Cold War turns hot in the 1950s

edited April 2020 in Atomic
I'm working on a story about what World War III might have looked like if it had happened in the 1950s.

Key point is that we don't have (a lot of) intercontinental ballistic missiles at this point, so the war would largely be fought with World War II-era weapons: long-range bombers, tanks, and - of course - nukes.

I'm using Britain's Operation Unthinkable (1945) and America's Operation Dropshot (1949) for inspiration as well as 1964 and 1979 Warsaw Pact war planes, declassified after the Cold War by the governments of the Czech Republic and Poland.

It's hard to come by pictures, because NATO didn't do large-scale military exercises in Europe in this period.

I would also appreciate recommendations for maps.

Please share materials you think I ought to include here! Thanks.


  • I'm happy to report this story is now online, titled "World War III Without Missiles".

    I was able to find quite a few maps and illustrations.
  • Added another cool map to this story:

    It's from 1962. You'll notice Iran is still considered a Western ally.

  • Imagine the outcome of that war be a world like Beyond Aukfontein. But more retro and Mad Max.

  • Harry Turtledove's Hot War trilogy was on exactly this - and it had a very interesting way of delivering bombs long range: in long-range bombers whose crews would bail out and get on submarines after leveling a city.

  • I read the article recently and very much enjoyed it and figured I'd lay out some thoughts.

    I'm fairly confident the US/NATO would have 'beaten' the Soviet Union at this point, though it would have been a pyrrhic victory. They had the lead in long range bombers and in number of nuclear weapons both tactical and strategic. The bomber and missile gaps were largely a fiction to create defense jobs in the US; The Soviets didn't get anywhere close to parity until the late 1960's in terms of nuclear weapons or delivery systems. Central Europe would have been mostly destroyed as would the USSR (and if this is before the early 1960's China as well). I'm sure several cities on the US mainland would have been vaporized, but one side would come out 'ahead' of the other. That being said it would still be the most destructive war in history by a wide margin with tens of millions dying and vast amounts of nuclear fallout in the environment. Those early massive yield Hydrogen bombs were quite dirty. I don't know if anyone has done the math on this but I wonder if radiological contamination would have been worse for a 1950's era WW3 than say a Reagan era WW3 because of the lower yield bombs that would have been used in the later conflagration.

    Also, I've never seen it mentioned but has anyone ever written about a hypothetical Sino-Soviet nuclear war? The possibility was there and it's alluded to in classic cold war films like "Red Dawn" but I've never seen it discussed directly in a book or film.

    We'll meet again,


  • Interesting question! I can't think of an alternate history about a Sino-Soviet War. Maybe in Chinese or Russian?

    I agree with you - whoever would have "won" a nuclear World War 3 would have inherited a world in ruins. Reminds me of this scene from Watchmen:

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