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Niall Ferguson: If You Think World War III Is Unimaginable, Read This

Novelists and filmmakers have long developed alternative histories of major conflicts that should serve as warnings for complacent Americans. But if you don’t open your eyes — and open them wide — to the plausible scenario of defeat right now, then you run the risk of one day having to do precisely that.

Are we unable to imagine defeat?

You might have thought that, having so recently lost a small war, Americans would have no difficulty picturing the consequences of losing a large one. But the humiliating abandonment of Afghanistan in 2021 has been consigned with remarkable swiftness to the collective memory hole.

Presumably a similar process would occur if at some future date the Ukrainian army, starved of ammunition, were overrun by its Russian adversaries. A year ago, US President Joe Biden traveled to Kyiv and told Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy: “You remind us that freedom is priceless; it’s worth fighting for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.” That turned out to mean, “For as long as it takes House Republicans to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy and cut off aid to Ukraine.” (McCarthy was gone by early October.)

Will the news networks replay Biden’s Kyiv speech the night the Russians march into the Ukrainian capital? Or will one of them air Tucker Carlson’s next interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

And how will we react if — say, later this year — we are informed that Iran has successfully built a nuclear weapon and has unleashed its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to rain missiles down on Israel? Will we threaten to use our own nuclear weapons against Iran to save Israel from destruction, as we threatened to the Soviet Union in 1973, when it considered intervening on the Arab side in the Yom Kippur War? Or will Washington issue yet another of its warnings to Israel not to “escalate” the struggle for its own survival?

Or what if we hear news that Taiwan has been blockaded by the People’s Liberation Army and that the president has decided — after carefully reviewing the considerable risk of starting World War III — not to send a naval expeditionary force to enforce freedom of navigation and supply the Taiwanese people with weapons and essential supplies?

How much attention will we devote to the end of Taiwan’s democracy and the imposition of Chinese Communist Party rule on its people? More than we pay to the next Grammy awards ceremony or Super Bowl?

I fervently hope none of these grim scenarios comes to pass. However, especially when I recollect the fall of Kabul in 2021, I find it hard to dismiss the idea that we might acquiesce quite insouciantly in all three cases. And the only explanation I can find for this is that Americans, deep in their hearts, do not think that defeat applies to them.

I can see why. The costs of defeat in Vietnam in 1975 were borne not by Americans but by the citizens of South Vietnam, just as the costs of defeat in Afghanistan were mostly borne by the Afghan people. The men and women who served in America’s most recent wars were a tiny fraction of the population. Those who died were long ago buried; those who suffered severe physical or mental injury are out of sight and out of mind.

Under these circumstances, it is very difficult indeed to make the following argument stick: If the US allows Ukraine, Israel and/or Taiwan to be overrun by their adversaries, there will be dire consequences for Americans, too. And by “dire consequences,” I mean something considerably worse than another 9/11.

Re-reading Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB reminded me that, not so very long ago, Britons could readily imagine the consequences of defeat. Published in 1978, SS-GB vividly depicts life in the UK following a successful German invasion of England in 1940. The story unfolds less than a year after the British surrender. The King is a prisoner in the Tower of London. Winston Churchill is dead, having been tried and executed in Berlin. There is a puppet government, as in France, but power is really in the hands of the German “Military Commander GB.”

Born in London in 1929, Deighton had come close enough to disaster in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz to make his depiction of Nazi-occupied London entirely plausible. Moreover, he was writing at a time when life in Britain had more than a whiff of defeat about it. Dogged by stagflation, the UK economy in the 1970s was the sick man of Europe; West Germany, by contrast, was still the land of the economic miracle.

Deighton’s central character is not a hero of the Resistance, but a collaborator. Yet so sympathetically is Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer presented that the reader does not condemn him, but rather identifies with him. Archer’s wife has been killed and his home destroyed during the final defense of London. He lives with his young son in cramped and chilly lodgings. For young Douggie’s sake, life must go on and homicides must be investigated, even if that means reporting to an SS Gruppenführer: “Archer had not been a soldier. As long as the Germans let him get on with the job of catching murderers, he’d do his work as he’d always done it.”

By comparison with Robert Harris’s more ambitious Fatherland — published in 1992 and set long after a German victory — SS-GB is imbued with gritty realism. You can almost smell the soot and smog of a bombed-out, broken-down London. Deighton, who was no mean historian, convincingly depicts the interagency feuds that played out across Hitler’s Third Reich. He plausibly assumes that, with Britain vanquished, Hitler has no need to break the Nazi-Soviet Pact and invade the Soviet Union, while the US can remain neutral. And Deighton keeps the British Resistance so shadowy that its bombing of a “German-Soviet Friendship Week” ceremony at Highgate Cemetery (an inspired scene) strikes the reader as a terrorist outrage rather than an act of freedom-fighting heroism. When Archer is reluctantly drawn into the Resistance, his part in the attempt to liberate the King is a shabby fiasco.

A quarter of a century has passed since I persuaded Andrew Roberts to write a chapter of the book Virtual History devoted to the historical plausibility of Deighton’s scenario. I vividly recall the cold sweat his first draft induced, with its detailed quotations from the documents in which the Germans had meticulously set out their plans for invading, defeating and occupying England. Even to us children of the 1960s, it all still seemed horribly immanent, especially the list of names of people to be arrested.

Under certain circumstances, imagining defeat can sap your morale. But it can also focus the mind on the burning imperative not to lose. Ukrainians have no difficulty imagining what defeat would mean today. They have seen the bodies strewn in the streets of Bucha after the Russian execution spree of September 2022. They know the horrors of which Putin’s colonial army is capable. Likewise, most Israelis understand only too well that victory for Hamas and its backers would be the prelude to a second Holocaust. They will never forget the hideous atrocities perpetrated last Oct. 7.

But few if any Americans think this way. It is now exactly 40 years since the release of Red Dawn, one of the few commercially successful attempts to envision a Soviet invasion of the US. Patrick Swayze plays Jed Eckert, one of a group of high school heroes who take to the hills of Colorado to fight the invaders in a succession of Rambo-esque battles. It is hard to imagine such a movie getting made today. The closest thing is Leave the World Behind, which vividly depicts the chaos into which this country would descend if all our technology — from our iPhones to our Teslas — simultaneously stopped working. Cleverly, or perhaps evasively, the film does not specify who or what is behind the cataclysmic outage.

Yet the American relationship to disaster movies has always struck me as rather different from the British one. Fans of Doctor Who, Britain’s longest-running science fiction series, regularly see disaster befall London. No matter how bizarre the alien invaders, there is always some allusion to the Blitz, to remind viewers that terror can indeed descend from the skies above the nation’s capital. But when Americans watched Contagion (2011), few appear to have imagined a real pandemic sweeping the land. When one arrived in the early months of 2020, I still remember the deep-seated reluctance of even well-educated people to believe that Covid-19 was something a lot more serious than seasonal influenza.

When Americans switch on their flat-screen TVs, they seriously want to Leave the World Behind. Rather than contemplate dystopian futures, they prefer to immerse themselves in the Taylor Swift cult — a form of mass escapism that recalls the mania for screen goddesses in the isolationist 1930s.

Here, then, is the movie nobody is going to make. Sometime this year, the Chinese blockade Taiwan — or maybe it’s the Philippines. Or maybe North Korea launches missile against South Korea. But let’s go with Taiwan.

The first thing that would come up in the White House Situation Room would be a request from the Taiwanese government for a US naval force to lift the blockade and restore freedom of navigation. That would need to consist of at least two aircraft carrier strike groups and a significant number of attack submarines.

Now that would be possible even if it had to happen tomorrow. Only one carrier is in the Red Sea right now, the Eisenhower. The Carl Vinson and the Theodore Roosevelt are off the Philippines. The Ronald Reagan is in Japanese waters.

But before those ships could even set off for the Taiwan Strait, Wall Street would be in panic mode. Stocks would be down 20%. Apple would be down 50% (because so much of its hardware is still made in China); Nvidia too (because so many of its chips are made in Taiwan). The dollar would rally on international markets, as you would expect in any crisis, but there might well be a general bank run at home, with people lining up at the ATMs.

As in the financial crisis and the Covid pandemic, such a dash for liquidity might prompt calls for yet another round of quantitative easing and rate cuts, though Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell might fret about the inflationary risks to his cherished 2% inflation target.

Matters would not get easier if China were able to attack the US carrier groups with either missiles or drone swarms. The president would also have to make a quick decision on whether to approve Japanese attacks on Chinese missile and air bases (assuming, that is, if the Japanese were game). He would be reminded by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, in the case of a shooting war, the US would run out of certain key weapons, notably long-range anti-ship missiles, within a week.

And all this would be going on — if it happened this year — in the middle of an election, with most-likely Republican candidate Donald Trump berating Biden for either starting another “forever war” or for showing weakness by doing the opposite, while Chinese-owned TikTok would be busy persuading young Americans of the moral necessity of Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland.

Any successful Chinese disruption of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure — as imagined in Leave the World Behind — would with high probability unleash chaos in major cities.

Now all you have to imagine — after communications were restored— is Vice President Kamala Harris announcing the new policy of “Asianization” (by analogy with Vietnamization in 1969), which would mean bringing all those American troops back home where they belong. This would be followed by live coverage of President Xi Jinping’s arrival in Taipei. Finally, a week later, the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea would meet in Beijing to announce the formation of the Greater Eurasian Co-prosperity Sphere.

All this may strike you as whimsical or fantastical. But it is not a great deal more outlandish than the extraordinary global upheaval that began at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. And we must remember that, for contemporaries, it was far from clear — until the success of the D-Day landings two and a half years later — that the Allies would ultimately win the war.

The interesting thing is to imagine daily life in CCP-US. At first, quite normal, aside from a lot of burnt-out inner cities and an influx of newly demobilized soldiers and sailors. Taylor Swift would probably keep singing and the Kansas City Chiefs keep playing. Only gradually would our friends from Beijing start to make their presence felt.

Only after a few months would you start to worry seriously about what you might have said in your phone calls and emails and old columns. And then you would start to delete things. And then you would have to worry that deletion didn’t really get rid of those offending words because they were backed up on the big-tech servers regardless.

Some would collaborate. Some would resist. Most would acquiesce. This is how Len Deighton sets the scene in SS-GB:

Some said there had not been even one clear week of sunshine since the cease-fire. It was easy to believe. Today the air was damp, and the colourless sun only just visible through the grey clouds, like an empty plate on a dirty tablecloth. And yet even a born and bred Londoner, such as Douglas Archer, could walk down Curzon Street, and with eyes half-closed, see little or no change from the previous year. The Soldatenkino sign outside the Curzon cinema was small and discreet, and only if you tried to enter the Mirabelle restaurant did a top-hatted doorman whisper that it was now used exclusively by Staff Officers from Air Fleet 8 Headquarters, across the road in the old Ministry of Education offices. And if your eyes remained half-closed you missed the signs that said “Jewish Undertaking” and effectively kept all but the boldest customers out. And in September of that year 1941, Douglas Archer, in common with most of his compatriots, was keeping his eyes half-closed.

Speaking for myself, I would loathe nothing more than to walk around New York or San Francisco with my eyes half-closed, to avoid noticing the telltale signs of CCP surveillance.

But if you don’t open your eyes — and open them wide — to the plausible scenario of defeat right now, then you run the risk of one day having to do precisely that.

By Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.”

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