I grew up during the darkest and most dangerous part of the Cold War, from about 1978 to 1983. President Carter had killed the detente after misunderstanding Soviet intentions in Afghanistan. We abandoned our no-first strike nuclear policy. Then came President Regan. He abandoned our long-held policy of the mere containment of communism and advocated, instead, roll-back. The Soviets were sure a sneak attack by NATO could come at any moment. And they were still anxious about their Chinese neighbors.
During all of that, popular culture and the adults around me instilled in me a fear that I could die in a nuclear holocaust at any moment. Perhaps it is out of this cauldron that I developed my taste for Cold War and World War III literature. For a hobby, I used to track down and read government and public reports on estimates of damage from nuclear war.
In case there’s someone else out there who might enjoy such grim stuff, I am posting my favorite World War III literature. I’m still astounded that we avoided the real thing.
What are your favorite WWIII books? Please post your suggestions in the comments or on your own blog.
Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising (G. P. Putnam, 1986). This is the only novel of Clancy’s I’ve read; I have no interest in espionage stories. This novel covers the war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe in the 1980s. It covers a large theater of war, from the North Atlantic and Iceland to Germany. Clancy did his research for this one.
Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon (J. B. Lippincott, 1959). The classic nuclear war survival story. First of all, this is one of the few good WWIII novels that is actually written well. It is set in Florida in the 1950s. One of the things I like about this novel is the thing that separates it from much current apocalyptic survival literature. Current literature seems to emphasize the individual man fighting against his neighbors to survive a society in collapse. Frank, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of rebuilding communities to survive a disaster. I get the impression that current writers want society to collapse, want the opportunity to be the lone survivor killing his neighbors. I prefer to have Frank as a neighbor.
General Sir John Hackett, The Third World War: August 1985 (New York: Macmillan, 1978). This is my favorite book on this list. Unlike Red Army or First Clash, it is a global-scale view of World War III. It is a fictional report written after the war. Hackett used this fictional format to think through how a war could start, what it would be like, and how it could be ended. I suspect that this book was an important influence on Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising.
Kenneth Macksey, First Clash: Combat Close-Up in World War Three (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1985). This book first appeared as an official Canadian training manual. Macksey wrote this novelized description of a battle between Soviet and Canadian forces in West Germany during the first few days of the war. The writing is a bit tough to follow if you’re not a soldier, but it is probably as realistic portrayal as you’re going to get. This is World War III as it would’ve been seen by small groups of men on the front line.
Office of Technology Assessment, The Effects of Nuclear War (Montclair, NJ: Allenheld, Osman, & Co., 1980). This is an American government report describing the types of effects from thermonuclear weapons and what America and Russia could expect from a nuclear war. It describes the horrible results of both attacks on single cities (Detroit and St. Petersburg) and on the two countries as a whole.
Ralph Peters, Red Army (New York: Pocket Books, 1989). This is a novel about a conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe. Explaining his motivation to write this novel, Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters wrote, “I have been frustrated by my inability in formal briefings, lectures, and documents, either in the mud of gunnery ranges or in the comfort of theaters, to adequately transmit anything sufficiently meaningful about the men behind the Soviet guns.” This novel is his answer. We’ll never know just how realistic it is, but it gives the impression of extraordinary realism.
Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, War Day (New York: Warner Books, 1985). The authors imagine themselves surviving a nuclear war. Several years later, they travel across the country, or what becomes several countries, to document what America had become like and how people were surviving.