Countdown to Doomsday: a brief history of World War III

Mushroom cloud

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Ever since the devastation caused by World War I and World War II, people have hypothesized how another globe-encompassing war would play out. World War III in the public consciousness tends to envisage a nuclear exchange, this playing out from fears created during the Cold War. However, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, it is still a fear and image that resonates in the contemporary mind, one that has developed for over half a century.

The Origins of World War III

It was inevitable, considering the possible political fallout (pun intended) of the conclusion of World War II and the development of atomic weapons that had been concurrent with the war, that the idea of another world war immediately succeeding World War II was a possibility. “Operation Unthinkable” was a scenario put into development by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the waning months of the war against Nazi Germany. Its purpose would have been to: “impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British Empire.”

Churchill saw Joseph Stain as untrustworthy and saw Soviet Russia as a threat to the west. World War III in this instance would have hypothetically started on July 1, 1945. It encompassed the idea of total war, with the aim being to occupy enough metropolitan areas to reduce Russia’s capacity “to a point at which further resistance becomes impossible” and the defeat of the Russian military forces to a point where they could no longer continue the war.  The implementation of this plan to start World War III was partly held back due to the three-to-one sheer overwhelming numerical superiority of Soviet Forces in Europe and the Middle East when compared to the Allies.

Nevertheless, following the successful deployment of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, a new element arose to a more prominent position in the conceptualization of World War III. After the success of these bombings, Churchill and right-wing policy-makers in the United States pushed forward the idea of a nuclear bombing of the USSR. An unclassified FBI note read:

‘“He  [Churchill] pointed out that if an atomic bomb could be dropped  on the Kremlin, wiping it out, it would be a very easy problem  to handle the balance of Russia, which would be  without direction.”

Nuclear bombing would prevent Allied casualties in a war against a heavily beleaguered Soviet Union coming out of the Second World War. By 1949, the Soviet Union had detonated its first nuclear weapon; World War III would now have a new deadly, nuclear element.

The Dynamic Nuclear Element

Wikimedia commons

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II showed the possible destruction of a Third World War. | Wikimedia commons

The Cold War is cited in general as a period of paranoia, an age where humanity seemed to be on the point of blundering into extinction. It was a human condition, that if man was in possession of weapons capable of causing worldwide destruction, then they would inevitably use them. The brinkmanship of some of the more famous crises of the Cold War, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, offer haunting glimpses into how close we could have come to a World War III, but more importantly how at these tipping points people genuinely believed in the real potential of an apocalyptic World War III. This is the popular view of World War III conjured in the modern mind, the apocalyptic vision that shows up in popular culture and real fears generated by current affairs.

However, to deny that World War III would be exempt of conventional warfare would be a misdemeanour. Nuclear responses were often incorporated together with conventional responses in plans. Able Archer 83, the background to German drama Deutschland 83, was part of series of military exercises that envisaged an escalation from conventional warfare into chemical and nuclear warfare. In this instance, 40,000 U.S. and NATO forces moved across western Europe. The life-like nature of the wargame and increasing tensions due to recent events such as the shooting down of Korean Airlines Boeing 747, which resulted in the death of all 269 people on board, and Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire,” all contributed to the Soviet Union believing a nuclear attack was imminent. Even with the increasing potency of nuclear weapons, Able Archer anticipated that World War III might involve traditional military maneuvers and actions, combined with nuclear warfare.

The German drama Deutschland 83 is based on events surrounding Able Archer 83. | YouTube

The German drama Deutschland 83 is based on events surrounding Able Archer 83. | YouTube

Likewise, the Warsaw Pact also accounted for a World War III that took conventional and nuclear war and made them into one. In 2005, the newly-elected conservative Polish government released a map from 1979, the simulation entitled “Seven Days to the River Rhine,” which shows the possible response to a conventional NATO attack, involving overwhelming forces. It would have entailed nuclear bombardments on major German cities in Germany, such as Munich and Cologne, as well as the capital of the West German capital of Bonn. Further targets included the base of NATO headquarters, Brussels, and targets in Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The name of this proposed scenario is titled due to the conventional counter-attack that would have been carried out by military forces against NATO, that would try and reach the Franco-German border within seven days, and it would also involve a push to the North Sea.

Interestingly, nuclear attacks on France and the United Kingdom were not planned, perhaps more surprisingly in the case of the U.K., who unlike France was part of NATO’s military structure. Of course, the plan took into account the almost certain prospect of nuclear retaliation. Key eastern European cities, such as Prague and Warsaw, however, it also included bombing across the Vistula River to prevent Warsaw Pact reinforcements reaching the frontline. This also shows how an idea of a “nuclear-conventional” combined arms approach would have been used in World War III.

This combined approach has much older origins, as seen through Churchill’s “Operation Unthinkable.” However, the deployment of nuclear weapons also needs to be taken into account, as this would have been a large part in a hypothetical World War III. For example, the U.S advantage in weapons and bombers at the start of the Cold War faced the threat of new jet-powered interceptors. The introduction of B-47 and B-52 reduced this threat. Meanwhile, submarine-based deployment, such as the U.K.’s Trident, is yet another example of how physical assets have a large influence on nuclear warfare. If these assets can be potentially threatened by more conventional means, then it is certain they would form part of a nuclear war with more traditional elements.

World War III could have also amounted as an escalation of conventional proxy wars. In See Magazinein March 1951, CBS War Correspondent Bill Downs wrote, “To my mind, the answer is: Yes, Korea is the beginning of World War III.” A common fear was that the Korean War would escalate into a conflict between China, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 is also an example of a possible escalation. Although neither the U.S. nor the USSR participated directly in it, the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron and U.S. Sixth Fleet came close to blows. Admiral Murphy of the United States believed there was a 40 percent chance that the Soviet squadron would lead a first strike against his fleet.

These cases show how World War III was not only a constant danger, but was also still seen in traditional and conventional military terms as a hybrid with the much more destructive capabilities of nuclear arsenals. Therefore, we can infer that World War III was not always seen as necessarily apocalyptic by governments and militaries, despite the existence of concepts such as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Finally, it is essential to admit the varying degrees of intensity in east-west relations, through the cooling effects of détente to the heightening of hostilities in the 1980s, when studying a hypothetical World War III.

A Popular Culture Phenomenon

Collier magazine

World War III is also an ever-growing concept in popular culture throughout multimedia. The theme is generally post-apocalyptic in its nature, though a World War III “in action” is still present. The earliest forms of the pop-culture World War III coincide with World War II, much like the political idea of World War III, but the idea of an actual nuclear war, regardless of its status as a “third global war,” precedes these. In his 1914 novel, The World Set Free, H.G. Wells developed the idea of a uranium-based hand grenade that would explode unlimitedly, with the novel following the traditional lines of mass destruction. This novel is the emergence of the apocalyptic, yet atomic, war in popular culture.

Stories appeared even before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in the World War II era, but the growing paranoia over a World War III following the end of the war led to a seemingly-anxious output. This is a Cold-War pattern in varying forms. In 1951, Collier, more known for investigative journalism, dedicated an entire 130 pages — all of the content — to a hypothetical World War III with the heading “Preview of the War We Do Not Want.” Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union exchange nuclear salvos, we do see conventional Soviet forces invading Germany, the Middle East, and Alaska, all starting from events in Yugoslavia.

We see growing self-doubt and anxiety in popular culture as the Cold War progresses. The war does not now emerge from the political establishment, but rather from technological blunders and the nature of humanity. The helpless sense of inevitability is building up in multimedia. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove the mental health of a general is the new non-political factor. In Fail Safe, a film released the same year, a glitch causes U.S. bombers to launch a first strike against Moscow. The tragic element is that a bomb must also be dropped on New York City to appease the Soviets and to avoid an apocalyptic exchange. All of this is due to a technological fault, rather than any political or military hierarchy. The 1977 film Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a product of its age. This time, the renegade air force officers seize a nuclear missile silo because the U.S. government withheld information from its people. They knew there was no realistic chance of winning the war in Vietnam and only continued for the Soviet image of them; that they were unwavering in their fight against communism, weakness being revealed as a threat. In these instances, it is not simply the Soviet Union who causes World War III, but a tragic narrative develops, perhaps due to real efforts to smooth relations following the deadly Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fallout boy

The iconic ‘Vault-Boy’ of the Fallout series.

Popular culture also took aspects of World War III as seen by the militarists and politicians and added other elements to them. The Sword of Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks combines fantasy with the post-apocalyptic, as we see other creatures like elves and gnomes among humans as a result of mutation. The popular Fallout series of video games, retro-futurist in its nature, not only has a range of mutants as a result of nuclear war, but also escapes standard time constraints. The nuclear war takes place in 2077 and involves the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China in an alternate history. In Tom Clancy’s 1986 Red Storm Rising, World War III is caused by Islamic extremists from Azerbaijan and the war is fought by conventional means, never escalating into nuclear war.

In post-apocalyptic popular culture we also see a new emerging narrative that is competing with the World War III image. This is the environmental disaster, not surprising considering the current political and social climate around global warming. The 1995 film Waterworld takes place on an earth where all the polar ice caps have melted and the planet is almost completely covered in water and the 2009 video game Fuel is set in a post-apocalyptic world where extreme weather is a potent danger caused by global warming. Therefore, we must admit that a hypothetical and nuclear World War III are not the only factors that play into the post-apocalyptic popular culture.

Regardless, World War III is still an image on the popular spectrum in various forms of multimedia. It provides a powerful insight in how the hypothetical war is seen outside of politics and it also provides an image of the doubts instilled in all of us regarding our future and relationship with the most destructive of weapons.

The Modern Spectre

World War III is still associated a lot with the Cold War and the potential conflict that could have emerged as a result of it. However, World War III remains a fear of many and it is often interpreted in a new light in the contemporary world. One of the first instances to show that there was room for an apocalyptic global war following the collapse of the Soviet Union was in 1995, during the Norwegian Rocket Scare. It was in this instance that the suitcases to enter the nuclear codes for a retaliatory strike against the United States were open, the cause being a research rocket that was mistaken for an EMP attack and, following that, a missile carrying multiple nuclear warheads. This incident, under Boris Yeltsin, proves that there was room for World War III in the post-Cold War era.

After 9/11, the “War on Terror” was declared. To many this was seen as a new World War. Even U.S. President George W. Bush likened it to World War III and many compared the 9/11 attacks to a Pearl Harbor-like event. The style of combat employed in the concept of “terrorism” is separate from the conventional notions of World War III. However, many groups such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda still have attacked military targets, as well as civilian targets and had large functioning armies which would fit into the standard concept of a world war. In 2015, the Taliban had an estimated 60,000 recruits in their core, fitting this idea. In recent history, the rise of Islamic State has also brought this question back to light, seemingly more vigorously.

Vladimir Putin is, according to critics, playing a large role in increased tensions between the east and west. | Wikimedia commons

Vladimir Putin is, according to critics, playing a large role in increased tensions between the east and west. | Wikimedia commons

However, the World War III of this millennium’s second decade has also seen the return of the nation state as a potential adversary. North Korea and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are headline hitters when it comes to a prospective World War III. For Russia, there is a new Cold War brewing between the east and west, primarily caused by his hard approach to handling political authority. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the conflict in Ukraine have shown that he is willing to assert territorial influence. In the case of North Korea in May 2016, during a rare party congress, leader Kim Jong-un praised his country’s nuclear achievements. Efforts to reduce Iran proliferating nuclear weapons seem to be working, as economic sanctions have recently been lifted against them after an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report has shown it has taken steps to limit its nuclear-based plans. Therefore, it appears Iran is now less likely to develop nuclear weapons.

These examples show the ever-evolving scene of the hypothetical World War III in the modern world. Political tensions between major nations will always trigger fears of a larger scale war, whether it would be nuclear or more akin to the conventional global wars of the 20th century. Nevertheless, we have seen that new powers and new forms of combat are rising to add to and, in some respects, replace the traditional narrative of World War III. We must, however, realize that the prospect of World War III does not affect much of humanity’s approach to everyday life in the modern world and it still seems a far-fetched prospect, despite the continued political wrangling of modern nation states.

The Curtain Falls

As we have seen, the idea of World War III was an idea inevitable in its existence as soon as World War II started. It is impossible to stop humans speculating; they always have and always will. It is for reason that we have had military plans for a major global war and a reflection of the concept of World War III throughout popular culture. We live in a word where political tensions still play a significant role, yet perhaps not at the level of the Cold War, there is still considerable debate over the role the ever-dangerous nuclear weapon will play in the future.

World War III is also an evolving idea and it will always be based on the context of the form or time of the idea. The role of conventional warfare, the role of the nuclear bomb and the political/human nature of the cause are all factors that affect the view of a hypothetical World War III. We must, therefore, view the idea of World War III as not only an inevitability, but also one that is destined to change with the passage of time.

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