World War III (aka WWIII, WW3 or Third World War) is a hypothetical conflict where there is a third large-scale military war. Entire generations have grown up in the shadow of World War III. Following the end of World War Two, tensions between America and the Soviet Union ultimately resulted in the Cold War with its nuclear arms race, espionage, and the threat of a nuclear exchange resulting in a global crisis.
World War Three was defined by many in a variety of ways, but a lot of American citizens were fixated on the concept of the nuclear exchange as the defining characteristic of World War III. That notion has found its way into many parts of culture from films and television all the way to comic books and vinyl records.
A Brief History Of World War III
Nothing quite like World War III has happened within the lifetimes of anyone reading this article. So how can we write about its history? We’re discussing World War III as a concept, and the earliest indications of that notion in our culture began during World War Two.
It would be easy to believe that nobody was thinking or talking about the concept of a global nuclear holocaust until the United States military dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. After all, there had been no use of nuclear weapons prior to that point so how could anybody worry about how the world might end if a lot of them were deployed?
A November 3, 1941 article published in Time Magazine may have been the first use of the term “World War III”. Keep in mind that this is published before Pearl Harbor:
“…the German military machine is worn down by its losses in Russia—Hitler cannot hope to invade Britain for another year at least. Nor can Britain hope to invade Europe. Therefore a sort of undeclared peace will follow World War II, while Germany prepares for World War III.”
But that’s not all:
“To fight Britain and the U.S., Hitler must build a fleet. While he builds it, he will have to yield the initiative which has made the long string of German victories possible so far. While the Nazis are hard at work in Europe, Britain and the U.S. can seize the initiative, use it to fight World War III on their own terms. If a war with Japan is inevitable, they can fight Japan now, while Hitler is busy.”
This particular World War Three reference DOES take place at a time when both Germany and America were trying to develop nukes–the U.S. secret program called the Manhattan Project got underway in 1939. But the reference in Time Magazine likely refers specifically to conventional warfare.
The Nuclear Era: Fat Man and Little Boy
The nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which effectively ended World War Two, were called Fat Man and Little Boy. The use of these weapons ushered in a new era, a new arms race, and a new worry for the common citizen.
The ownership and use of nuclear weapons was so new that at the end of World War Two, British leaders were still thinking about conventional warfare as they designed a containment strategy for the Soviet Union in anticipation of yet another conflict that could be described as World War III in a conventional warfare sense.
These plans–two contingencies–were known as Operation Unthinkable. They were ordered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1945 following the end of World War Two. One plan involved a sneak attack by nearly 50 U.S. and U.K. divisions. But no iteration of Operation Unthinkable was ever approved or implemented.
In America, a more specifically nuclear contingency mindset was forming and by the 1950s, something called Operation Dropshot was designed to anticipate a war between the Soviet Union and the United States.
This is still not quite close to what many visualize as a World War Three contingency as sources report that nukes were meant to be used, but they were not the main weapon of choice and the plan required bombers to deliver the weapons in a similar fashion to their use against Japan.
Why use bombers? Because at this stage in the nuclear arms race, nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had not been added to the nuclear stockpile. And what stockpile that existed was not the same in terms of size and scope as later in the arms race.
What many feared as World War Three–the way we understand it today–was more fully developed in a 1979 plan called “Seven Days to the River Rhine”. It was developed by Warsaw Pact nations including the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and others.
The Seven Days plan projected what would happen if the Soviets were attacked in Poland by NATO forces. This planning assumed that NATO forces would deploy nuclear weapons and counterstrikes were planned for West Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and other European nations.
NATO had its own nuclear contingencies, which naturally involved American weaponry and support. One NATO plan anticipating World War III involved protection for allied nations that did not have nuclear weapons. The United States was expected to supply those weapons as part of the war planning. These would be deployed under the direction of the NATO Supreme Allied Commander.
Some sources report that as late as 2009, Germany, Italy, and other nations still provide sites housing United States nuclear weapons. Canada ended such programs in the 1980s, and Greece ended theirs in 2001.
Some reports indicate that as late as 2005, some 180 tactical nukes were still deployed in Europe as part of this nuclear sharing agreement. These weapons would be deployed using aircraft.
In the 21st century, both America and Russia both maintain stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
World War Three In Culture
The basic fears about a nuclear war, at least in American culture, was predicated on the idea of an acronym used during the Cold War called MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction. The term may have been first used in the 1960s–it was a derisive phrase used to point out the complete absurdity of owning and using weapons that could literally destroy the entire planet.
The concept of MAD is essentially that if one side attacks the other using nuclear weapons, the counter-attack and resulting further exchange of nukes would assure both attacker and defender are utterly destroyed.
This concept was hoped by some to be viewed as a deterrent. It also informed a huge amount of American culture. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb is just one example of Cold War era World War III message films.
And there were plenty of others. Matthew Broderick had an early role in the MAD-informed movie Wargames, where a young computer enthusiast accidentally triggers a nuclear escalation that could have resulted in World War III.
James Bond films often dealt with the topic of preventing global war and sometimes even global nuclear war. John Woo directed John Travolta, Samantha Mathis, and Christian Slater in the nuclear thriller Broken Arrow. But one of the most notorious World War III-themed American productions was a television drama called The Day After.
Aired in 1983, this television production was about a fictional nuclear attack on the USA by the U.S.S.R. and what happens in one American small town following the attack.
For a made-for-TV movie, it was startling and considered shocking. Scenes of burn victims, students fighting each other over food, and other moments of physical and cultural destruction and chaos ruled the screen during this film.
The Day After would likely not have shocked so many had it been screened in theaters. Moviegoers even then were used to graphic fare. But on over-the-air television, famous for a far more conservative approach to films (no gore, no swearing, no nudity, etc.) the effect was far more controversial.
And believe it or not, some sources report this piece of fiction actually influenced real life nuclear treaties negotiated a few years later.
Empire magazine reports that then-President Ronald Reagan drew a “direct line” from the production to his efforts to reduce intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
The threat of World War Three–or at least our existential dread of it–has diminished over time. No country has since deployed nuclear weapons against an enemy the way the United States did in World War Two, though some instances (such as the Cuban Missile Crisis) brought the nation to the brink of an actual shooting war with nukes.
Then there is also the threat of World War IV where Albert Einstein is quoted (or possibly misquoted) as having said: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but WWW IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.
Fortunately, in every instance where nuclear weapons have been suggested as an option, that option was rejected. In order to avoid World War III, some believe that is the way things must continue in perpetuity.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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