World War III

From Example Problems
Jump to navigation Jump to search
For other uses, see World War Three (disambiguation).
File:Nuclear fireball.jpg
Nuclear fireball from a U.S. nuclear test

World War III is the name given to a hypothetical world war that would be fought after World War II. Most usages of the term include the use of weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons.

In the latter half of the 20th century, military confrontation between the superpowers was considered to pose an extreme threat to establishing world peace, when the Cold War saw the capitalist United States face the communist Soviet Union. If this confrontation had escalated into full-scale war, it was widely thought that the conflict would become "World War III", and that the end result would be the extermination of human life or, at the very least, the collapse of civilization, with total casualties over 500,000,000.

This outcome ranks with asteroid impact events, hostile technological singularities, and catastrophic climate change as one of the major mass extinction events that could befall humanity.

The term World War III is used in certain spheres of influence in the USA to describe the Cold War of the 20th century, while the current War on Terror is referred to as the beginning of World War IV by those people. In the post September 11 era, others have used the term World War III to describe the War on Terror.

Historical scenarios

Error creating thumbnail: Unable to save thumbnail to destination
A mushroom cloud, an archetypal image of World War III. This photo is from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

When asked what kind of weapons World War III would be fought with, Albert Einstein replied:

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Not all scenarios for World War III have begun with the use of nuclear weapons. Operation DROPSHOT, a since-declassified U.S. plan, written in 1947, assumed a long period of conventional war between NATO and the Soviet Union before any nuclear weapons would be employed by both sides. The standard NATO war planning scenario assumed a Soviet attack on West Germany, in which tactical nuclear weapons would be used only if NATO forces were losing. In most war games, NATO forces faced extreme difficulty defending West Germany and used nuclear weapons first.

Historical close-encounters

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, an apocalyptic war between the United States and USSR was considered likely. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is generally thought to be the historical point at which the risk of World War III was closest. Other potential starts have included the following (see External links below for further examples):

  • November 9, 1979, when the US made emergency retaliation preparations after NORAD saw on-screen indications that a full-scale Soviet attack had been launched. No attempt was made to use the "red telephone" hotline to clarify the situation with the USSR and it was not until early-warning radar systems confirmed no such launch had taken place that NORAD realised that a computer system test had caused the display errors. A Senator at NORAD at the time described an atmosphere of absolute panic. A GAO investigation led to the construction of an off-site test facility, to prevent similar mistakes subsequently. A fictionalized version of this incident was filmed as the movie WarGames, in which the test system is inadvertantly triggered by a teenage hacker believing himself to be playing a video game.
  • January 25, 1995, when Russia almost launched a nuclear attack after a Norwegian missile launch for scientific research was detected from Spitzbergen and thought to be an attack on Russia, launched five minutes from Moscow. Norway had notified the world that it would be making the launch, but the Russian Defense Ministry had neglected to notify those monitoring Russia's nuclear defense systems.

In addition to the above there are two other points during the Cold War that may have resulted in world war. These, however, are not generally listed as they do not relate to the United States-Soviet Union rivalry, but rather the events following the Sino-Soviet Split of 1960. The ideological split between Maoist communists (represented primarily by China) and Stalinist communists (represented primarily by the Soviet Union) divided the entire communist movement worldwide — which controlled governments or significant rebel factions on most continents. Thus a war between China and the Soviet Union may well have resulted in world war, whilst not necessarily involving the U.S. and the capitalist west (although the U.S. may have opportunistically intervened whilst its two communist rivals were distracted by war with each other). The two points the communist powers almost entered into all-out war were:

  • March, 1969, when border clashes broke out between Soviet and Chinese troops over Zhen Bao Island in the Ussuri River. In total the Soviets suffered about 90 casualties to the 800 for the Chinese. At the time there were almost one and a half million troops deployed along the border.
  • 1978 and 1979, in which the pro-Soviet Vietnam invaded the pro-China Cambodia and removed Pol Pot. China in turn invaded Vietnam in retaliation and the Soviets denounced this action strongly, although fell short of taking action. The next year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the Chinese claimed this was a continuation of a strategy of encircling China with Soviet allies that had begun the previous year with the invasion of Cambodia.

Some examples of close encounters are more rhetorical than real. In 1999 NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, ordered British Army Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson to hinder Russian troops from occupying the Pristina airport during the Kosovo War, "if necessary with military force"; Jackson refused to carry out the order with the words: "I won't start World War III for you!"

Preparations for war

OPLAN (Operations Plan) 1000 was the standard U.S. military plan for the first hours or days of a national emergency such as World War III. Unclassified annexes included grounding all civil aircraft in the United States and controlling all navigation beacons. In the 1950s and 1960s, this included CONELRAD (Control of Electronic Radiation), in which all radio stations broadcasting in the U.S. would operate on low power on two frequencies — to prevent Russian bombers from using them for navigation. Certain features of OPLAN 1000 were instituted during the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The actual U.S. nuclear response was detailed in numerous Single Integrated Operational Plans from 1960 to the present day.

Certain sources also state that the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was specifically designed to contain several sections which were flat and straight, to be used as emergency runways for nuclear bombers. However, the United States Department of Transportation strongly denies that such a purpose exists in the Interstate highway system. Nonetheless, several other nations, such as Finland and Taiwan have done so. The original freeways, as produced by Germany under Fascist regime, were built this way for planned World War II aviation use.

Use of the term

Cold War

Some, including Subcomandante Marcos and Jean Baudrillard, consider the Cold War (capitalism against "communism") as the Third World War, and globalization (capitalism against non-capitalism) as the Fourth. Some of the commentators refer to the War on Terrorism as "World War IV".

The term World War III is used by Project for the New American Century (PNAC) to describe the Cold War of the 20th century, while the War on Terror, including the Iraq military conflict, is been called World War IV by PNAC members. PNAC has numerous members who are senior officials in the administration of George W. Bush in the USA as well as in other high positions of influence in the United States. James Woolsey, a founding member of PNAC, stated during his opening statements while speaking on April 2, 2003 on a panel discussion at UCLA entitled "America, Iraq and the War on Terrorism, UCLA".

A few words about this war we're in, which I don’t really call a war against terrorism. I have adopted a formulation of my friend Elliot Cohen who teaches at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies calls it World War IV. World War III having been the Cold War. And I think that more accurately characterizes the degree of commitment that we are going to have to be engaged in, and the scope of what we are going to be engaged in now for some years. This Fourth World War I think will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us, hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War.

Gulf War

During a press conference soon after the start of the 1991 Gulf War King Hussein of Jordan directly referred to the conflict between the United States and its coalition of allies against Iraq as "the Third World War" but there is no indication of any other world leaders accepting the definition.

War on Terrorism

Some historians have suggested that the War on Terrorism, in retaliation to the September 11 2001 attacks, may become known by future generations as the third of the world wars due to its global impact and the number of countries involved. However, others say this is hyperbole and argue that it is highly unlikely that the current military conflicts in the Middle East and central Asia will escalate to the point that the USA would be engaged militarily with at least one other major military alliance, such as Russia or China involved with Iran. In either case it is noteworthy to point out that the war on terrorism marks the first time since its creation that NATO has unilaterally opted to enact its war action and participation articles.

Technological causes of WWIII

The term Gigadeath War, first used by Hugo De Garis, described a confrontation not between nations or religions but between Terrans and Cosmists, determined respectively to resist or advance artilect ("artificial intelligence" on a godlike scale) evolution beyond humans — a "technological singularity" out of human control. This is not an isolated concept — apocalypse literature throughout the late 20th century emphasized lack of human control over war machines, e.g. the Terminator series, A.I. (film) and the Matrix.

The United Nations University Millennium Project participants, in 2001, ranked technological runaways (gene, prion, virus, robot, software or new molecules acting like any or all) as greater risks to human survival than intentional acts by humans. World War III has also been relegated in likelihood among Human extinction scenarios by futurologist authors (like Sir Martin Rees).

Artistic treatments

A vast post-apocalyptic science fiction literature exists describing the likely aftermath of either, describing the impact of weapons of mass destruction. None of it describes a very happy world. Many science fiction works are also set in a far future in which a WWIII-type conflict is a historical event.

The genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction often uses post-World War III scenarios. However, these stories were found only in Western science fiction publications; Soviet writers were discouraged from writing them.

Film and television

Several notable movies have been made based on World War III, including the following:


Notable literature dealing with World War III include:

  • Fail-Safe, a book which was adapted into two movies, described above; ISBN 0070089272.
  • On the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute, was also made into movies of the same name (1959 and 2000); ISBN 1842322761.
  • Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, dealt with the survival of the fictional town of Fort Repose, Florida after a Soviet missile strike obliterates most of the United States; ISBN 0060931396.
  • The Third World War, August 1985, by General Sir John Hackett, set in a 1980s war based on the NATO scenario; ISBN 0025471600. Hackett also wrote a sequel, The Third World War: The Untold Story which expanded upon the original story; ISBN 0450055914. This same NATO/Warsaw Pact scenario was also used in Harold Coyle's novel, Team Yankee; ISBN 0425110427.
  • Warday, by Whitley Strieber & James Kunetka. Presented as an extended piece of journalism, two writers tour America five years after a limited nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. The work assembles a fictional documentary of life in the aftermath, weaving together interviews, government documents, and the chronicle of their travels; ISBN 0030707315
  • Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy, presents a detailed, realistic scenario of World War III fought largely with conventional weapons; ISBN 0006173624.
  • The World Aflame, written by Leonard Engel and Emmanuel Piller in 1947 and set amidst a protracted nuclear war from 19505.
  • Red Army, by Ralph Peters, told from the Soviet perspective; ISBN 0671676695.
  • Yellow Peril by Wang Lixiong, written under the pseudonym Bao Mi, about a civil war in the People's Republic of China that becomes a nuclear exchange and soon engulfs the world. It's notable for Wang Lixiong's politics, a Chinese dissident and outspoken activist, its publication following Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and its popularity due to bootleg distribution across China even when the book was banned by the Chinese Communist Party.
  • The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, is set in a post-apocalyptic community, the City of Ember, built underground. The protagonists, Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet, are on a quest to find the way to get out of Ember, because the city is beginning to run out of lightbulbs, the only things keeping the Emberites from dying in darkness.
  • JLA by Grant Morrison. Under influence by a space-faring entity, populations fight amongst themselves.
  • "Nineteen Eighty-Four" by George Orwell depicts a world in which all three superpowers are involved in a perpetual World War III in order to control their peoples and induce war-hysteria.
  • Robert C. O'Brian's "Z for Zachariah" in which a nuclear war leaves a small valley untouched and follows a young girl who is seemingly the only survivor.
  • Robert McCammon's novel Swan Song opens with a massive nuclear exchange, involving a description of the destructive firestorm created by a nuclear missile. While much of the novel involves supernatural elements, the backdrop is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and a central plot development involves several opposing, marauding, guerilla armies trying to seize power in the aftermath.
  • A series of novels under the title World War III by Ian Slater, follows the key players and a number of related characters in campaigns around the planet.
  • "Arc Light", by Eric L. Harry, describes a nuclear exchange between Russia and the U.S. as well as the following U.S. invasion of Russia.
  • "Neuromancer," and the rest of the "Sprawl Trilogy" by William Gibson is set in a post WWIII world.

Computer games

  • World War 3 — online browserbased multiplayer game in advanced Risk-style. Running since 2001.
  • World War III: Black Goldreal-time strategy game: Released late 2001, WWIII:BG depicted a U.S. invasion of Iraq for oil, Iraqi terroism in the United States and Rebel Soviet Generals seizing the Russian Federation. Due to its time of release, the game never became as popular as any of the Earth 21** games made by the same games company, Reality Pump.
  • Command & Conquerreal-time strategy game: terrorists (the Brotherhood of Nod) fights against a UN-like organisation (the Global Defense Initiative).
  • Command & Conquer: the Red Alert Seriesreal-time strategy game where an alternate time-line leads to conflict between the Soviets and other nations. The first confrontation was technically not a World War III conflict; in this world, World War II never occurred; however the events of Red Alert 2 — a full scale invasion of the United States — would be the start of World War III.
  • Wastelandcomputer role-playing game set in a post-nuclear world after World War III in 1997.
  • Fallout — computer role-playing game set in a post-nuclear world with retro-50s style, after World War III in 2077. Said to be the unofficial sequel to Wasteland.
  • Superhero League of Hoboken, a tongue-in-cheek lampooning of the post-apocalyptic genre
  • Battlefield: Apocalypse, a BF2 Total Conversion, set in 2056 - 50 years after a nuclear apocalypse. Many of the maps are set within real-world locations, such as New York and Australia.
  • Computer War (Thorn EMI) and WarGames (Coleco) — similar titles with real-time strategy elements, based on the "War Games" movie, for ATARI 800/XL series computers.
  • Raid Over Moscow, an arcade-style game for the C64 and Sinclair_Spectrum in which the player has to destroy Soviet nuclear missiles being launched at the U.S.
  • Battlefield 2 which takes place as a futuristic war between the Peoples Liberation Army of China, the Middle Eastern Coalition, and the United States Marines.
  • The Strength of Nations in which three nations struggle for dominance in a world devastated by nuclear holocaust.


  • The punk rock band the Clash wrote a few songs about nuclear war, notably London Calling and Ivan Meets G.I. Joe.
  • Several early-80s synth pop bands responded to Cold War tensions with nuclear war songs, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes", Ultravox's "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" and Nena's "99 Red Balloons".
  • Ska-funk band Fishbone sing about WWIII with energy and humour in the song "Party at Ground Zero".
  • Ex-Smiths frontman Morrissey compares a seaside resort town in winter to a post-nuclear holocaust world in the song "Every Day is Like Sunday".
  • Depeche Mode expresses the desolation of a destroyed Europe after nuclear weapons detonate after receiving a nuclear-attack warning only a mere two minutes prior to the explosions in "Two-minute warning" on the 1983 album Construction Time Again, whose various tracks generally address the various topics (nuclear, environmental, social welfare) of pathos and angst felt by European Generation X living in a world pulled perhaps senselessly in two opposing directions by the two sides of the Cold War.
  • The satirist Tom Lehrer gained renown for several apocalyptically-themed songs, including "So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)" and "We Will All Go Together When We Go". In his introduction to the latter he said "if we want any good songs to come out of the next war, we had better start writing them now".
  • The heavy metal band Megadeth has numerous songs dealing with nuclear war such as the songs "Set the World Afire", "Rust in Peace... Polaris" and "Black Curtains." Nuclear war is also the inspiration for the band's name.
  • The post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor's work largely deals with apocalyptic destruction and its consequences (see the lyrics to their song "The Dead Flag Blues").
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic penned a satirical song called "Christmas At Ground Zero", that appears on the album Polka Party!, about the Christmas holiday after a nuclear war. He also mentions the prospects of World War III specifically in an early song called "Happy Birthday" that appears on his first, self titled album "Weird Al" Yankovic.
  • KMFDM has a song called "World War III" on their 2003 release of the same title. It attacks the current Bush administration.
  • The pop punk band Simple Plan in their song "Crazy" briefly compares World War III to how children may feel about marital problems their parents may have.
  • Punk Band "Bad Religion" has a number of songs about WWIII, including Part III and World War III.
  • Pop singer Pink refers to the destruction of traditional family as World War Three in her song Family Portrait
  • Pink Floyd's 1983 concept album The Final Cut ends with the beginning of a nuclear war (Two Suns in the Sunset).
  • UNKLE released a mix album titled "World War III" in 2003.
  • Bob Dylan wrote a song called "Talkin' World War III Blues" in 1964.
  • "We Will Become Silhouettes" by The Postal Service is an upbeat song about living through the aftermath of a nuclear war.

See also

External links

de:Dritter Weltkrieg hr:Treći svjetski rat ja:第三次世界大戦 pt:Terceira Guerra Mundial fi:Kolmas maailmansota zh:第三次世界大戰