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In early 1977 a retired NATO general put together a team of elite military officers to write a report on what a future World War between NATO and the Soviet Union would look like. This was published as a piece of futurist fiction – The Third World War, August 1985: A Future History, in 1978. A couple of years later the Hollywood adaptation approached the Pentagon for their input and support, but were ultimately turned down, and the film was never made.

In early 1977 a retired NATO general put together a team of elite military officers to write a report on what a future World War between NATO and the Soviet Union would look like. This was published as a piece of futurist fiction – The Third World War, August 1985: A Future History, in 1978. A couple of years later the Hollywood adaptation approached the Pentagon for their input and support, but were ultimately turned down, and the film was never made.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Soviet invasion genre of books and films – Red Dawn, Red Storm Rising, Red Army, all the ‘Red’ titles. This novel, and attempted film adaptation, that we’re going to look at today is one of the first, if not the first, and therefore influenced all the spin-offs and knock-offs that followed.

It was written by Sir John Hackett and others, though it’s not entirely clear who the others were. One was an admiral, another an airman, another a diplomat – a special team put together by Hackett to wargame a potential Europe-wide war with the Soviets, so they could create a piece of scaremongering fiction. It’s a clever idea, writing a novel in the style of a historical report of a war that hasn’t taken place yet – it grants it more plausibility than writing it as a straight piece of narrative fiction. Anyone can theoretically conceive of a war that could happen and write a story about it, but to do so in the style of someone looking back on the war several years later, while the war itself is set in the mid-80s, several years in the future from when it was published, makes it more than a thought exercise.

Of course, the war depicted in the book never took place, and in 1982 Hackett published an updated version – The Third World War: The Untold Story, which added new aspects to the story. In 1987, apparently disappointed that the war hadn’t happened, US Army Major Howard Coyle wrote Team Yankee, a novel set within Hackett’s scenario, focusing on one US Army tank unit. In 1989, US Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters wrote Red Army, which explores a similar scenario from the Soviet perspective. US Air Force veteran Dean Ing wrote a whole trilogy that continues from Hackett’s book, and of course CIA asset Tom Clancy wrote Red Storm Rising, a book that Ronald Reagan was such a fan of that he recommended it during a phonecall with Margaret Thatcher.

Before we get into Hackett and his novel, I want us to highlight that invasion literature began life in the UK during the Victorian period. Between 1871 and 1914 over 400 novels and novellas were written depicting some version of a foreign invasion of Britain, and then other countries. Many of these were written by (or ghostwritten for) spies, military officers, diplomats and other major figures of the day, each advocating for a particular policy or approach that they claimed would see victory if and when the invasion actually happened. This spun off into similar books in France, the US, Germany, Australia and elsewhere. The first of these stories – The Battle of Dorking, from 1871, was written by a British Army veteran who was openly arguing against further demobilisation of the British Army.

Since that story, this type of literature has been used for manipulative, sometimes Machiavellian purposes. For example William Le Queux was an Anglo-French diplomat, author, journalist and conspiracy theorist, and perhaps the most prominent author of invasion literature. His second major entry in the genre was, like Hackett’s book, a vision of a war just a few years in the future. Titled The Invasion of 1910 it came out in 1906, and depicted a German invasion of Britain. Cunningly, in the British version the British win, but in the German language version the Germans win. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was apparently Queen Alexandra’s favourite author. Insert joke about German-British aristocrats enjoying invading each other like a sadistic sex game.

Along with similar books like Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands, these novels sparked widespread fears of a large scale German spy ring in the UK. As reports came in from across the country of sightings of possible German spies, Le Queux popularised these through his contacts at the Daily Mail. Thus, he recycled paranoia that he had himself helped to create, which in turn had an impact on politicians responding to rumours about German spies. But the whole thing was an elaborate fantasy originally concocted by Field Marshal Lord Earl Roberts, who wanted to produce the exact sort of military and intelligence build-up that Le Queux helped to create.

From this, I think there are three major takeaways:

  1. This sort of literature was pretty much an invention of the British military-intelligence establishment, though it has been adopted by others.
  2. It can have a major effect on public perceptions, and sometimes on government policy.
  3. This is often entirely intentional.

It’s also worth noting that several of these novels were adapted into films in the 1930s, playing into the war build-up with Germany at a time when appeasement was the official policy. Among the figures pushing this agenda through the film industries in both the US and UK was none other than Winston Churchill. A man who deliberately sent part of his navy to fight a futile battle for Gallipoli during WW1, with the aim that the ships would be sunk and he could hit up the Admiralty for some nice new boats. Allegedly.

So this genre isn’t just a speculative curiosity like many stories set in the future, it has (more often than not) been used to advance a militaristic agenda and in some ways help the predicted wars to happen. The aim is simple: weaponise people’s nightmares against them, and in favour of military boosterism.

That’s the case with Hackett’s novel, which is almost comically right wing – blaming those long haired dope smoking peaceniks for opposing relentless expansion of nuclear arsenals and laying us bare to a Soviet attack. Which never came. Because it was never plausible, except in the minds of assorted NATO generals, senior spooks and other closeted fascists.

Sir John Hackett’s Third World War

So, who was Sir John Hackett, and what kind of war did he and his friends envisage? General Sir John Winthrop Hackett was born in Australia to a father of the same name who was an Irish-Australian newspaper editor and politician. In 1905, at the age of 57, John Hackett senior married an 18 year old woman in what he called a marriage of convenience. Nonetheless, they had four children including John junior.

John was academically skilled, studied painting in London and then Classics and Modern History at Oxford. He joined the British Army in 1933 and while there he completed a thesis in military history, focusing on the Crusades. Hackett became fluent in ten languages, and served in Palestine during the Arab revolt, when Palestinian Arabs rose up and demanded some kind of self-rule, rather than being ruled as a British Mandate. Bear in mind that at this point British policy was to try to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine, which had some fairly terrible consequences for Jews in Europe.

During WW2 he fought in the Syria-Lebanon campaign and was wounded. While recuperating in Palestine he met and married an Austrian lady. He fought in the North Africa campaign, got wounded again, and then helped set up some of Britain’s first special forces units – the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Air Service (SAS) and Popski’s Private Army. In 1944 he commanded a Parachute Brigade during the battle for Arnhem, during which he was severely wounded, and captured.

If it sounds like this guy is a bit unlucky, it gets better – the first doctor who saw him thought the case was hopeless and wanted to give him a lethal injection, but then another doctor decided to attempt surgery, and saved Hackett’s life. So he’s actually lucky, if you think about it.

After the war he was back in Palestine during the Emergency in 1947, when the Zionist terrorists started waging a fairly open war against the British occupation. Hackett ordered that the Transjordan Frontier Force, which he commanded, be disbanded as part of the British withdrawal, which in turn gave birth to the Zionist state of Israel.

Over the following decades he alternated between rising through the military ranks and studying at various academic institutions, becoming General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C), Northern Ireland Command, in 1961 and being knighted the following year. In 1966, he was given command of the British Army of the Rhine and NATO’s Northern Army Group, positions he kept until retirement. In 1968 he wrote a letter to the Times calling out the British government’s alleged lack of concern over the state of NATO troops in Europe. He signed it as a NATO officer, rather than as a British commander. Hackett then retired from military service and became Principal of King’s College, and started writing books and novels about his thoughts and experiences. He died in 1997.

The novel The Third World War was a corporate creation – Hackett openly admitted that he only wrote parts of it. The updated version adds in additional elements, and more stuff from the Soviet side of the war. He also added in some real geopolitical events that had happened since the first iteration, incorporating them into the narrative. There’s also more space-based weaponry in the second book, acknowledging technological developments that took place since the original version.

In Hackett’s vision, the Soviet Politburo recognise their economy is slowing down and that if they are going to invade Western Europe that now is the time, as their supposed military supremacy over NATO won’t last much longer. The flashpoint takes place in July 1985, when US Marines respond to a Soviet incursion into Yugoslavia, leading to a full Warsaw Pact mobilisation, the invasion of West Germany, Turkey, Norway. The Soviets bombard other Western European countries using long range missiles, naval artillery, even killer satellites. It’s full Command and Conquer: Red Alert.

While I haven’t read, seen or played every single version of this Russian or Soviet Third World War scenario, of the ones I have experienced they all begin with a Soviet invasion. But the Soviet Union invaded far fewer countries than NATO countries did over the same period, so where did this fear come from?

I think it’s projection, plain and simple. For over a century, a popular idea in Western state circles is that Russia is too big to be allowed to exist. They fetishise the vision of breaking up Russia and removing the largest country from the geopolitical chessboard. If you search for this you’ll find no end of think pieces on whether Russia is too big, too big to be governable, too big to be democratic. There are no articles on Russia being too small, of course.

Thus, the Western military, intelligence and foreign policy establishment is full of people who dream of invading Russia and splitting it up into a dozen different countries. But Russia has nukes, and too much territory to be able to invade using conventional forces by anyone (with the possible exception of China). As always with crazies, they assume everyone else is as evil as they are so they accuse them of having the same sick dreams and intentions. Thus, the Soviet Union apparently wanted to invade the whole of Western Europe and subsume it under their empire.

Getting back to the novel – consider the specific setup for the war. The Soviets invade South East Europe and this spills over into all-out war across Europe. Is this not the exact scenario all the hot heads and reaction-bait commentators were describing after Russia invaded Ukraine? But it hasn’t happened, and this war has dragged on for months with Putin nuking Poland or Novichoking Macron.

Also, Yugoslavia was, in effect, invaded by Western forces a few years after this book is set. They took the form of CIA operatives, mujahideen, MI6-sponsored mercenaries and UN ‘peacekeepers’, before the NATO airstrikes took over. Breaking it up was a fairly long-standing NATO goal. Again, projection.

On top of this we have the whole ‘dangers of a declining power’ narrative, which has simply been transposed onto Russia in the post-Soviet world. Is Russia a declining power? Or rather, is it declining any worse or any faster than the UK or the US? The entirety of human civilisation is a declining power at this point in time.

As in most, if not all of these stories the Soviet forces make early gains but then run into trouble. The notoriously neutral Sweden enter the war on the NATO side, taking on the Russian Air Force who are using Swedish airspace to make runs into Norway. Within weeks of the invasion beginning, Soviet forces become demoralised and start defecting, deserting and staging mutinies.

Thus, this declining power becomes an even more declining power, and ahead of peace talks the Soviets decide to prove they’re still a force to be reckoned with, so they nuke Birmingham. No great loss. The US and British Navies respond by nuking Minsk, which further destabilises the Soviet Union and its satellite states. There’s a revolution in Russia as starving citizens carry out food riots, before Ukrainian nationalists stage a coup d’etat, bringing the Soviet Union to an end.

I am sure you’re recognising many aspects of this story that have appeared in news and commentary in recent months and years. The narrative of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine leading to the downfall of Russia itself, just like the invasion of Afghanistan supposedly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union, has been repeated many times. The idea that Russia is a desperate, bitter, declining power that has overreached and will have to resort to nukes to be taken seriously, likewise.

While some people will interpret this novel as Hackett (et al) predicting the decline of the Soviet Union due to their misadventure in Afghanistan, this isn’t true. The Soviets actually won the war in Afghanistan, and their proxy government lasted a lot longer than the one imposed and propped up by the US following their withdrawal. I think we should flip this question around and ask what was the influence of this book – which sold millions of copies – on perceptions of why the Soviet Union disappeared. The most commonly used phrase is that it ‘collapsed’, which is exactly the same word used to describe what happened to Yugoslavia (and the WTC towers).

In none of these cases is the word accurate. It’s a way of consigning the fall to either internal factors, or fate. The notion that someone deliberately destroyed any of these things isn’t allowed by the metaphor of ‘collapse’. In reality, the Soviet Union was disbanded, Yugoslavia was destroyed intentionally by NATO, and the WTC towers were taken out by killer satellites. So Hackett did predict something, I guess.

The DOD and the film adaption of Hackett’s Third World War

In November 1978, producers Walter and Marvin Mirisch approached the Pentagon about their proposed adaptation of Hackett’s novel, just a few months after it was published. They were initially asking for stock footage, and tentatively inquiring about physical production support. Don Baruch told them not to worry about it, just go ahead and write the screenplay, maybe ask NATO about filming some training exercises the following year.

This met with some consternation from the Army, with a memo saying ‘This is no way to run a railroad. First we get the story line. Then we go from there.’ The Colonel’s memo went on to bemoan how on A Bridge Too Far they were ‘at the mercy’ of NATO European commands and ‘the Brits’ to ‘properly show the US military’. He hated the idea of just sending Mirisch off to Europe to pursue footage for his movie.

So, the Army reached out to Mirisch to discuss the project, started brainstorming ideas for how the movie could be done, and wrote the producer a memo saying:

This may sound a little heavy, but while we think this is a story that needs telling … it might even go a long way in preventing a third world war. As great believers and keepers of peace, we’ll do all we can.

Meetings and cooperation continued throughout 1979, and in early 1980 the first draft of the script was sent in for military review. That’s when things started to go wrong. A point paper produced by the Marine Corps ELO summarises:

The Mirisch brothers were initially told by DoD audiovisual branch that a script based on the book would probably receive favorable consideration.

The script was reviewed by the JCS, Army, Air Force and Navy public affairs offices. (The Marine Corps was not consulted as we played no part in the script.)

The script, as presently written, was categorically turned down by all of the above agencies, primarily because it did not follow the book. It was felt that the screenplay tended to weaken the case for military preparedness and brought discredit upon the armed services in general.

Of particular concern to the Marine Corps is that the Navy rejected the script because it ignored the vital role played by sea power in any world war scenario.

DoD stipulated to the producers that the script would have to be modified to better follow the plot and spirit of the book, and that all four services would have to be included to better reflect the total force concept as it would realistically be used in an actual world war.

It seems that the Navy and Marine Corps simply did not appear in the original screenplay, which is quite an oversight in a story about a world war. The Mirisch brothers committed to a rewrite, so the various branches provided feedback. The DOD had numerous concerns, among them how to guarantee enough screen time for themselves without revealing classified operational plans and other information. As one Marine Corps routing sheet attached to the draft script said:

In developing suggestions for inclusion of the Marine Corps in the script, these points are germane:

The projected Marine Corps role in a WWIII NATO scenario in 1985 should be realistic, plausible and based on current estimates; but at the same time based on unclassified data and assumptions.

They were trying to write more of themselves into the script, especially the Marine Corps. This is something that comes up quite often – they want a more prominent military depiction than the script offers. This is what the Pentagon requested of Christopher Nolan when he approached them about Tenet, but Nolan said no, and the film was made without the DOD.

As written, the script did not depict the invasion of Yugoslavia by the Soviet Union, and the Marine Corps response. Another memo suggested this sequence from the book be included in the film, as well as another involving the Corps, concluding:

While it is recognized that the Marine Corps does not play the central role in the reinforcement and defense of NATO, nevertheless, it does make a very important contribution, particularly with respect to strengthening the “flanks”. Therefore to gloss over this contribution by simply making reference to U. S. Marines in the dialogue, would be unacceptable and an injustice to the countless Marines who continue to actively serve in the defense of NATO year after year. Accordingly, the position taken by DOD that official support for this film should not be provided unless the Marine Corps is given a role reasonably commensurate with its NATO mission is supported.

The Navy also wanted the Marine Corps to be acknowledged, though in typical Navy fashion they were happy for this to be through dialogue, rather than action on screen. They were more concerned with the submarine warfare scenes, and both files contain references to them essentially rewriting these scenes entirely. Not just the dialogue between the submariners, but how the Soviet and US sub interact, move around, the action of the scenes as well.

The Army had other problems – they didn’t have enough spare equipment, particularly OPFOR equipment such as Soviet tanks, to meet the demands of the script, and they couldn’t requisition stuff from NATO allies. There was also a question of the international climate making filming in Europe difficult, and the Army recommended the State Department also review the script.

In March, Don Baruch wrote back to the fabulous furry Mirisch brothers with a big batch of comments from the various branches, most of which recommended against supporting the movie, and they set about a rewrite. It was the following month, April 1980, that the Joint Chiefs of Staff got involved. The Joint Chiefs had some specific concerns, as well as more global issues with the script. One of their memos says:

The thrust of General Hackett’s book was that the West awoke to the Soviet threat and rebuilt its defenses just in time to eke out a victory by the outbreak of the Third World War in 1985. The screenplay has just the opposite theme. There are ambitious hardliners on both sides and the arms race, not the weakness of NATO, seems to be the cause of the calamity. The acceptance of blame by President Thompson at the Peace Conference and the emotional aftermath leaves one with the impression that the advocates of unilateral disarmament were right after all.

As we noted earlier, Hackett was making the case for ‘rebuilding defenses’ in the face of the supposed Soviet threat, but it seems the Mirisch brothers were pursuing the opposite message, which the Joint Chiefs did not like one bit. They also had some specific comments, which are in places downright hilarious:

On page 1, the flags of the “Major Allies” are flying. Recommend the flags of the 15 NATO nations be used here.

This would have been perhaps the first big NATO movie, so branding was important.

On page 4, Brigadier General Randall mentions that he is going to try to “sell a preemptive strike.” Randall fulfills his promise on page 14 and even tells his wife about it. This is incredible.

We will come back to this.

On page 30, and again on pages 51-55, the possibility of France siding with Russia is a serious concern. While France may be tempted to remain neutral, it is unfair, if not absurd, to portray France contemplating joining the Soviets.

On page 33, the advisor to the President and his assistant talk about assassination of the Soviet Premier. This is contrary to US policy and in any event would be dangerously destablizing at a time when the US leadership would be attempting to control escalation. Here again the US leaders appear to be just as bad as the other guys.

And it has to be clear that the Soviets are the bad guys, not all of the military leadership, of course. Certainly not the fine Americans plotting pre-emptive nuclear strikes, which are apparently in keeping with US policy, while specific assassinations of leaders of invading armies are beyond the pale. This is like the Nazis not bombing the Royal palaces in WW2.

On page 50, General Randall says that the Soviet Premier would think that “we have fewer nukes” as a result of a US offer to negotiate to limit escalation. This is ridiculous. The Soviets have good information on our inventory right now and would be at least as well informed in 1985.

How do the Joint Chiefs know how well informed their Soviet counterparts are going to be in five years’ time, unless they’re telling them how many nukes they have? Very curious.

On page 81, the US launches an ICBM out of a silo for an operational test. This would be the worst possible time to conduct an ICBM test. The Soviets might regard it as a nuclear strike.

On the other hand, badly timed training exercises are an American military specialty.

On page 117, Mrs. Beacham and children depart Birmingham after the nuclear attack. Recommend she be outside the city, i.e., at a park or with friends when the attack occurs. It is totally unrealistic for her to come out of a cellar, take a car and drive off into the sunset.

The less said about this, the better. A memo from the end of April shows that Baruch was doing his best to keep the project alive, despite virtually everyone else in the military hating the script. It states:

Don said that Producer Walter Mirisch and writer Arnholdt of World War III would be in his office beginning monday for meetings all week. Purpose is to have services tell them what can or can’t be done from the book, what the services would like to have as scenes in the screenplay, what is feasible and what is not.

By June, a fresh draft was done and there was an additional script review. A Navy memo raises yet more problems, including:

A US military officer proposing a pre-emptive strike is contrary to national policy.

And

An armed US space shuttle doing battle with lasers is contrary to US policy.

However, there was an even bigger issue than space shuttles with frikkin laser beams on their heads – the question of the whole concept of a movie about a Third World War. The Navy memo concludes:

The fundamental question is whether the Department of Defense should run the risk of being identified with a highly controversial scenario for a hypothetical war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The conclusion of this reviewer is that it should not.

At the end of July Baruch wrote back to the producers, saying there was still ‘many areas for further rewriting’ but that ‘conceptual approval is granted’. The many areas included one highlighted by the Army:

The Pope’s televised speech advocating disobeying missile launch orders has not been recast as previously discussed.

The Air Force had some plausibility problems with the revised script, for example:

A-10s are shot down by tanks, the Space Shuttle is launched from the back of a 747.

The Joint Chiefs were still bothered by the officer suggesting a pre-emptive nuclear strike, so they rephrased it as a ‘spoiling attack’, and added lines saying, ‘We all know they’re going to hit. If not today, tomorrow. It’s the logical next step. When conflict is inevitable, the weaker power has no choice but to strike first. It is a basic military principle.’ They add, ‘This helps explain Randall’s desire to strike first.’

The implication being that the US has to strike first, because it’s the weaker power. I’m sure this isn’t the implication the Joint Chiefs were going for. They also rewrote a closing speech by the President to shift the tone, commenting:

We must distinguish between being magnanimous in victory and appearing to accept the blame for what has happened. The outbreak of the war was clearly the fault of the Soviet Union, beset by problems at home and tempted to exploit the temporary weakness of the West.

However, it is here, in the summer of 1980, that the files simply stop. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to the movie – there are some newspaper clippings mentioning a rival project by Roger Corman, but that too was never made. It seems that the production died, unable to meet with the DOD’s approval and the Mirisch brothers gave up. This was towards the end of Walter’s career – he went on to make Romantic Comedy, starring Dudley Moore, in 1983, but then largely stopped producing movies. Since then, it seems Hackett’s book has been consigned to the cinematic dustbin.

Invasion Literature and the New Cold War

In Hackett’s second version of the book – The Third World War: The Untold Story – he added an alternate, much darker scenario. In this alternate alternate history the peace movements succeed in their aim of nuclear disarmament and reducing expenditure on conventional forces. The Soviets recognise this weakness and invade Western Europe, and the UK ends up being ruled by a joint UK-Soviet Commission. This alternate scenario was not included in the version of the second book that was published in the US, only in the UK edition. I’m sure you see that the purpose of this book – which may have got lost in the attempted film version – was to advocate for increased military budgets and more nuclear weapons.

The new Cold War has seen a rebirth of anti-Russian invasion culture. We’ve covered a lot of the Russophobic spy fiction in recent years, I discussed The Undeclared War (about a cyber invasion) on my subscribercast over the summer. When it comes to novels, the most obvious example is 2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff, Nato’s deputy supreme allied commander for Europe between 2011 and 2014. As observed in The Conversation:

Shirreff’s book, however, is a far more overtly political piece, and is deeply critical of the West’s reduced defence spending and its unwillingness – and inability – to stand up to the Russian threat.

I don’t know about you but I don’t see much unwillingness or inability to stand up to the supposed Russian threat. If anything, several Western countries have concocted elaborate conspiracy theories blaming Russia for everything from economic recession to election results. They’re obsessed with the supposed Russian threat. Russian military spending has declined substantially since 2013, and even at its peak it was barely 15% of what the US alone spends, let alone the rest of NATO.

Indeed, the Russian military has proven that it cannot even take South-East Europe, let alone Western Europe, so in what fantasy land is Shireff living? But of course, the German invasion of Britain never happened, the British invasion of America never happened, the Japanese and Chinese invasions of America never happened, the Soviet invasion of Western Europe never happened. The Soviet invasion of America did happen, but only in Red Dawn.

Over and over we are told how plausible and realistic this invasion literature is, but the scenarios they explore never happen, or even come close to happening. So it isn’t realistic or plausible at all, it’s militarised paranoia masquerading as war fiction. This is why, when the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine hit the media, the vast majority of people collectively lost their shit. They’ve been prepared for this for decades, fed outlandish scenarios that provoke and pray on their worst fears, and then told by a photo array of supposed experts how realistic these scenarios are. Same thing happened with terrorist attacks, and you might have noticed how few of those we’ve had in the last few years, ever since the intelligence establishment moved back Russia as their preferred enemy image.