The Third World War: The Untold Story

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The Third World War: The Untold Story
SirJohnHackett TheThirdWorldWar TheUntoldStory.jpg
First edition cover
Author Sir John Hackett
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre War novel
Publisher Sidgwick & Jackson
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 446 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN 0-283-98863-0 (first edition, hardback)
355.4/8 19

The Third World War: The Untold Story is a novel by Sir John Hackett portraying a fictional Third World War between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces which breaks out in 1985, written in the style of a non-fiction, post-event historical account. It was published in 1982 by Macmillan in New York and Sidgwick & Jackson in London. The book is an update to Hackett's 1978 novel, The Third World War: August 1985.

The Third World War: The Untold Story was written to incorporate what were, while the author wrote the original book, recent geopolitical and technological developments. In an update to his original novel, Hackett introduces newly-arising themes, including the rise of Solidarity in Poland and the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. Additional new plot threads include material based on the proposed militarization of space and the eventual participation of Ireland and Sweden in the war. In addition, Hackett goes into more detail on Soviet planning and doctrine.



In 1984, Democratic Party nominee Walter Mondale loses a divisive presidential election to a relatively unknown conservative Republican, the fictitious Governor Thompson of South Carolina. After Thompson takes office, his political and diplomatic advisors draft a report on the increasing complexities of the international geopolitical situation, which will assist the new president in shaping foreign policy direction. The People's Republic of China is becoming the premier economic power in Asia, bolstered by various strategic partnerships with Japanese industry. Various other Asian countries are also performing well as their economies are buoyed by China's recent successes, save for India, which is disintegrating as a political union and devolving into smaller coalitions of mutually hostile proto-states. Egypt's longstanding regime has just been ousted and replaced by an unstable left-wing government, intensifying the Arab Cold War through its bitter rivalry with Saudi Arabia. South Africa has become a federation under the bantustan system but is increasingly threatened by Nigeria, which has committed troops to the South African Border War.

The Soviet sphere of influence is rapidly shrinking, as most of India's larger and wealthier states have declared themselves allies of the US, and North Korea and Vietnam have followed China's lead in liberalizing their economies, which has made them vital partners in the Sino-Japanese trade alliance and considerably less disposed towards Soviet overtures. Despite massive infusions of Soviet arms and Cuban troops, Ethiopia becomes fragmented under the incompetent governance of the Derg, resulting in its loss of several regions to separatists, including Eritrea. The integrity of the Warsaw Pact is also threatened by restive nationalist movements, often accompanied by anti-Kremlin sentiment, in Poland and even the Central Asian Soviet republics.

Politburo debate[edit]

The Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union comes to the consensus that its economy is stagnating and the armed forces may not retain technological parity with the West for much longer. The Politburo leadership believes that it would be in their best interests to invade Western Europe and decisively expand the Soviet sphere of influence. Although resistance from NATO is anticipated, the Politburo gambles on a quick and easy victory over its European member nations before the United States can effectively mobilize a counteroffensive.

Soviet officials deliberate three strategic options:

'Variant A' involves a sudden mass pre-emptive nuclear strike throughout the entire European theater, including Spain and Portugal. The Soviet Air Force and Aeroflot would drop Spetsnaz forces into areas not under nuclear attack. A land invasion of Western Europe would then follow intended to last 7 days, stopping at a line running from Linz-Frankfurt-Dunkirk.

'Variant B' was identical to Variant A, but with chemical weapons and high explosives instead of nuclear weapons.

'Variant C' involves a conventional invasion with a nuclear strike as a backup option in the event of the invasion stalling.

The Politburo debates the nuclear option intensely. Eventually, it was decided that any use of nuclear weapons would inevitably escalate to a full strategic exchange which would leave the Soviets so damaged as to make victory not worth while. Variant C was therefore chosen, augmented with some selective chemical strikes occurring where they might prove to be most effective, with the understanding that if the advance of Warsaw Pact forces was halted by Western resistance (led by NATO), nuclear weapons could be used to regain the initiative on the battlefield.

An invasion of the western seaboard of the United States as a distraction from Western Europe was briefly considered but then dismissed as logistically implausible due to the Soviet inability to lift enough airborne divisions and the US Naval and Air Defences along the US west coast.

It was also agreed that it would be Soviet policy to discourage the European neutrals from entry into the war, especially Ireland and Sweden. The Politburo agreed to try to convince France to stay out of the conflict, as this would help create division in NATO and thereby make a Warsaw Pact victory more likely.

The war[edit]

The catalyst for conflict comes in July 1985, when a US Marine Corps unit intervenes against a Soviet incursion into Yugoslavia. In response, the Warsaw Pact mobilizes and subsequently launches a full-scale invasion of Western Europe on 4 August 1985 (the anniversary of the start of the First World War). Soviet forces thrust through West Germany towards the Rhine, and also land forces in northern Norway and Turkey. Attacks are also carried out using long-range strategic bombing, naval forces, and even killer satellites in space.

The Soviet Union had hoped that Ireland, Sweden and France would stay out of the war, as this would take some pressure off the invading Warsaw Pact forces, making victory more likely. However, Ireland, Sweden, and France eventually side with NATO, for various reasons, in both direct and indirect ways.

Ireland (having gotten around its reluctance to become a British ally by entering into a bilateral defense agreement with France which allowed France, and thus its allies, to station naval and air forces on Ireland's west coast) enters the war when the Soviet Navy (having secretly planted mines in Irish territorial waters) sinks an Irish naval vessel and the Soviet Air Force launches a missile attack on Shannon Airport—now home to various NATO aircraft including French fighter jets and various NATO submarine hunting planes such as the U.S. Navy's P-3C Orion.

Sweden, initially trying to stay neutral, is forced into the war when the Soviet Air Force repeatedly overflies its airspace to attack Norway. The Soviets believed that because Sweden had not been in a war since the 1800s, it would not respond. The Swedish Air Force does, however, defend its sovereign airspace, and the Soviets respond, making Sweden a de facto co-belligerent with NATO.

The Soviet conventional-force juggernaut quickly loses steam. Stiff resistance by NATO eventually foils the Soviet invasion, and Warsaw Pact forces get no further west (at least within Germany) than the town of Krefeld, and no further south than the Netherlands, which they briefly occupy.

From mid-August, the capacity of the Soviet Union to wage war is significantly attrited by the political and military desertion of some of its demoralized allies, internal dissent at home, and mutinies within its own forces.

Outside Europe, the US bombs Cuba, the Chinese invade Vietnam and overthrow its government, Egypt invades Libya, Japan seizes the Kurile islands, the Frontline States and most of the Soviet Union's other African allies invade South Africa, and the Soviet Navy and its merchant fleet are both permanently neutralized.

To prove to the world that they are still a force to be reckoned with, the Soviets launch a successful nuclear missile strike against Birmingham, United Kingdom. The US Navy and Royal Navy retaliate with a joint nuclear strike on Minsk, which accelerates the collapse of Soviet control in its satellite states in the Eastern Bloc. A coup d'etat led by Ukrainian nationalists overthrows the Soviet Politburo, accelerating the end of the Soviet threat.


Since the style of the book is as a fictional retrospective, much of it is written in a formal, historical tone. Interspersed with these sections, however, are short stories depicting various events unfolding in view of various characters. One character that does appear in a number of stories is Andrei Nekrassov, a 24-year old officer commanding a company of BMPs in the Soviet 197th Motor Rifle Division, who engages with NATO forces on various occasions, moving from a credulous young man affected by propaganda into a more cynical, harder man whose experience of war against the west has affected his belief in the Soviet system.

A new post-war world[edit]

The ruins of Birmingham and Minsk are eventually turned into war memorials fronted by immense causeways, with the memorials respectively called Peace City West and Peace City East.

German reunification, formerly a goal of both East and West Germany, never happens. Members of both sides of the recent war are against it, and it does not have any significant amount of support in East Germany or West Germany, as the two countries have developed separate national identities.

Three new superpowers look to develop together in peace, this time regarding each other as peaceful friends and competitors in the economic sense, rather than as political and military rivals. The new superpowers are the European Confederation, the United States, and a similar Asian confederation dominated by Japan and China.

Alternate ending[edit]

In The Untold Story a separate chapter is devoted to an alternative, much darker, scenario written in the form of radio transcripts and newspaper editorials.

The alternative scenario assumes the following factors have changed from the 'real' story:

  • The Peace Movements in the '50s, '60s and '70s have been successful in removing theater nuclear forces from Western Europe.
  • The United Kingdom has scrapped its nuclear missile submarines, abandoning Polaris and refusing to proceed with Trident.
  • The only nuclear forces on the NATO side are French SLBMs and the US ICBMs based in the contiguous United States.
  • Public pressure, led by the peace movements, prevented a compensatory increase in spending on conventional forces as nuclear forces were reduced, amplifying NATO's existing disadvantage in conventional forces (this disadvantage had been evened out previously by the theater nuclear forces).

In examining this picture, the Soviet Union feels that NATO is not prepared to aggressively defend Western Europe, and thus the time is right for a successful invasion. The scenario recognizes that since there is no freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, there are no similar demands from any peace movements inside the Soviets to reduce its forces, therefore Soviet forces remain at a high level of capability compared to the waning preparedness of Western forces.

The Soviet invasion of Western Europe thus begins, quickly overrunning NATO conventional forces in the Low Countries with a vicious combined arms attack, and soon reaching the French border. Driven by their fear of a Soviet occupation, or a punitive bombing campaign if they refuse to comply, France withdraws from the conflict after the Soviet Union assures them that if they do so, they will escape occupation and attack.

Deciding not to risk global nuclear war by using US ICBMs to attack the Soviet positions in Western Europe, the US and UK leaderships sue for peace. All US forces are withdrawn from Europe. Despite not being occupied, the UK is forced to accept a set of conditions which allows the Soviet Union to effectively control its military, economic, and political institutions, beginning, ironically, with the eradication of trade union rights and the termination of the European Community's social market economy. A joint UK-Soviet Commission will control the country. The Queen stays in the UK, dispersing the major members of the Royal family to various Commonwealth states. Major parts of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy escape Soviet control by putting themselves under US or Australian commands.

This chapter is not included in the Macmillan edition.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Hackett had two objectives in mind: to demonstrate the necessity for Western Europe to have a strong and coordinated conventional military, and to suggest that it could be plausible that the use of nuclear weapons might not result in a full-scale exchange of nuclear weapons between the Soviets and the west. Indeed, the limited use of nuclear weapons portrayed in this scenario comes as a result of one side's conventional forces becoming weak and vulnerable (the Soviets), thus triggering the swift response from the other side, the similarly limited NATO retaliation, implemented by the US and the UK simultaneously.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times thought that Hackett's proposed scenarios were too optimistic. Points that Lehmann-Haupt questioned included the portrayal of the Soviets as not initiating a major nuclear exchange (and thereby a global nuclear war) as they near defeat as well as the rosy fact that Western forces do not suffer critical setbacks caused by poor decisions or bad luck. The effects of the war and enlightened policies resolve many local conflicts, from Ireland, to Central America, and likewise in Palestine. The reviewer also criticized the book for being too dry and swift in illustrating major incidents in the story. Because Hackett consulted with many military and political experts, however, Lehmann-Haupt stated that the book represented a "very high order of strategic thinking" and "a signal to the Soviets, or even a warning, of the way some Western military leaders are thinking."[1]

Release details[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Team Yankee, a 1987 novel by Harold Coyle set in Hackett's scenario.
  • Red Army, by Ralph Peters, showing a Soviet invasion of Western Europe from an entirely Soviet perspective.
  • Red Storm Rising, a similar World War III scenario covering a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe, by Tom Clancy