World War III

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For other uses, see World War Three (disambiguation).
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World War III is the name given to a hypothetical world war that would be fought between superpowers with 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.

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 sometimes also used to describe the Cold War of the 20th century. In the post September 11 era some people have used the term World War III to describe the War on Terror.


Historical scenarios

A , an  image of World War III. This photo is from the  at the end of .
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 US 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):

  • October 24, 1973 - As the Yom Kippur War was winding down, a Soviet threat to intervene on Egypt's behalf caused the United States to go to DEFCON 3. If the Soviets intervened, the Americans would as well. The Soviets then backed down from their threat and Egypt withdrew its request for assistance.
  • 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.
  • 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 US and the capitalist west (although the US 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 Zenbao Island in the Wusuli river. In total the Soviets suffered about 90 casualties to supposedly more than 800 for the Chinese. At the time there were almost one and a half million troops deployed along the border.
  • 1978 and 1969, 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 viewed this as a continuation of a strategy of encircling China with Soviet allies - begun the previous year with the invasion of Cambodia. Again, however, the two communist powers refrained from open war.

Preparations for War

OPLAN (Operations Plan) 1000 was the standard US 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 US 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 US 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 Nazi Germany, were built this way for planned World War II aviation use.

Use of the term

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.

Some historians have suggested that the War on Terrorism, sparked by the September 11 attacks, may become known as the Third World War (or the Fourth World War if the Cold War is assumed to be the Third World War) by future generations due to its world-wide scope. However, others say this is hyperbole and argue that it is highly unlikely that the war will escalate to such a large level involving a majority of nations and groups going against each other in war.

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. Dr. Strangelove, the Terminator series, 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. This same scenario was also used in Harold Coyle's novel, Team Yankee; ISBN 0425110427.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Computer games

  • Command & Conquerreal-time strategy game: terrorists (the Brotherhood of Nod) fights against an 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 genre
  • Computer War (Thorn EMI) and War Games (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 in which the player has to destroy Soviet nuclear missiles being launched at the U.S.


  • 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" (
  • 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" 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".
  • 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.
  • "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 title same. 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.

See also

External links

hr:Treći svjetski rat ja:第三次世界大戦 fi:Kolmas maailmansota zh:第三次世界大戰


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