Gen. Sir John Hackett surveys the laden tea trolley with a circumspect eye. Ever since he leaped into the caldron of Arnhem 36 years ago as commander of the 4th Parachute Brigade, he has not been one to jump recklessly into things. Though only selecting a cake in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel here, as he talks about his life and best-selling book "The Third World War: August 1985," he does so with a careful, even studious, deliberation.
"I was an academic, who, in a prolonged period of absence of mind, became a four-star general," he offers impishly as he alights on a creamy confection, demolishes it, and pours himself another cup of tea.
While most generals refight long-forgotten battles in memoirs as impenetrable as tank traps, Sir John decided on a work of "future history," a chillingly vivid account of the Third World War.
In his scenario, the conflict erupts after pro-Soviet coups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq and an attack on a US intelligence ship in the Gulf of Aden. The Soviet Union invades Yugoslavea (where its troops suffer reverses at the hands of US Marines and Airborne troopers) and then smashes into West Germany. NATO forces stem the tide in 10 days of fighting, but the Soviet Union destroys Birmingham, England, with a nuclear missile. Britain and the United States retaliate by devastating Minsk with nuclear missiles. This sparks off risings in the Soviet Union which topple the Kremlin leadership -- bringing the war to an end.
Sir John's message is clear: Only the strengthening of NATO in the late 1970s and early 1980s enables it to batter the Soviet invasion to a standstill in his imagined 1985.
"Invasion from a standing start in the late '70s . . . would almost certainly have brought the Russians to the Rhine in a very few days -- unless NATO employed nuclear weapons," he observes in the book. "IF the crisis of 1985 had occured in 1977, say, or even in 1978, it is . . . scarcely conceivable that the Soviet plan . . . could have failed, given the [ill-] preparedness of the Allies at that time."
Sir John says he accepted the invatation to write the book from the London publishing house of Sidgwick & Jackson "bearousing of a current of opinion in Britain and Western Europe in favor of a high degree of conventional preparedness on our side."
He adds that various developments arouond the world, such as Soviet intiatives in the Horn of Africa, unrest in the Caribbean, and the threat to Middle Eastern oil, "fell in with the model that I'd proposed and lent it verisimilitude, and so attracted a high degree of public interest."
All the same, Sir John concedes that he's "amazed" at the success of "The Third World War," which Berkley Books brought out in paperback earlier this year. There has even been talk of filming it, he declares, and says that Universal Pictures has an option on it. He doubts that the movie will be made, since preliminary studies have shown it would be very costly.
When Sidwick & Jackson executives asked him to write a history of World War III, he retorted: "You can't possibly write a history of something that hasn't happened. It's impossible."
But when, over lunch, they offered to finance a six-month feasibility study -- starting with the parking ticket on his car outside -- he relented. Returning to the old millhouse in Gloucestershire where he lives with his wife, he soon realized he would need help in writing the book. So he enlisted the services of half a dozen British experts, including: Air Chief Marshal Sir John Barraclough, Sir Bernard Burrows (a former British ambassador to NATO), Brig. Kenneth Hunt, Vice- Adm. Sir Ian McGeoch, and Maj. Gen. John Strawson. Profits from the book are divided among them.
"All these people had been recently retired," he says. "What was important was that they should be retired so as to be off the hook, but not so long retired that they were off the boil."
His first draft of the book had Soviet forces devastating West Germany.
"I was advised ( y military colleagues ] not to do this because it would cause more harm than good," he says. So he tore up the 30,000 words he had written and began again. This time, instead of assuming that NATO slumbered in the years prior to the Soviet invasion of 1985, he began to inquire what it had to do if it were to successfully counter such an onslaught.
"I talked to people both in the US and Europe, asking the question: What is the minimum improvement in our defensive preparations which would be necessary to allow us to survive an initial assault? And they gave me all the answers." With this information, he set about writing what is a disturbing and often blood-curdling book, a cautionary tale that so impressed former British Prime Minister James Callaghan that he gave a copy to President CArter, who appears to have been equally impressed with it.
"Publishers are very astute people," says Sir John. "They sense what the public interest is."
"The Third World War" purports to be a retrospective account of the conflict published in 1987. Sir John warns that it "is not prophecy." But the weaknesses in NATO that it highlights, weaknesses that, in the book, are corrected just in time to avert disaster, are precisely those that bedevil NATO today.
Sir John is particularly critical of the British-commanded Northern Army Group deployed in the North German Plain.
"As it hasn't enough forces to defend at the frontier, it must accept penetration and a subsequent counterpenetration action," he says. In other words, these troops would have to give ground to an invading army, then counterattack. "But it hasn't the forces in depth" -- enough forces stationed to the rear -- "to develop a counterpenetration action. And this is my great criticism. And of course the Americans have realized this and [a few years ago] located two brigades in depth in the Northern Army Group area to make up in part for what the British -- if I may be allowed to speak freely -- have been too idle, too parsimonious, or too pusillaninous to do themselves."
The two brigades, he says, will serve as pegs on which to hang reinforcing divisions in the early days of a crisis.
"Now this has a very important implication," he notes. "Up to the time I was writing, the Western Europeans have depended on a totally illusory assumption that if they get into bad trouble, the US would release its strategic nuclear capability upon the USSR. I am persuaded that it won't."
Sir John contends that the US is not going to have a nuclear policy dictated by European weakness.
"And if the European Allies think that when their northern front collapses, which it would, they can immediately depend on an American strategic nuclear response, they are making a great mistake. The positioning of two American brigades up there in depth where the British ought to have another corps is a clear warning that this is not going to happen."
Does he envisage another Dunkirk-style evacation if the Soviet Army breaks through?
The Soviets won'tm break through, he responds, provided the British "produce the counterpenetration force to be located in depth in northern Germany." He belives such a force will be in existence in a year or two, and adds that the West Germans are improving their defenses and that the Dutch and Belgians are "a little reluctantly doing something of the same sort."
Sir John doubts whether a Soviet invasion of Britain "is ever a real danger." A Soviet invasion, he says, "would have to be a maritime affair, and in spite of improvements in their maritime capabilities, the USSR would be very, very unlikely to be able to launch an invasion of the British Isles."
Pointing to Britain's vital role as an air bridge between the US and Europe, he says the real danger it faces is from Soviet air attack, particularly when its air defense zone, dismantled over the last few years, is only just now being reconstructed.
"Time is against us," he says. "It's not a matter of airplanes. It is more a matter of airfields, so many of which have been allowed to go into civilian hands, agricultural hands, or converted for other uses."
Additional airfields are being constructed, he says, something that "is causing concern among conservation groups," but he warns that there will have to be a "substantial increase" in their number.
He adds that the rehabilitation of airfields is also under way.
Apart from the provision of a counterpenetration force for the Northern Army Group and the re-creation of an air defense zone in the British Isles, Sir John says there is a pressing need for the improvement of NATO's antisubmarine capabilities in the Atlantic and for sufficient reserve units in the US Army, "without which it cannot go to war." Since the end of the Vietnam war, armed forces reserves "have dwindled dangerously," he says.
Is NATO rearming as quickly as he would like?
"I find encouraging signs," he replies. "They're not doing enough. But at least they're doing a good deal more than they were. Britain's in the lead in the Western European bunch. It's doing more than all the rest. [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher's policy is to increase defenses, and in that she has my wholehearted support and she has the support of a great many other people in the country. She's doing the right thing."
Gen. Sir John Winthrop Hackett, or "Shan" as he is known to intimates, has distinguished himself as a soldier, scholar, and educator. Commissioned in the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars in 1931, he was posted to the Transjordan Frontier Force soon after. While in the Middle EAst, he wrote a thesis on the Saracen hero Saladin, which earned him a BA from Oxford.
During World War II, Sir John was decorated three times for gallantry. For his part in the disastrous Arnhem operation (subject of the movie "A Bridge Too Far"), he was awarded a bar to the Distinguished Service Order he had won in the Western Desert. In 1947, he returned to the Middle East as commander of the Transjordan Frontier Force, and from 1966 to 1968 he held command of the British Army of the Rhine and, concurrently, of NATO's northern Army Group. From 1968 to 1975, he was principal of King's College, London, lecturing on Ovid, whom he calls "a poet for our times."
Parts of the millhouse he lives in on the River Churn, a tributary of the Thames, date back to 1560, when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. Another section was added in 1660, and a third 150 years ago. There is a millpond where he fishes for trout. A French writer who visited him recently described the millhouse house and its surroundings as "a little corner of paradise."
With the success of his book, Sir John Hackett says he's "constantly" being urged to write something else. He re-enacts a typical conversation in London: "'Are you writing anything, Sir John?' It's usually a publisher asking, 'Oh yes, ' the reply comes. 'Quite a lot.' 'What?' 'Mostly letters to publishers saying no!'"
But Sir John is as eager to talk about an earlier book of his entitled "I Was a Stranger," describing how he was hidden and nursed by a Dutch family for 4 1/2 months after being seriously wounded at Arnhem. The family's house was only 50 yards from the German Military Police Headquarters. During his time in the Dutch house, he read the collected works of Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible -- right through.
"['Stranger'] was a failure in the US," he says bleakly. "You see, reviewers here have to be hit on the head with a meat ax before they realize that anything's happened."
He says the book's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was "so sad because they loved this book. They went over the moon about it. They were desperately disappointed that it received so little notice in this country."
Sir John, who has given much thought to the Soviet threat to the West, says he doesn't believe that the Kremlin is bent on world conquest.
"Not conquest. They're bent on total security for themselves. This is only possible in a world in which Marsixt- Leninism, or states looking at it indulgently, or in support of it, or controlled by it, are in the ascendant. Only in a Marsixt-Leninist dominated world will the USSR be wholly secure.
"War with the Soviet Union is not invevitable," he says. "War by grand design never was a high probability. I mean, there were people who had this bogey of the Russians' being about to launch a deliberate attempt to overrun the West. I never thought that a high probability. But what can happen, you see, is war by inadverence: crises multiplying internationally and moving out of control; and, given the enormous offensive capability of the Soviet Union, to which everything else in the Soviet system has been subordinated, the danger that a combination of miscalculation and mischance may tip an unstable situation over into a conflict that nobody wants."
He says that "The Third World War" sets out, by implication, at any rate, to point out that the Russians are developing a dilemma for the West: a dilemma "in which you may either come along with what they want to have happen, or prevent it by nuclear war. And nobody wants nuclear war, therefore you're very likely in this dilemma to come quietly. We've got to have a third course, and this book su ggests what it could be."
All in all, Sir John feels the US does "very well" in leading the Western alliance. "I regret the early vacillations of the Carter administration. But they're wholly understandable. Here was a good man, who expected that anybody else in a position of power in other countries, treated in an honest, friendly, open-handed way, would respond in the same way. And he discovered, instead, they're really a mean lot . . . and this was a great and unwelcome surprise to poor President Carter, but since he learned the hard way what Realpolitik means, he has taken a more resolute line, which I respect.
"I wonder how badly I may speak out of turn here, but what worries people in Europe is whether the advice he gets is always of the best. Of his intentions, of his integrity, of his courage I and many, many others, have no doubt."
He says he thinks President Carter's decisions to shelve the neutron bomb and scrap the B-1 bomber were mistaken. "I think it was a holdover of the policy of 'You treat the other boys generously and they'll respond.' And they don't. I think the enhanced-radiation weapon [neutron bomb] ought to have been put into production, and the B-1 bomber not scrapped -- not because of any intent to use them, but because the best insurance you can have against having to use such things is to have them."
Sir John feels it would be a "great pity" if the SALT II, though "full of imperfections and disadvantages to the US," were not ratified. An East-West dialogue is very important, he feels, "As Churchill said: "To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.'"
But he urges great caution. "Detente to the Russians and to ourselves means two totally different things. The Russians have made no secret of their interpretation of detente. To them, detente means simply a tactical device to secure a reduction in Western armed preparedness, a tactical device without any diversion from your strategic objectives. And the strategic objectives are to have a world totally secure for the USSR, and that can only be a world in which Marxist-Leninism is predominant. That's their long-term strategic objective, and detente to them is only a tactical device upon the way. To the West, detente is a reduction in tension, leading to greater friendliness. It's not to the Russians. It's purely a tactical step. But we must go on with these dialogues in an awareness that this is the case."
"The Third World War" has apparently not gone unnoticed in the Soviet Union.
"I think what I enjoyed most in the way of adverse criticism was what I read in a Russian paper in which it said that 'Gen. Sir John Hackett has only been used to put his name on the cover of a book which was written by NATO Headquarters.' Now that's high praise. That means we got it right. And I can tell you no syllable of this book was written in any Ministry of Defense. I was mostly written in that mill on the Churn, in Gloucestershire, in that peaceful place. But what is gratifying and justifies a very great deal of hard work is that we have had no criticism of the technical contents of the book. And it was upon this that I was deterined to take special care, because I knew that people who didn't like the message would gladly make use of technical flaws as a peg upon which to hang destructive criticism. And no one's been able to do this."
Does his book make him shudder?
"Well, happily, I haven't read it for a long time. I churned it out for them , and they received it with rapture and said, "This is marvelous stuff.' I said, 'It's awful stuff.' They said, 'It's a very good read.' And then I read it going up on the train to London and I realized it was a good read. And I think it is, don't you?"
In a note at the back of the book, Sir John observes: "We who have put this book together know very well that the only forecast that can be made with any confidence of the course and outcome of another world war, should there be one, is that nothing will happen exactly as we have shown here. There is the possibility, however, that it could. There is also the very high probability that unless the West does a good deal within the next few years to improve its defenses, a war with the Warsaw Pact could end in disaster."
Though he has always had strong academic inclinations, General Hackett does not regret that he chose a life of soldiering.
"Given the chance all over again, I should do exactly the same," he told a US Air Force Academy audience in 1970. "For the military life, whether for sailor, soldier, or airman, is a good life. The human qualities it demands include fortitude, integrity, self-restraint, personal loyalty to other persons, and the surrender of the advantage of the individual to a common good. None of us can claim a total command of all these qualities. The military man sees round him others of his own kind also seeking to develop them, and perhaps doing it more successfully than he has done himself. This is good company. Anyone can spend his life in it with satisfaction."