I’ve had world wars at the forefront of my mind lately. Not long ago I posted an article about my experiences writing about World War II, and it turns out tomorrow (November 11) is the anniversary of the end of World War I. But when we think about large-scale human conflicts, we shouldn’t ignore that another world war–one which has not happened to date–also affects our thinking, and the surprising degree to which humans, especially those engaged in cultural expression, have conceptualized it, thought about it, prepared for it and tried to come to grips with it. Fortunately World War III as most of us think of it hasn’t occurred, but it’s an interesting phenomenon to study. For existing only in imagination, World War III is a big subject that touches on a lot of disciplines. In this series of articles, beginning tonight, I’m going to ask and hazard some answers to three questions about a hypothetical third world war. First, why hasn’t it happened up until now? Second, what are some depictions and conceptions of the war in literature and popular culture? And third, most ominously, is such a war possible or likely, and what might it look like? Tonight’s article will deal with the first of these questions.

Before we start I should make sure you understand what I’m talking about. By using the term “World War III” I’m not necessarily talking about (A) a nuclear war, (B) a war between superpowers, for example the U.S. and Russia or China, or (C) a war that will result in the termination of human civilization. Certainly a conflict that has any or all of these characteristics would be worthy of the term “World War III,” but we can imagine numerous examples of a hypothetical conflict that wouldn’t meet any of these criteria and still qualify. In part this gets to the concept of, how do you define a true “world war”? I think it would have to be a war that involves significant combatants in various parts of the globe for a significant duration. While the edges of this definition are blurry, note that under it, wars beyond the 20th century conflicts labeled “World War I” and “World War II” qualify as world wars: the Napoleonic Wars certainly do, as does the Seven Years War of the 18th century (its American front was called the “French and Indian War”).

reagan gorby sign pd

The negotiations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1985 to reduce nuclear weapons greatly defused international tensions at the end of the Cold War. Here they are signing the INF Treaty.

But let’s start with the most “usual” and easy to conceive example of World War III, which was a conflict, most likely fought with nuclear weapons, between the United States and Russia, in particular the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991. When I was growing up in the early 1980s this scenario was not only thought likely, but most people I knew assumed it was virtually inevitable. Obviously it didn’t happen. The Cold War ended possibly with negotiation and reduction of weapons in the late 1980s, and certainly with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Yet the specter of this never-fought conflict held the entire world hostage from the late 1940s to the dawn of the Internet age. How did it go from “virtually inevitable” to “never happened”?

The very thing that made a World War III of this kind–nuclear weapons–also made it less likely. An all-out war between the US and USSR using nuclear weapons would have involved catastrophic damage even to the winning side. This made the stakes so high as to be unlikely to be worth it, regardless of what they were. Who could imagine a political objective that’s worth achieving at the cost of significant or even total annihilation of your own side? Especially in the later Cold War, where the superpowers had not merely fleets of nuclear-armed bombers but ICBMs and submarines, the threat of nuclear destruction was total and almost inescapable. This was the essence of the “mutually assured destruction” theory. Essentially, nukes forced the US and USSR to play out their conflicts on much smaller game boards. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other “proxy wars” or near-wars that certainly represented superpower conflict, but without the resort to nuclear warfare. In a sense, mutually assured destruction and the principle of deterrence did work. It prevented a large-scale, planet-killing superpower conflict.

missile crisis

The cool heads of President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara may well have prevented the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis from flaring into a new world war.

The fact that it did not happen, though, doesn’t mean that it could not have happened. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a scary episode where the US and USSR really were on the brink of nuclear conflict, and the early 1980s was another, longer period where conflict seemed to be in the wind, especially after President Ronald Reagan deployed US intermediate range missiles in Europe. Note the commonality of these episodes, though: they were attempts to “reset” the paradigm of mutually assured destruction. In 1962 Soviet missiles in Cuba were intolerable because they could theoretically strike American targets before American leaders knew what was happening and could retaliate. In 1983 the Soviets feared American missiles for the same reasons. As soon as someone tried to change the “game,” the other player got very scared. And there was always the threat of an accidental nuclear attack; one nearly happened in September 1983 when Soviet controllers thought (erroneously) they had detected a US missile launch.

Two deeper questions are worth asking, though. The first is, why hasn’t a global-scale conflict occurred outside of the usual US vs. Russia paradigm, perhaps initiated by one superpower alone, or by another country? Nuclear weapons again provide a partial answer; a smaller scale of “mutually assured destruction” may explain why India and Pakistan, two antagonistic states both armed with nukes, have not had a go at each other, or why a larger conflict never arose out of the cycle of large-scale Arab-Israeli wars, beginning in 1948 and continuing until the Camp David peace treaty of 1978, which arguably “stuck” because Israel was thought to have acquired nuclear weapons not long afterward. But this can’t be the whole answer. It may be that no one knows how far to push the boundaries of conflict before the conflict might involve either the intervention of a nuclear superpower, or something that sets nuclear superpowers against each other. Or it may be that regional conflicts, like the terrible cycle of wars in Africa between 1997 and 2003, don’t have the potential to touch off larger disputes among other nations that could conceivably become global wars.

congolese soldier pd

Between 1997 and 2003 a dreadful series of wars convulsed Africa, but did not spread farther. Why not? 

The second question is, what safeguards and institutions do we have in place to prevent World War III, and are they working? A world war is more than just one big country (or coalition of countries) fighting another. Both the world wars of the 20th century involved a virtually total breakdown of international order. Since 1945 we’ve had the United Nations, an organization created in part specifically to try to prevent future world wars. We also have a globalized economy where major countries are more reliant on each other than ever before. While the U.N. certainly has done some good, I think it’s a stretch to credit it with keeping global peace on its own. Globalization may cause more problems than it solves–and one could easily see a scenario where pressures related to globalized economies make conflict more, not less, likely–but it may also have had a role in keeping a large-scale general war from breaking out, at least since the end of the Soviet Union. Or, nuclear weapons may have more of a stabilizing influence that we realize. History will have to be the judge of these questions. But clearly we aren’t out of the woods yet.

In the next part of the series, I will briefly examine some of the literary and cultural conceptions of World War III and what themes are often present in them.
All images in this article are in the public domain.