The Empire Disintegrates


The Third World War: The Untold Story, by General Sir John Hackett, New York: Macmillan, 1982, 372 pp., $15.75.

Several years ago Gen. Sir John Hackett, a highly decorated veteran of the Second World War and former commander of NATO's Northern Army Group, penned an imaginary account of the next global conflict. The original manuscript of The Third World War, August 1985 depicted a NATO-Warsaw Pact mobilization crisis sparked by a Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia, followed by a massive Soviet blitzkrieg against Western Europe resulting in NATO's decisive defeat and a negotiated withdrawal of US forces remaining on the Continent.

NATO officials privy to the manuscript understandably were quite disturbed by Sir John's postulated outcome of a third world war, which reflected an acute appreciation of the continuing and potentially fatal deficiencies in NATO's defenses in Central Europe as well as the degree to which Soviet forces and doctrine have been deliberately tailored to exploit them. It was argued that the original manuscript, if published, would provide ammunition to those on both sides of the Atlantic opposed to increases in NATO defense expenditure on the ground that Europe is inherently indefensible against a full-blooded Soviet attack. Sir John allowed himself to be talked out of the last 30,000 words of his draft.

In the revised manuscript, published in 1978, NATO manages miraculously to snatch victory from the jaws of seemingly certain defeat. The Soviet blitzkrieg, after some damaging gains and much loss of life, is stopped cold east of the Rhine by battered but surprisingly resolute and (of course) better-equipped NATO forces. A frustrated Politburo, facing mounting popular unrest in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, unwisely chooses to escalate the conflict by incinerating Birmingham with a nuclear missile. NATO instantly responds in kind with a strike on Minsk, which triggers a bloody coup d'etat in the Kremlin, the disintegration of the Soviet empire, and capitulation of Soviet forces around the world.

Intended as a sequel to the 1978 book, The Third World War: The Untold Story is little more than an addendum to the first work, containing "the untold story" of events inside the Kremlin during the critical period between the decision to attack Birmingham and the coup d'etat. While both works are rich in detail and reflect a sure grasp of modern technology at work on the battlefield, The Third World War: The Untold Story may prove disappointing to many who enjoyed Sir John's first book. The Untold Story is a comparatively disjointed tale and lacks the vivid prose and suspense-building drama of the 1978 book. The reader is constantly assaulted by no fewer than 160 real and fictional acronyms (for example, UNFISMATRECO—United Nations Fissile Materials Recovery Organization) and high-tech jargon that would leave even Alexander Haig, Jr., gasping for breath.

The principal flaw of The Untold Story, however, is its depiction of the Soviet Union and its empire as an entity of such political, economic, and cultural fragility that it would quickly self-destruct in the face of a major military reverse. To be sure, we are dealing with a work of fiction; but one must distinguish between fiction and deliberate fantasizing. And to be sure, the Soviet Union does confront profound and increasingly debilitating internal political, economic, and cultural contradictions; but to postulate that these contradictions would doom the Soviet Union in wartime is self-delusion of the kind that led Napoleon and Hitler down the disastrous road to Moscow.

The Soviet Union is not Tsarist Russia in 1914. However morally degenerate, economically incompetent, and culturally brutal, the Soviet leadership has for decades demonstrated a remarkable facility for sustaining imperial cohesion in the face of external threats. It is not weakly autocratic but powerfully totalitarian. Soviet casualties in the Third World War amount to but a fraction of the 20 million dead sustained in the Second World War, and the loss of Minsk is dwarfed by the Nazis' utter devastation of all of Western Russia in the early 1940s. Yet in the Third World War, within days after hostilities commence, there are mutinies aboard Soviet warships; entire divisions—and in one case a whole tank army—defect to NATO; and food riots break out in Moscow. The Soviet military turns out to be not a muscular giant but rather a hollow midget.

No less fantastic than the prompt disintegration of the Soviet empire in wartime is Sir John's postulated Soviet motive for starting the third world war in the first place. The Kremlin decides for war simply on the basis of what it perceives to be a temporary military advantage over the West, a "window of opportunity" that must be exploited before it is closed by Western rearmament and a worsening Soviet economic crisis.

Are we really to believe that the Kremlin is inhabited by men of such casual adventurousness—men willing to risk the destruction of their own society for the sake of improving the military balance? Caprice has never characterized Soviet decisions to go to war. For the Soviets, war is a deadly serious business inseparable from political purpose and undertaken only as a means of last resort. The Soviets have on occasion gone to war for the wrong reasons, but never for stupid ones. And under no circumstances would the Soviet leadership embark on war with military forces as politically unreliable as those in The Untold Story. Sir John would have done well to retitle his work as The Third World War: The Wishful Musings of a Former NATO Commander.

Jeffrey Record is adjunct professor of military history at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books on military affairs.