both in defense and policy – on both sides that set in motion the chain of events that led the Soviet Union to invade Yugoslavia, the American response to it, and the escalations that resulted in the larger war in Central Europe.
There is a lot of stuff in The Third World War about how European colonialism bred a great deal of resentment toward the West in countries such as Zimbabwe, Libya, India, and apartheid-era South Africa, and the growing influence of Soviet foreign policy in those countries. Readers expecting a novel like Red Storm Rising will likely find these early chapters a bit dry and academic, even though they “serve the story” and reflect the focus of the co-authors who contributed the diplomatic and economic insights to The Third World War.
The chapters that deal with the war are, naturally, livelier – at least to readers who want to know how the 1970s-era writers, most of whom had seen combat in World War II and held various important commands before leaving the military, thought World War III would go – if it broke out in the mid-1980s and the West had only belatedly rearmed.
The whole “alternative history textbook” approach – which in the first edition of The Third World War includes several “situation maps” showing the progress of the war – works well, even if it is not written like a conventional novel a la Team Yankee.
Interestingly, although Hackett and his collaborators were wrong on many things, including Carter’s re-election chances in 1980 and the name of the space-faring Space Shuttle involved in NASA/military missions (in The Third World War, the test vehicle Enterprise is depicted as being space-worthy, which it most certainly was not), they did foresee several things, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union (although in the novel it takes place in 1985 and not in 1991) and the use, by Russian propagandists, of the ”we are fighting against Nazi revanchism” justification for armed invasions of other countries.
In The Third World War, the target country is, of course, West Germany, which the psychological operations folks in the KGB and GRU (Soviet military intelligence) have labeled as Nazis who want to foment a war and destroy the fragile peace that the Soviet Union tries so hard to preserve.
In the context of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin claims that neo-Nazis run the government in Kyiv and are guilty of mistreating the Russian-speaking population and allowing the United States to build bio-labs and create biological weapons designed specifically to kill Russians, and only Russians.
The Third World War is also a fascinating look at how Cold War leaders not only perceived the threat from the former Soviet Union, but also their own nations’ – in this case, Great Britain; none of the authors is American – civilian leaders and the electorate. As I mentioned earlier, apart from two men (an economist and a diplomat), the authors are recently retired flag officers in Her Majesty’s armed forces. (King Charles III, Britain’s new monarch, had completed his military service not that long before the book was published, and his late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, had just celebrated her Silver Jubilee and still had over 40 years left in her reign.)
While Hackett and his team do not come across as far-right extremists, they are, at best, suspicious of many liberals’ resistance to larger military expenditures to enhance NATO’s defensive capabilities. The book came out at a time when the Vietnam War – which had generated a global anti-war movement, most of it stemming from honest moral opprobrium about why America was in Southeast Asia, but some of it also encouraged and financed by North Vietnam’s Soviet sponsors – was still a recent event.
I was 15 when The Third World War came out, and I remember that at the time I leaned conservative and thought that liberals – as personified by Democratic Party politicians – were not paying attention to the threat from Moscow and weakening our armed forces. Of course, at the time I had no idea that this was not entirely the case – some of the weapons systems we have in our inventory today, including the B-2 Stealth bomber, were either in development or were proposed during the Carter administration, and the current unified command responsible for Southwest Asia, Tampa-based Central Command, started out as the Carter-era Rapid Deployment Force or RDF.
My point is that in the 1970s, military spending was not exactly approved of by many people in America or Western Europe, and The Third World War was its authors’ effort to predict what would happen if democracies on both sides of the Atlantic “wimped out” and either kept defense budgets low or slashed them altogether.
Compared to traditional technothrillers such as Team Yankee, Red Phoenix, Sword Point, or Red Storm Rising, The Third World War looks and reads like a history text. The “good parts,” and thankfully there are many of them, are presented as “excerpts” from fictional books written by participants or eyewitnesses to the various battles and diplomatic incidents that take place between late 1984 and August of 1985.
Some readers will be put off by the authors’ pro-military perspective – which of course is to be expected because most of them were recently-retired flag officers – and the sometimes-dry tone of the “road to war” chapters. And the faux-history book trope might not be “on target” for readers who like well-developed characters they can cheer for (or hiss at) in a thrill-a-minute technothriller that rivals The Hunt for Red October, Flight of the Intruder, Bright Star, or Chieftains.
For me, though, The Third World War: August 1985 and its 1982 sequel, The Third World War: The Untold Story are among my favorite books of the second half of the Cold War. Both are well-researched, informative, and, in their own quirky fashion, entertaining. And since I was a Cold War kid, reading the first book now is like stepping into a time machine and traveling back to when I was in junior high and high school.
So, if you were born after the Wall came down and wonder what Cold War era kids worried about in the back of our minds, The Third World War: August 1985 gives you a glimpse at one of the nightmare scenarios few of us talked about with friends, but most of us had bad dreams about.
 In another hilarious deviation from the actual timeline, The Third World War, in its chapter about the military use of space, the authors mention that Star Wars was still being screened in London theaters eight years after its premiere in 1977. Since the book was written between mid-1977 and early 1978, I can understand why Hackett and his team give the movie – which was the top-grossing movie of all time then – a nod, but I find it comical that they predicted a global war, but no sequels to Star Wars.
 For instance, the M1 Abrams is referred to by its pre-production model number XM1, while the Bradley, which replaced both the Sheridan light tank and, eventually, the M113 armored personnel carrier (APC) is called the Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicle or MICV, without even a mention of the U.S. Army/Department of Defense M2/M3 designation.
 Interestingly, Team Yankee: A Novel of World War III by Harold Coyle is set within the world of Hackett’s scenario with only a few tweaks to reflect the real-life changes that took place between 1978 and 1987, the year that Coyle’s technothriller was published. Coyle was a major in the U.S. Army’s armor branch and a fan of The Third World War, and he asked Hackett if he could “borrow” that book’s macro-environment for his own book. The general, who by then had written a 1982 sequel, The Third World War: The Untold Story, graciously assented, so some of the “big picture” events in Team Yankee (like the brief nuclear exchange near war’s end) will be familiar to readers of Hackett and Co.’s 1978 speculative fiction work.
 One of these non-existing books is titled A Civilian in a Short, Hot War and is billed as “reminiscences by A.E. Arnold, Chatto and Windus, London 1986.” I’m sure you can find a copy in a parallel universe version of Amazon.