From the moment Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Americans, humanity has feared the possibility of a third world war. The first gave us trenches, machines guns and poison gas, and broke three empires. The second gave us the nightmares of Auschwitz and Nanjing and Berlin and Hiroshima. It would be insane to fight a third war like it. Yet speculative literature of all kinds has tackled the theme, from contemporary thrillers like Red Army and Red Storm Rising (review here) to John Hackett’s The Third World War to more openly futuristic tales like P. W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet.
There are many ways to write the story of Word War III. In 2020, Baen Books published an anthology dedicated to the notion. Weird World War III, edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett, boasts many luminaries of fantasy and science fiction, foremost among them David Drake and Mike Resnick.
It is a collection that runs the gamut in terms of what it does with the premise. Temporally, it is divided roughly equally between those set in a version of the Cold War that went hot and those set in the near future, predicting a maelstrom yet to come.
You can also put the stories on a spectrum between the completely fantastical and the hard science fictional. The result is a candy bowl of speculative literature that is a joy to read.
Continue reading “Weird World War III”
Red Storm Rising (1986) is a classic of the World War III genre. Tom Clancy’s second book, coming on the heels of the enormously successful The Hunt for Red October (1984), depicts a NATO-Warsaw Pact war in the mid-1980s fought entirely with conventional weapons. (Although the risk of nuclear escalation is present.)
The book opens with Azerbaijani terrorists destroying the main Soviet oil refinery at Nizhnevartovsk. The Politburo, split between a war-wary general secretary and a warmongering defense chief, decides to seize the oil fields of the Persian Gulf to avoid economic collapse. Fearing that the West would intervene in such an attack, the Soviet leaders determine to eliminate NATO first.
Continue reading “Red Storm Rising”
Most World War III fiction wasn’t written as alternate history. During the Cold War, many authors and filmmakers imagined how East and West might end up in a (nuclear) war. Because the two sides never did, these stories have become counterfactual.
A Third World War was seldom portrayed as the outcome of outright American or Soviet aggression. More often, the war happened as a result of miscalculation, escalation of a proxy conflict or the Soviets feeling the West left them with no alternative. These were cautionary tales and reflected the fear, widespread at the time, that global thermonuclear war might occur, and kill billions, without either side wanting it.
Video games are an exception. Typically made in Europe or North America, they are more likely to make the Soviets simple villains and give the player the power to unleash nuclear catastrophe just for the heck of it.
Continue reading “How to Turn the Cold War Hot”
It is two minutes to midnight at the time I’m writing this article.
It is also 8 in the evening British Summer Time.
The first statement is from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and refers to how close we are, as a species, to the end of the world. The second is, more prosaically, the actual time.
The Doomsday Clock was invented in 1947 and set to seven minutes to midnight. By 1949, it was three minutes to midnight. In 1953, we got to two minutes to midnight. Since then, it has moved away (as far as seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991) and back in again. With Trump, Putin, Middle East unrest, tensions in Kashmir, coupled with climate change concerns, we’re as close to the end as we ever have been.
When you’re this close to Armageddon, sheer bad luck can take you over the edge. It has nearly done so in the past. Once again, as with so many of my articles, I’ve had difficulty keeping the number down to five. I’ve used my standard method of looking at which event had the greatest chance of changing history — in both probability and impact.
(I have skipped over some incidents where I felt precautions being taken were likely to stop war breaking out, but we learned from them, for example: don’t leave training tapes in live equipment without telling the next shift unless you want them to stare in horror at screens telling them hundreds of missiles are coming over the pole.)
Continue reading “That Was Too Close… Five Times Nuclear War Didn’t Break Out”
Most World War III scenarios start with a Soviet first strike, but it were the Western Allies who first planned to use nuclear weapons in Europe to offset the Red Army’s numerical superiority.
From Britain’s Operation Unthinkable to America’s Operation Dropshot, these war planes help us imagine a land war in Europe fought only partially with atomic weapons.
When technology progressed in the 1960s — more and bigger atomic bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles — NATO moved away from integrating nuclear weapons in its war planes. It envisaged either a conventional land war or mutually assured destruction with nothing in between.
The Soviets moved in the opposite direction. Joseph Stalin saw little use for nuclear weapons, but the West’s technological edge compelled his successors to integrate them more seriously in their offensive plans. It wasn’t until the 1980s that both sides abandoned the tactical use of nuclear weapons.
Continue reading “World War III Without Missiles”
As soon as the Second World War was over, military strategists started planning for the next one.
Life magazine reported in its November 19, 1945 edition that the head of the United States Air Force, General Henry H. Arnold, had warned that technologies developed during the last war — atomic bombs, ballistic missile, long-range bombers — could make possible “the ghastliest of all wars.”
The destruction caused by nuclear weapons would be so swift and terrible that a “war might well be decided in 36 hours.”
Life envisaged what such a war might look like.
Continue reading “Imagining World War III in 1945”