World War III

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A nuclear holocaust is often associated with World War III.

World War III (WWIII or WW3 or the Third World War) is a term used to describe a worldwide conflict following World War II. The most common scenario, a hypothetical nuclear war between the superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, is widely used as a premise or plot device in books, films, television productions, and video games. However, some writers have applied the term instead to the Cold War, arguing that it met the definition of a world war even though there was no direct conflict between the superpowers.

World War I (1914–1918) was regarded as the "war to end all wars" and it was believed there could never be another global conflict. World War II (1939–1945) proved that to be false, and with the advent of the Cold War (1945–1991) and the use of nuclear weapons, the likelihood of a third global conflict became more accepted. It was anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities in many countries. Scenarios ranged from conventional warfare, to limited or total nuclear warfare leading to the destruction of civilization.

Albert Einstein was often quoted as saying "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."[1]

Operation Unthinkable[edit]

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was concerned that, with the enormous size of Soviet forces deployed in Europe at the end of WWII and the unreliability of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, there was a serious threat to Western Europe. In April–May 1945, British Armed Forces developed Operation Unthinkable, thought to be the first scenario of the Third World War.[2] Its primary goal was "to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire."[3] The plan was rejected by the British Chiefs of Staff Committee as militarily unfeasible.

Historical close calls[edit]

Cold War[edit]

With the development of the arms race in the 1950s, an apocalyptic war between the United States and the Soviet Union was considered possible. Among the historical events considered potential triggers for a nuclear conflict are:

  • 25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953: The Korean War, a war between two factions trying to control the Korean Peninsula: a communist one supported by China and the USSR, and a capitalist one, supported by the UN and the United States. Many people believed that it would escalate into full-scale war between the three superpowers. CBS war correspondent Bill Downs wrote in 1951 that, "To my mind, the answer is: Yes, Korea is the beginning of World War III. The brilliant landings at Inchon and the cooperative efforts of the American armed forces with the United Nations Allies have won us a victory in Korea. But this is only the first battle in a major international struggle which now is engulfing the Far East and the entire world."[4] He repeated this belief on ABC Evening News while reporting on the USS Pueblo incident in 1968.[5]
  • 15–28 October 1962: The Cuban missile crisis, a confrontation on the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, is often considered as having been the closest to a nuclear exchange, which could have precipitated a Third World War. The crisis peaked on 27 October, when a U-2 was shot down over Cuba and another almost intercepted over Siberia, after Curtis LeMay (U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff) had neglected to enforce Presidential orders to suspend all overflights, and a Soviet submarine nearly launched a nuclear-tipped torpedo in response to depth charges (with the launch being prevented by an officer named Vasili Arkhipov).
  • 26 September 1983: A false alarm occurred on the Soviet nuclear early warning system, showing the launch of American Minuteman ICBMs from bases in the United States. A retaliatory attack was prevented by Stanislav Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, who realised the system had simply malfunctioned (which was borne out by later investigations).[6][7]

Post–Cold War period[edit]

  • 25 January 1995: On what became known as the Norwegian rocket incident, a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched a Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket from the Andøya Rocket Range, to study the aurora borealis. The rocket was detected by the Olenegorsk early warning radar station in Murmansk Oblast, Russia. The rocket's predicted trajectory, as well as its shape and appearance, led the Russian military to believe it was a Trident missile aimed at Moscow. Russian nuclear forces were put on high alert, and Russian submarine commanders were ordered to go into a state of combat readiness and prepare for nuclear retaliation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin activated his "nuclear keys" in preparation for a response strike. However, after a few minutes, Russian observers were able to determine the rocket was heading away from Russian airspace. This incident was the first and only time in which a nuclear weapons state activated its nuclear briefcase and prepared to launch an attack.[8]

The Cold War as World War III[edit]

Norman Podhoretz has suggested that the Cold War can be identified as World War III because it was fought, although by proxy, on a global scale, involving the United States, NATO, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries.[citation needed]

Eliot Cohen, the director of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, declared in The Wall Street Journal he considers World War III to be history. "The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multi-million-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map."[9]

On the 10 July 2006 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, Michael Ledeen, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute For Public Policy Research (AEI), Ledeen said World War III had been the Cold War, and said that World War IV was already in progress, probably beginning with the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Similarly, on the 24 May 2011 edition of CNBC's Kudlow and Company, host Lawrence Kudlow, discussing a book by former deputy Under-Secretary of Defense Jed Babbin, accepted the view of the Cold War as World War III, adding "World War IV is the terror war, and war with China would be World War V."[10]


World War III is a common theme in fiction and art. A vast apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction literature exists describing the postulated execution and aftermath of World War III, several notable movies have been made based on World War III, and it is the topic of various comics, video games, songs, magazines, radio programs, newspapers and billboards.


  1. ^ Calaprice, Alice (2005). The new quotable Einstein. Princeton University Press. p. 173. ISBN 0-691-12075-7. 
  2. ^ (English) Jonathan Walker (2013). Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War. The History Press. p. 192. ISBN 978-0-7524-8718-2. 
  3. ^ British War Cabinet, Joint Planning Staff, Public Record Office, CAB 120/691/109040 / 002 (11 August 1945). "Operation Unthinkable: 'Russia: Threat to Western Civilization'" (online photocopy). Department of History, Northeastern University. Archived from the original on 4 July 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2008. 
  4. ^ Downs, Bill (March 1951). "World War III in Asia?". See Magazine. 
  5. ^ Downs, Bill (25 January 1968). "The USS Pueblo incident". ABC Evening News with Bob Young. ABC Evening News. Retrieved 8 November 2013. 
  6. ^ Hoffman, David (10 February 1999). "I Had A Funny Feeling in My Gut". Washington Post. 
  7. ^ Shane, Scott. "Cold War's Riskiest Moment". Baltimore Sun, 31 August 2003 (article reprinted as The Nuclear War That Almost Happened in 1983). 
  8. ^ Cold War Report
  9. ^ World War III? | – Canada – Features. Retrieved on 26 December 2011.
  10. ^ Right-wing media divided: Is U.S. now in World War III, IV, or V? | Media Matters for America. (14 July 2006). Retrieved on 26 December 2011.

Further reading[edit]

  • Langford, David (1981). War in 2080 : the future of military technology. London: Sphere Books. ISBN 978-0-7221-5393-2. 
  • Pamidi, G.G. (2012). Possibility of a nuclear war in Asia : an Indian perspective. New Delhi: United Service Institution of India : Vij Books India. ISBN 93-81411-51-4.