World War III (WWIII or WW3) and the Third World War are names given to a hypothetical third worldwide large-scale military conflict subsequent to World War I and World War II. The term has been in use since at least as early as 1941. Some have applied it loosely to refer to limited or smaller conflicts such as the Cold War or the War on Terror, while others assumed that such a conflict would surpass prior world wars both in its scope and its destructive impact.
Because of the development and use of nuclear weapons near the end of World War II and their subsequent acquisition and deployment by many countries, the potential risk of a nuclear devastation of Earth’s civilization and life is a common theme in speculations about a Third World War. Another major concern is that biological warfare could cause a very large number of casualties, either intentionally or inadvertently by an accidental release of a biological agent, the unexpected mutation of an agent, or its adaptation to other species after use. High-scale apocalyptic events like these, caused by advanced technology used for destruction, could potentially make the Earth’s surface uninhabitable.
Prior to the beginning of the Second World War, the First World War (19141918) was believed to have been “the war to end all wars,” as it was popularly believed that never again could there possibly be a global conflict of such magnitude. During the Interwar period between the two world wars, WWI was typically referred to simply as “The Great War.” The outbreak of World War II in 1939 disproved the hope that mankind might have already “outgrown” the need for such widespread global wars.
With the advent of the Cold War in 1945 and with the spread of nuclear weapons technology to the Soviet Union, the possibility of a third global conflict became more plausible. During the Cold War years, the possibility of a Third World War was anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities in many countries. Scenarios ranged from conventional warfare to limited or total nuclear warfare. At the height of the Cold War, a scenario referred to as Mutually Assured Destruction (“MAD”) had been calculated which determined that an all-out nuclear confrontation would most certainly destroy all or nearly all human life on the planet. The potential absolute destruction of the human race may have contributed to the ability of both American and Soviet leaders to avoid such a scenario.
Time magazine was an early adopter if not originator of the term “World War III.” Perhaps the first usage appears in its 3 November 1941, issue (preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941) under its “National Affairs” section and entitled “World War III?” about Nazi refugee Dr. Hermann Rauschning, who had just arrived in the United States. In its 22 March 1943, issue under its “Foreign News” section, Time reused the same title “World War III?” with regard to statements by then-U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace: “We shall decide some time in 1943 or 1944… whether to plant the seeds of World War III.” Time continued to entitle with or mention in stories the term “World War III” for the rest of the decade (and onwards): 1944, 1945, 1946 (“bacterial warfare”), 1947, and 1948. (Time persists in using this term, e.g., this 2015 book review, entitled “This Is What World War III Will Look Like.”)
Military planners have been war gaming various scenarios, preparing for the worst, since the early days of the Cold War. Some of those plans are now out of date and have been partially or fully declassified.
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 AprilMay 1945, British Armed Forces developed Operation Unthinkable, thought to be the first scenario of the Third World War. Its primary goal was “to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire”. The plan was rejected by the British Chiefs of Staff Committee as militarily unfeasible.
“Operation Dropshot” was the 1950s United States contingency plan for a possible nuclear and conventional war with the Soviet Union in the Western European and Asian theaters.
At the time the US nuclear arsenal was limited in size, based mostly in the United States, and depended on bombers for delivery. “Dropshot” included mission profiles that would have used 300 nuclear bombs and 29,000 high-explosive bombs on 200 targets in 100 cities and towns to wipe out 85% of the Soviet Union’s industrial potential at a single stroke. Between 75 and 100 of the 300 nuclear weapons were targeted to destroy Soviet combat aircraft on the ground.
The scenario was devised prior to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was also devised before U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara changed the US Nuclear War plan from the ‘city killing’ countervalue strike plan to a “counterforce” plan (targeted more at military forces). Nuclear weapons at this time were not accurate enough to hit a naval base without destroying the city adjacent to it, so the aim in using them was to destroy the enemy industrial capacity in an effort to cripple their war economy.
In January 1950, the North Atlantic Council approved NATO’s military strategy of containment. NATO military planning took on a renewed urgency following the outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s, prompting NATO to establish a “force under a centralised command, adequate to deter aggression and to ensure the defence of Western Europe”. Allied Command Europe was established under General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, US Army, on 2 April 1951. The Western Union Defence Organization had previously carried out Exercise Verity, a 1949 multilateral exercise involving naval air strikes and submarine attacks.
Exercise Mainbrace brought together 200 ships and over 50,000 personnel to practice the defence of Denmark and Norway from Russian attack in 1952. It was the first major NATO exercise. The exercise was jointly commanded by Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic Admiral Lynde D. McCormick, USN, and Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Matthew B. Ridgeway, US Army, during the autumn of 1952.
The US, UK, Canada, France, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Netherlands, and Belgium all participated.
Exercises Grand Slam and Longstep were naval exercises held in the Mediterranean Sea during 1952 to practice dislodging an enemy occupying force and amphibious assault. It involved over 170 warships and 700 aircraft under the overall command of Admiral Carney. The overall exercise commander, Admiral Carney summarized the accomplishments of Exercise Grand Slam by stating: “We have demonstrated that the senior commanders of all four powers can successfully take charge of a mixed task force and handle it effectively as a working unit.”
The USSR called the exercises “war-like acts” by NATO, with particular reference to the participation of Norway and Denmark, and prepared for its own military maneuvers in the Soviet Zone.
This was a major NATO naval exercise held in 1957, simulating a response to an all-out Soviet attack on NATO. The exercise involved over 200 warships, 650 aircraft, and 75,000 personnel from the United States Navy, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the French Navy, the Royal Netherlands Navy, and the Royal Norwegian Navy. As the largest peacetime naval operation up to that time, Operation Strikeback was characterized by military analyst Hanson W. Baldwin of The New York Times as “constituting the strongest striking fleet assembled since World War II”.
Exercise Reforger (from return of forces to Germany) was an annual exercise conducted, during the Cold War, by NATO. The exercise was intended to ensure that NATO had the ability to quickly deploy forces to West Germany in the event of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact.The Warsaw Pact outnumbered NATO throughout the Cold War in conventional forces, especially armor. Therefore, in the event of a Soviet invasion, in order not to resort to tactical nuclear strikes, NATO forces holding the line against a Warsaw Pact armored spearhead would have to be quickly resupplied and replaced. Most of this support would have come across the Atlantic from the US and Canada.
Reforger was not merely a show of forcein the event of a conflict, it would be the actual plan to strengthen the NATO presence in Europe. In that instance, it would have been referred to as Operation Reforger. Important components in Reforger included the Military Airlift Command, the Military Sealift Command, and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.
Seven Days to the River Rhine was a top-secret military simulation exercise developed in 1979 by the Warsaw Pact. It started with the assumption that NATO would launch a nuclear attack on the Vistula river valley in a first-strike scenario, which would result in as many as two million Polish civilian casualties. In response, a Soviet counter-strike would be carried out against West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, with Warsaw Pact forces invading West Germany and aiming to stop at the River Rhine by the seventh day. Other USSR plans stopped only upon reaching the French border on day nine. Individual Warsaw Pact states were only assigned their own subpart of the strategic picture; in this case, the Polish forces were only expected to go as far as Germany. The Seven Days to the Rhine plan envisioned that Poland and Germany would be largely destroyed by nuclear exchanges, and that large numbers of troops would die of radiation sickness. It was estimated that NATO would fire nuclear weapons behind the advancing Soviet lines to cut off their supply lines and thus blunt their advance. While this plan assumed that NATO would use nuclear weapons to push back any Warsaw Pact invasion, it did not include nuclear strikes on France or the United Kingdom. Newspapers speculated when this plan was declassified, that France and the UK were not to be hit in an effort to get them to withhold use of their own nuclear weapons.
Exercise Able Archer was an annual exercise by the United States military in Europe that practised command and control procedures, with emphasis on the transition from solely conventional operations to chemical, nuclear, and conventional operations during a time of war.
“Able Archer 83” was a five-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) command post exercise starting on 7 November 1983, that spanned Western Europe, centered on the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) Headquarters in Casteau, north of the city of Mons. Able Archer exercises simulated a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a coordinated nuclear attack.
The realistic nature of the 1983 exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of strategic Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo and military to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert.This “1983 war scare” is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The threat of nuclear war ended with the conclusion of the exercise on 11 November, however.
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on 23 March 1983. In the latter part of his presidency, numerous factors (which included watching the 1983 movie The Day After and hearing through a Soviet defector that Able Archer 83 almost triggered a Russian first strike) had turned Ronald Reagan against the concept of winnable nuclear war, and he began to see nuclear weapons as more of a “wild card” than a strategic deterrent. Although he later believed in disarmament treaties slowly blunting the danger of nuclear weaponry by reducing their number and alert status, he also believed a technological solution might allow incoming ICBMs to be shot down, thus making the US invulnerable to a first strike. However, the USSR saw the SDI concept as a major threat, since a unilateral deployment of the system would allow the US to launch a massive first strike on the Soviet Union without any fear of retaliation.
The SDI concept was to use ground-based and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. The initiative focused on strategic defense rather than the prior strategic offense doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was set up in 1984 within the United States Department of Defense to oversee the Strategic Defense Initiative.
NATO operational plans for a Third World War have involved NATO allies who do not have their own nuclear weapons, using nuclear weapons supplied by the United States as part of a general NATO war plan, under the direction of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander.
Of the three nuclear powers in NATO (France, the United Kingdom and the United States), only the United States has provided weapons for nuclear sharing. As of November2009[update], Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey are still hosting US nuclear weapons as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing policy. Canada hosted weapons until 1984, and Greece until 2001. The United Kingdom also received US tactical nuclear weapons such as nuclear artillery and Lance missiles until 1992, despite the UK being a nuclear weapons state in its own right; these were mainly deployed in Germany.
In peacetime, the nuclear weapons stored in non-nuclear countries are guarded by US airmen though previously some artillery and missile systems were guarded by US Army soldiers; the codes required for detonating them are under American control. In case of war, the weapons are to be mounted on the participating countries’ warplanes. The weapons are under custody and control of USAF Munitions Support Squadrons co-located on NATO main operating bases who work together with the host nation forces.
As of 2005[update], 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs of the 480 US nuclear weapons believed to be deployed in Europe fall under the nuclear sharing arrangement. The weapons are stored within a vault in hardened aircraft shelters, using the USAF WS3 Weapon Storage and Security System. The delivery warplanes used are F-16s and Panavia Tornados.
With the initiation of the Cold War arms race in the 1950s, an apocalyptic war between the United States and the Soviet Union became a real possibility. During the Cold War era (19471991), a number of military events have been described as having come quite close to potentially triggering World War III.
The Korean War was a war between two coalitions fighting for control over the Korean Peninsula: a communist coalition including North Korea, China and the USSR, and a capitalist coalition including South Korea, the United States, and the UN. Many then believed that the conflict was likely to soon escalate into a full-scale war between the three countries, the US, the USSR, and China. 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.” Downs afterwards repeated this belief on ABC Evening News while reporting on the USS Pueblo incident in 1968.
The Cuban Missile Crisis: a confrontation on the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, in response to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, is considered as having been the closest to a nuclear exchange, which could have precipitated a Third World War. The crisis peaked on 27 October, with three separate major incidents occurring on the same day, all of these incidents having been initiated by the US military.
Despite what many believe to be the closest the world has come to a nuclear conflict, throughout the entire standoff, the Doomsday Clock, which is run by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to estimate how close the end of the world, or doomsday, is, with midnight being the apocalypse, stayed at a relatively stable seven minutes to midnight. This has been explained as being due to the brevity of the crisis, since the clock monitored more long term factors such as leadership of countries, conflicts, wars, and political upheavals, as well as societies reactions to said factors.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now credits the political developments resulting from the Cuban Missile Crisis with having actually enhanced global stability. The Bulletin posits that future crises and occasions that might otherwise escalate, were rendered as more stable due to two major factors:
The Yom Kippur War, also known as the Ramadan War, or October War, began with Arab victories. Israel successfully counterattacked. Tensions grew between the US (which supported Israel) and the Soviet Union (which sided with the Arab states). American and Soviet naval forces came close to firing upon each other. Admiral Murphy of the US reckoned the chances of the Soviet squadron attempting a first strike against his fleet at 40 percent. The Pentagon moved Defcon status from 4 to 3. The superpowers had been pushed to the brink of war, but tensions eased with the ceasefire brought in under UNSC 339.
The United States made emergency retaliation preparations after NORAD saw on-screen indications that a full-scale Soviet attack had been launched. No attempt was made to use the “red telephone” hotline to clarify the situation with the USSR and it was not until early-warning radar systems confirmed no such launch had taken place that NORAD realized that a computer system test had caused the display errors. A senator inside the NORAD facility at the time described an atmosphere of absolute panic. A GAO investigation led to the construction of an off-site test facility to prevent similar mistakes.
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).
During Able Archer 83, a ten-day NATO exercise simulating a period of conflict escalation that culminated in a DEFCON 1 nuclear strike, some members of the Soviet Politburo and armed forces treated the events as a ruse of war concealing a genuine first strike. In response, the military prepared for a coordinated counter-attack by readying nuclear forces and placing air units stationed in the Warsaw Pact states of East Germany and Poland under high alert. However, the state of Soviet preparation for retaliation ceased upon completion of the Able Archer exercises.
The Norwegian rocket incident is the only World War III close call to occur outside the Cold War. This incident occurred when Russia’s Olenegorsk early warning station accidentally mistook the radar signature from a Black Brant XII research rocket (being jointly launched by Norwegian and US scientists from Andya Rocket Range), as appearing to be the radar signature of the launch of a Trident SLBM missile. In response, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was summoned and the Cheget nuclear briefcase was activated for the first and only time. However, the high command was soon able to determine that the rocket was not entering Russian airspace, and promptly aborted plans for combat readiness and retaliation. It was retrospectively determined that, while the rocket scientists had informed thirty states including Russia about the test launch, the information had not reached Russian radar technicians.
On June 12, 1999, next day after the end of the Kosovo War some 250 of Russian peacekeeping troops occupied the Pristina International Airport ahead of the arrival of NATO troops and were to secure the arrival of reinforcements over the air. American NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Wesley Clark ordered the use of force against the Russians. Mike Jackson, British Army general who contacted the Russians during the incident, refused to enforce Clark’s orders, famously telling him “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” Captain James Blunt, the lead officer at the front of the Nato column in the direct armed stand-off against the Russians, received the “Destroy!” orders from Clark over the radio, but he followed Jackson’s orders to encircle the airfield instead and later told in an interview that even without Jackson’s intervention he’d have refused to follow Clark’s order. 
In 2004, neoconservative commentator Norman Podhoretz proposed that the Cold War might rightly be called World War III. In 2006 on CNBC’s Kudlow and Company, host Lawrence Kudlow, discussing a book by former deputy Under-Secretary of Defense Jed Babbin, agreed with Podhoretz, adding, “World War IV is the terror war, and war with China would be World War V.”
Still the majority of historians would seem to hold that World War III would necessarily have to be a worldwide “war in which large forces from many countries fought” and a war that “involves most of the principal nations of the world.” In his book Secret Weapons of the Cold War, Bill Yenne explains that the military standoff that occurred between the two ‘Superpowers’, namely the United States and the Soviet Union, from the 1940s through to 1991, was only the Cold War, which ultimately helped to enable mankind to avert the possibility of an all out nuclear confrontation, and that it certainly was not World War III itself.
The “War on Terror” that began with the September 11 attacks has been claimed by some to be World War III or sometimes as World War IV. Others have disparaged such claims as “distorting American history.” While there is general agreement amongst historians regarding the definitions and extent of the first two world wars, namely due to the unmistakable global scale of aggression and self-destruction of these two wars, a few have claimed that a “World War” might now no longer require such worldwide and large scale aggression and carnage. Still, such claims of a new “lower threshold of aggression,” that might now be sufficient to qualify a war as a “World War” have not gained such widespread acceptance and support as the definitions of the first two world wars have received amongst historians.
On 1 February 2015, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari declared that the War on ISIL was effectively “World War III”, due to ISIL’s declaration of a Worldwide Caliphate, its aims to conquer the world, and its success in spreading the conflict to multiple countries outside of the Levant region. In response to the November 2015 Paris attacks, King of Jordan Abdullah II said “We are facing a Third World War [within Islam].”
In his State of the Union Address on 12 January 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that news reports granting ISIL the supposed ability to foment WW III might be excessive and irresponsible, stating that, “as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.”
In multiple recorded interviews under somewhat casual circumstances, comparing the conflagrations of World War I and II to the ongoing lower intensity wars of the 21st century, Pope Francis has said, “The world is at war, because it has lost peace,” and “perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal.”
In 1949, after the unleashing of nuclear weaponry at the end of WWII, physicist Albert Einstein suggested that any outcome of a possible WWIII would be so dire as to revert mankind back to the Stone Age. When asked by journalist Alfred Werner, what types of weapons Einstein believed World War III might be fought with, Einstein warned, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.
In his book Destined for War, Graham Allison views the global rivalry between the established power, the US, and the rising power, China, as an example of the Thucydides Trap. Past examples have often led to war, and in this case World War Three is possible but not inevitable.