Apocalypse When? A brief history of World War III. [Part 2]

This is the second part of my series on the historical, cultural and political implications of a third world war, what we think it might be like and why. Part I, which addressed why we haven’t had a World War III up until now, is here. In this segment I’ll talk about World War III in literature, movies, and popular culture.

Fictional visions of a third world war have generally tended to follow the scenarios that were generally regarded as most likely at the time they were created. Science fiction depicting the future (or an alternate past) always say more about the time they’re written than the time they’re depicting, and for that reason a lot of World War III fiction, written during the Cold War, depicts what we might call the “standard” scenario of a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, when people were just coming to grips with the idea of nuclear weapons and how they changed the geopolitical and moral landscape of the world, much of World War III literature ruminated on the implications of a nuclear conflict destroying all of human civilization, including the non-combatants. Probably the most important entry in this category is Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On The Beach, which tells the story of the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust crowded together in Australia, the last place on Earth that hasn’t been contaminated by a slow-moving cloud of deadly radioactive fallout. The novel was made into a popular movie in 1959 starring Gregory Peck, which is how most people think of On The Beach. Curiously, neither the novel nor the film actually depict the war; it takes place entirely in the aftermath.

On The Beach, based on the Nevil Shute novel, is one of the most poignant and disturbing depictions of the aftermath of World War III.

Some significant pieces of World War III fiction from the late 1950s and early 1960s critiqued the theories of “mutually assured destruction” and deterrence, upon which military and political experts relied to keep a large-scale superpower conflict from happening. Chief among these were two novels, Peter George’s Red Alert from 1958 and Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler from 1962, which were so similar in premise that George sued Burdick and Wheeler for copyright infringement. Both depicted a nuclear holocaust started on accident, in Fail-Safe by a stray airliner whose flight is misinterpreted by the Soviets as that of a bomber, and in Red Alert by a rogue U.S. Air Force general who has gone insane. Both novels were made into films that became classics of the World War III genre. Fail-Safe (1964) starred Henry Fonda as the President trying to prevent escalation to a full-scale exchange; Red Alert was turned into a black comedy, the famous Dr. Strangelove (1964) with Peter Sellers playing several roles including the title character. The main contributions of these works was to demonstrate how sensitive the social and political machinery of nuclear war is, and raise the question of how sure we are that we can really control it.

One interesting thing about nuclear holocaust fiction is that it often depicts either the events leading up to the war or the aftermath; it is generally assumed the war itself is extremely quick, lasting days or even hours. Two significant and similar films tried to show the horrors of a nuclear war in progress. The first was a 1965 BBC short film, 48 minutes in length, called The War Game, which tried to show what might actually happen in a nuclear holocaust. The film was famously withdrawn from the broadcast schedule because it was thought to be “too horrifying.” In a sense Nicholas Meyer’s 1983 TV film The Day After, easily the most famous nuclear war film ever made with the possible exception of Dr. Strangelove, is an uncredited remake of The War Game. This film was shown at the height of the late Cold War fears that nuclear war between the U.S. and the USSR was imminent. It too was very graphic and horrifying, but it was a cultural event, and remains the most-seen TV film of all time. The movie is said to have influenced Ronald Reagan in his attempts to come to a negotiated solution to the Cold War with Soviet leaders.

The 1983 TV film The Day After was notorious in its time, both for its graphic nature and its political overtones. 

Curiously, creators of World War III fiction couldn’t shake the US-USSR paradigm even as, and in some cases after, the Soviet Union was collapsing. In 1990 an original HBO film, By Dawn’s Early Light, based on the 1983 novel Trinity’s Child by William Prochnau, was essentially a 1980s-90s retread of the old Fail-Safe type of hair-trigger-nuclear-machinery plot, but, as good a film as it was, it proved outdated within a year of its airing. The 1995 submarine thriller Crimson Tide, starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman as clashing Navy officers caught in a nuclear crisis, explicitly involved as part of its plot the idea of Communist hard-liners seizing control of the Kremlin and essentially rebooting the Cold War. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the agent of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia is an evil computer called Skynet, but the mutually-assured-destruction scenario of a reciprocal nuclear exchange is still there (the computer triggers it deliberately to wipe out the human race).

It’s harder, but not impossible, to find World War III depictions that do not presume that the war will be primarily fought with nuclear weapons. One interesting example is Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, published in 1986, which envisions World War III as a conventional confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact (Soviet-bloc) nations. In this vision the war is fought mostly in Europe, especially Germany, but with heavy naval action, and only at the end do Soviet commanders contemplate using nuclear weapons as a last resort. For reasons I’ll discuss tomorrow I actually find this a much more plausible scenario. While most fiction assumes combatants in a third world war will reach first for the nuclear button, there are several reasons to think otherwise. Nevertheless Red Storm Rising is still firmly tethered to Cold War assumptions and scenarios.

The 2013 film How I Live Now is one of the most unconventional recent depictions of a third world war.

One more obscure bit of World War III fiction that breaks out of the US-Russia binary is a 2013 film called How I Live Now, based on the young adult novel by Meg Rosoff. This excellent film takes place almost entirely in the English countryside and involves a group of teenagers trying to survive on their own after their adult guardians have vanished–presumably killed–in a major conflict in which the kids are eventually caught up. How I Live Now is fascinating because the story never explicitly identifies who the combatants in the war are, though we presume Britain is one; the war begins with a nuclear detonation but it’s strongly implied that the rest of the conflict is conventional. Terrorists may be the main enemy but it doesn’t matter, as the story is really about the kids, and the war is a dramatic backdrop. The film didn’t get much play in the US, but I highly recommend it.

There is so much more World War III fiction than I can present here, which attests to how the specter of this still-fictional war haunts our nightmares about the modern world. The Cold War is over but an apocalypse arising from human conflict is a theme that’s likely to persist in science fiction and other genres for the foreseeable future.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll present some thoughts on what a real World War III might be like, from the standpoint of what guidance history can give us.
The header image int his article is a composite made (by me) from public domain images. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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4 Comments

  1. The sick fact is that mutually assured destruction did work. The movie Fail Safe had to violate the very theory it was attacking to have a war. Rather a waste to my mind if an antiwar film has to misrepresent what it is attacking to make a point. As I noted yesterday the real threat is a war between small countries with A, not H, bombs. And since having the bomb is a market that you are a great power the only way to finally preclude that is to have the great powers give up nuclear weapons as an example of leadership. That probably won’t happen until some atomic confrontation somewhere however. One can blame Khrushchev for refusing to follow Ike’s call to put the damn things under international control. That may have been a political ploy by Ike but one that he’d have had to (and likely would have wanted to) follow through on had Khrushchev taken up the offer.

  2. I was surprised by How I Live Now. I had never heard of it, and then one night on Netflix I happened upon it. I hit play because Saoirse Ronan is so damn talented, and I was surprised how haunting and good and real it was.

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