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World War III

"I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
Unknown, famously repeated by Albert Einstein

Some psychologists believe humans are naturally predisposed towards violence. For almost the entire twentieth century it seemed like humanity was teetering on the brink of self-destruction: both World Wars, the Cold War, and then the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and biological warfare - and all that after World War I was going to be "the war to end all wars". Luckily for humanity, World War III has been in Development Hell for more than half a century now - and may it stay there. So it's probably only natural that the next great global conflict is a popular subject in Speculative Fiction.

Weapons of Mass Destruction are probably going to get used, often recklessly, causing massive casualties.note  A commonly-used Gallows Humor joke is about this war's length; somewhere around an hour. If the destruction gets too out of hand it might result in The End of the World as We Know It, causing an After the End situation set on a Scavenger World. If not, the winner might set up a One World Order, in which our heroes fight against The Government in a dystopian Cyber Punk type environment. Of course, it's entirely possible for the war to kill everybody, and have it center on the attendees to Humanity's Wake. If the show was made before 1989, Communists are involved, even if the war is supposedly set years after 1989. A more modern take on WWIII is that it begins somewhere in the Middle East; Israel, Iran, India and Pakistan may be involved. Other times, it involves a resurgent Russia and more recently, North Korea. China also gets used when the work's creator isn't so worried about the consequences for that.

It's rare to find a piece of fiction set Twenty Minutes into the Future that could resist the temptation to slap a global war into the middle of the twenty minutes. Wiping out a third of humanity must just be too much for writers to resist. (Though since the end of the Cold War, this has lessened; writers wanting to do away with a third of humanity usually go for a plague or Global Warming-related chaos.) A common way to establish the otherness of a future or Alternate History setting is to have a throwaway remark about World War III having occurred in the past.

For numbers greater than III, see World War Whatever. For stories about stopping this from coming to pass, see Prevent The War. Compare and contrast to Avoiding The Great War.

And of course then there are the people that believe The War on Terror was World War III, so we're already past it and on to World War Whatever.

NATO vs. Warsaw Pact

There are some associated sub-tropes with this setup in particular:

  • Gorbachev Must Die: Any scenario written after c. 1987 must find some way to remove Mikhail Gorbachev from the Soviet leadership. The 1991 coup attempt succeeding is a popular choice for this.
  • Hold Off on the Nukes: Nuclear weapons are not employed straight off, for political reasons. Sometimes they're not used at all.
  • Backfire Raid: a large-scale attack on a U.S. carrier group with Tu-22M "Backfire" and Tu-16 "Badger" bombers armed with conventional missiles, resulting in the group having to shoot down over 100 incoming missiles. This is basically a battle of awesome, with supersonic bombers and cruise missile launching subs on one side versus F-14s and a rapid-fire SAM system on the other.
  • The Soviets Start It: Most scenarios have the USSR kicking things off, for various reasons.
    • Mostly because the byzantine internal politics of the USSR made it extremely hard to judge what they were thinking - meaning that outside observers of the Soviet System and its policies. This wasn't helped by the way policies by different government departments tended to clash - something of a holdover from the Imperial Russian system, these clashes were the inevitable product of the epic three-way struggle between The Party, The Military, and The KGB.
  • Third Battle of the North Atlantic: attacks on convoys bringing troops and supplies from the U.S. to Europe by Soviet subs, ships and aircraft. Will include a Backfire Raid.
  • Battle of Germany: Most scenarios pre-1989 will feature the Soviets invading West Germany - quite realistic, as The Red Army's response to war (or NATO mobilisation for war) would be to execute its North German Plain Offensive Operation/Campaign to capture as much of the 'forward' NATO forces as possible before NATO could mobilise.
    • Alternatively, the Soviets may start the conventional war by invading West Germany, but the overwhelmed allies use tactical nuclear weapons against the invaders—and it escalates from there. (That was the scenario in The Day After.)
    • A once-classified Cold War-era wargame released by the Polish government in 2005 confirms that the Soviets had indeed planned such an invasion. In fact, both sides had. During most of the Cold War, the Fulda Gap, where this invasion was expected to take place, was one of the most highly militarized places on Earth.
      • Where NATO expected the main thrust of the offensive operation/campaign to take place. The Red Army encouraged this impression, but Fulda was only ever a diversion. The real plan was to put everything into a colossal and nigh-unstoppable thrust to the north-west, straight across the North German Plain - bottling up the forces there in a pocket (to be reduced and eliminated later). This would tear a massive hole in NATO's front and while it wouldn't have guaranteed victory... it would be pretty bloody likely.
  • Warsaw Pact Rebellion: Members of the Warsaw Pact (often Poland or East Germany) rebel against the Soviets. Explored by Hackett and a few other authors.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Comicbooks 
  • Blake and Mortimer : The Secret of The Swordfish
  • When the Wind Blows features an elderly couple preparing for the war. They believe that it will be like World War II (i.e. survivable). They are wrong. Also adapted for film and radio.
  • The Big Bad of Watchmen saw World War III coming and determined that the world would not survive. He ended up stopping said war before it began by tricking NATO and the Warsaw Pact into thinking Earth was being scouted for an Alien Invasion.
    • Well, he thinks he did; in actuality the two powers had agreed shortly before he initiated his plan that going to war was a crazy idea and had decided to sit down and talk. Too bad he didn't notice this and commited mass murder anyway. And The Stinger reveals that his role in the event might be exposed anyway.

    Film 
  • Red Dawn (1984) has World War III break out between a rudimentary alliance between America, Britain, and China vs. The Soviet Union, Nicaragua, and Cuba. By the time lines have stabilized, The Reds control Texas, a frontline covering an undefined portion of the Mississippi River, and most of the Rocky Mountains at least up to Denver, as well as Alaska and possibly a part of western Canada. Additionally, it's mentioned that the Americans were unable to use nuclear retaliation as the Russians used tactical nuclear strikes to destroy their silos in the Dakotas and Wyoming. The only cities mentioned to have been nuked are Washington, Omaha, and Kansas Citynote . Its implied that areas of China were nuked as well after China allied with the U.S. and Britain.
    Jed Eckert: ...Well, who is on our side?
    Col. Andy Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen.
    Darryl Bates: Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen.
    Col. Andy Tanner: There were. (Throws alcohol on the campfire)
  • Threads and The Day After - still considered horrific a quarter of a century later.
    • Threads is an interesting twist to the Soviets Started It scenario: the conflict kicks off when the USSR invades Iran in what was at the time an Evil Versus Evil scenario from the perspective of the US and NATO. Unwilling to lose access to Iranian oil supplies, and in keeping with the Truman Doctrine, the US intervenes (although most Americans at the time would have vastly preferred the Soviets to the Ayatollah Khomeini). The narrative is deliberately vague as to which side used nukes first (a Soviet base was destroyed by a US nuke and US carrier group in the Persian Gulf is destroyed by Soviet nuclear weapons) and things go downhill from there.
    • Testament is another example from the same era.
    • The HBO movie By Dawn's Early Light from The Nineties isn't exactly a cheerful story, either.
  • Sebastian Shaw in the film X-Men: First Class intended to provoke both superpowers into causing World War III via the Cuban Missile Crisis, in order to wipe out humanity and allow Mutants to reign supreme over the planet.
  • Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Sacrifice features a small group of family and friends in Sweden awaiting their death by nuclear holocaust. But as par for the course with the director, all is not as it appears.
  • The 1998 mockumentary World War III, made by German broadcaster ZDF, recounts a classic Gorbachev Must Die scenario in which fictional hardliner General Soshkin seizes power in 1989 and the Soviet military brutally suppresses the Autumn of Nations, escalating into the eponymous military conflict when East German border troops fire on West Berliners across the Wall.
  • WarGames features WOPR, a highly-advanced missile control computer which cannot distinguish reality from simulation, leading to it attempt to cause World War III with a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The climax of the movie shows WOPR going crazy with nuclear attack pattern simulations running across the Ominous Multiple Screens in Cheyenne mountain, all with the same result. WINNER: NONE

    Literature 
  • Sex Drugs And Violence In The Future is set in a world where North Korea launched nuclear missiles in 2013 at the peak of the international tension, triggering a World War that "officially" lasts until 2027.
  • The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger are set in some time set what is only known as The Ruin. Little is known about it, but Gathering implies it was a combination of warfare and environmental disasters.
  • In David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series, China conquers the world without use of WMDs after the West disintegrates. Many in the West actively support the Chinese in their efforts to restore order after years of economic and political instability. The war to do this is not gentle, but it does not involve global nuclear conflict.
  • Several thrillers starting in the late 1970s had a hypothetical third world war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. All of them ended with either no or extremely limited nuclear exchanges, ending with a status quo ante peace treaty: few million people die, but not one border or significant political change happens, unlike every other major war of such scale in European history.
  • Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising, albeit a more limited one than the more common portrayal. Nukes aren't used, nor chemical weapons after East Germany makes their objections very clear, and for the most part the Pacific region doesn't get involved, but it's still more than a relatively local conflict, started when the Soviet Union suffers a major terrorist attack on its primary oil refinery that leaves them critically short of useful petroleum products.
  • Team Yankee The story is centered around an American tank platoon in the Battle for Germany. The Soviets Start It.
  • Chieftains (Robert Forrest-Webb, 1982) is Team Yankee from the British perspective, focusing mainly on the adventures of a Chieftain tank crew near Hannover, though other characters include a US Abrams crew, an SAS stay-behind unit and a British colonel. The Soviets Start It. The author acknowledged that, like Team Yankee, it's inspired by Hackett's Third World War, but it does deviate from that book's plot everyone dies in a nuclear strike on day 3 of the war; unlike Team Yankee, not one character is left standing by the end
  • In Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, the Soviets Start It; according to the protagonist's brother, a Strategic Air Command officer, this was because of a perception that if they did so within a critical window, they could win, but that afterward they would lose and fall further and further behind. The SAC guy's opinion (which turned out to be justified) was that the Soviets had already missed the critical historical window within which they could have won such a war. He sent his family to his brother (who lived in Florida) because they stood a better chance of surviving than they did anywhere near SAC headquarters.
    • It's fair to say that the USSR launched the first intentional strikes, but the U.S. actually started the war—accidentally. A rookie airman unintentionally launched a missile at a USSR target. The Soviets assumed that this was an intentional strike, and let the missiles fly.
      • Well, it wasn't the airman's fault so much as the missile's guidance system going haywire: It was heat-seeking and flying toward a spy plane, which were fair game on both sides during the Cold War, but it wound up going haywire when the plane cut off its engines and eliminated its heat signature, which caused the missile to plummet into a Soviet ammo depot in Latakia, Syria. (Syria was a Soviet client state throughout the Cold War.)
  • William Golding's Lord of the Flies It is mentioned that Britain is at war with Russia and London is destroyed by an atomic bomb.
  • General Sir John Hackett's The Third World War: August 1985. Birmingham (UK) is nuked, Minsk is nuked back and that leads to the collapse of the USSR in a very violent manner.
    • This is a two-book series, written in a mock-history book style. The first was written in 1978, with the second in 1982 making additions and changes to the story to reflect RL developments (especially in Iran, where the Shah's regime had fallen in 1979).
    • Set in the same scenario is Harold Coyle's Team Yankee from 1987, about a U.S. armor company in that war - it was made into a video game, a comic book (with the script by David Drake) and an Origins Award-winning board game.
  • Andre Norton's Sea Siege (1957) is set on a small island in the Caribbean. They survive World War III (between NATO and the Warsaw Pact) at about the midpoint of the story, but have only sketchy information from radio broadcasts about what happened (mainly a list of major cities around the world that had been nuked early on). They eventually help rescue the survivors of a Soviet submarine because by then, both sets of survivors have bigger problems than worrying about who was responsible for the war.
  • Andre Norton's Star Ka'at has the titular race of alien beings, who have been living among us disguised as pet cats, leave Earth because they predict World War III is imminent; and they take two orphaned human children with them. This book (for young readers!) may induce Fridge Horror, because the children (the point of view characters) pay very little attention to talk of war on the radio, and leave their unhappy homes without much regret — so the implied destruction of the human race is quite casually dismissed (the Ka'ats certainly don't care about us).
  • H. Beam Piper's Terro-Human future stories presuppose that World War III destroyed civilization in the northern hemisphere in 1973. Few of the stories examine the war itself.
    • The short story "The Answer", which may not be in Terro-Human future continuity: The Soviets Start It - but by destroying Auburn, New York, and then threw away any advantage gained by a first strike. The story opens years later in South America, when the scientist protagonists - an American and a Russian - briefly discuss the incident, and the Russian swears that the Soviets didn't do it. Ultimately subverted, as in fact, the Soviets Didn't Start It - the incident was actually a Colony Drop, and the effects of an antimatter meteor were mistaken for a first strike.
    • The short story "The Edge of the Knife", which is in Terro-Human future continuity, is set just before World War III.
  • The Zone series of action novels by James Rouch. After the initial conflict the war is (mostly) restricted by mutual agreement to an irradiated, chemical-poisoned strip of land across Western Europe to prevent escalation. This is politically and militarily convenient for the major powers - not so for the soldiers and refugees caught in The Zone itself.
  • Warday (1984) by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka was somewhat unique in that it depicted the resulting world after a "limited" nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the USSR.
  • The Alternate History novel Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois had the Cuban missile crisis turn hot. The Soviet Union has been obliterated, while only a comparatively few nuclear detonations is enough to turn the United States into a third world country, dependent on aid from Britain and shunned by all other nations.
  • The Survivalist series by Jerry Ahern, set in a United States occupied by Soviet forces.
  • A short story by J. G. Ballard has World War III happen over the space of about five minutes, but the American people don't even notice because they're too busy watching President Reagan's vital signs on TV.
    • Though it's a restricted kind of nuclear exchange: after a lot of saber-rattling, the U.S. bombs empty parts of Siberia and the USSR aims for somewhere in Alaska. This proves to other powers that they're not joking and shouldn't be messed with.
  • The Wingman novels by Mack Maloney mostly take place after WWIII. In this continuity, the U.S. has an impenetrable missile shield, so WWIII involves a massive air and ground war in Europe involving "one man knifing another in a foxhole, satellites dueling in space, and everything in between." The conflict is ended with a U.S. victory, after which the Vice President murders the President, becomes President, and shuts down the Star Wars system, allowing a disarming first strike.
  • Ralph Peters's Red Army depicts World War III from the perspective of several Soviet soldiers and officers.
  • Patrick Tilley's The Amtrak Wars features the "War of a Thousands Suns". A thousand years in the past, a global nuclear war initiated by the U.S. and its allies against the Soviet Union devastates the world.
  • The "Wet Firecracker War" is alluded to in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Judging from the name, it wasn't quite as devastating as some other versions of WWIII, though it evidently went nuclear. ("Sovunion" used megaton nukes, but seems to have lost anyway; while America was hit badly and ended up becoming a "directorate" of the subsequent world government, of which "Great China" seems to be the hegemon, with India a close second.)
    • Heinlein was fond of this scenario: Sixth Column was set in the United States conquered by the Yellow Peril in the war (and we're actually treated to the radio announcing that the States couldn't fight any longer), while Starship Troopers has the war happening in 1987 between the Chinese Hegemony and the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance, causing the collapse of the previous nations and paving the way to the Terran Federation to replace it.
    • Part of Between Planets takes place in New Chicago since Old Chicago was destroyed during a limited nuclear war.
  • The Sprawl Trilogy several times mentions "The War", which is implied to have been WWIII, although it was only a few weeks long.
  • Edgar Pangborn's Still Persist in Wondering is set after a World War III, which lasted half an hour and (with the help of The Plague) wiped out civilization.
  • The Last Ship is set after a very brief World War III that consisted of nukes wiping out most of humanity.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Defied Invocation in the Stargate SG-1 episode "Full Alert." The Goa'uld manage to infiltrate elements of the Russian military and attempt to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. The SGC spends most of the episode scrambling to head it off, finally convincing the Russian president of the infiltration and restoring normal relations.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Twilight 2000 is set in the aftermath of a nuclear World War III between NATO and the Soviet Union. The set-up was more contrived in the alternative timeline written after The Great Politics Mess-Up; suffice it to say the action that triggered World War III was not dissimilar to World War II.
  • Several dozen variations of WW III invasion games were made by Avalon Hill and SPI in the 1970s. One game, NATO, had this classic rule:
    • "To simulate the battlefield use of strategic nuclear weapons, simply soak the map in lighter fluid and apply a flame."
  • Car Wars has this in the background, too. ABM is a bit more successful here; the only actual cities hit in the U.S. were Poughkeepsie, New York and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (home of Steve Jackson Games' competitor TSR).

    Videogames 
  • The ZX Spectrum Turn-Based Strategy wargame Theatre Europe (1985) begins with the Warsaw Pact invading West Germany and, at hardest difficulty level, usually ends with the nuclear destruction of human civilisation and the game telling you where your cyanide capsule is.
  • While the opposing force in the backstory of Fallout was China, not the Soviet Union, the same principles apply. By all accounts, the war, known by its survivors as "The Great War", - started by a Chinese invasion of Alaska - lasted for ten years before nuclear weapons were exchanged, after which it lasted for about two hours. No one knew which of the sides fired the first warhead (one log you can find, in a place that means it won't be known to anyone else, says China shot first, but Word of God deems it non-canon), and at the end of the day no one really cared.
    • From what history you can learn, the Americans took back Alaska and were pretty much on Beijing's doorstep. It's possible that the Chinese fired first, knowing that they were screwed and intending to bring the Americans down with them.
    • Fallout itself is set around two hundred or so years after the nuclear exchange. The post-war United States is a Polluted Wasteland populated with roving gangs of raiders, malfunctioning military robots, mutated animals and honest folk trying to get by scavenging for food and technology. Amazingly, if what the little insights you gain about the pre-war United States are true, the pre-war world was actually worse.
  • Frontlines: Fuel of War takes place in 2024 and has the Western Coalition, composed of the NATO countries and a few nations taken into the European Union, against the Red Star Alliance, mostly composed of former Warsaw Pact members.
  • Many a Harpoon scenario.
  • Tom Clancy's End War is based on World War III where the United States, European Federation, and Russia go at each others' throats for what appears to be a European Kill Sat shooting down a US spacecraft carrying the final components for a US military space station without warning. This provokes the US into declaring war on the Federation, shortly followed by Russia declaring war on the Federation as well to "liberate the oppressed states of Eastern Europe"... only for the US to declare war on them as well in response to their sudden expansionism. What actually happened is that when the US and Europe jointly created an orbital missile shield that automatically eliminates any and all ICBMs in flight (thus making a nuclear war kinda problematic), Russia perceived it was only a matter of time until the two superpowers team up to get Russia's oil and natural gas supplies. Therefore, they hired a bunch of terrorists to attack all three factions and planted false evidence that the Federation did it. The US bought the bait alright and the last spark was provided by Spetznaz commandoes disguised as terrorists uploading a virus into the missile shield that made it mistake the US spacecraft as an ICBM targeting Paris. The rest is history - and logically, neither side wanted to needlessly escalate the situation so the missile shield was left in place to make sure no one nukes the others. The whole game is fought with conventional warfare.
  • In World in Conflict, the setting is a conventional conflict in 1989. Missions largely take part in the US, where the Soviets have landed in Washington State. Some missions do take place in Europe though (Southern France and the Kola peninsula for NATO, and the capture of West Berlin for the Soviets).
  • Wasteland features this as well. Nukes do fly, too. You're in a bit that didn't get worked over too much, although fallout radiation still hangs out in a few spots.
  • Seawolf: SSN-21 casts the player in the role of the Captain of the USS Seawolf fighting a naval campaign against Russia. Nuclear escalation doesn't occur until the final mission, and it occurs only if the player fails to destroy the enemy boomers.
  • A variant occurred in Modern Warfare 2. The Big Bad orchestrated a fake US-sponsored terrorist attack on a Russian airport, which led to Russia declaring war on the U.S. and managing to invade the East Coast. Russia isn't the USSR at the time in the game, but it is controlled by Ultranationalists, who are essentially militant Soviet supporters.
    • The events of the next game push World War III into overdrive, with Ultranationalist maverick Vladimir Makarov taking over Russia in a coup and proceeding to launch a full-scale invasion of Europe, made possible by simultaneous chemical attacks on all major European capitals carried out by his terrorist cronies. Interestingly, it never becomes a full-blown nuclear war, most likely because all sides know that that would effectively end the world. Makarov wanted to get control of Russia's nuclear arsenal from the President, but was unable to extract it from him before he was rescued.
  • Metal Gear series: Volgin, Gene, and Coldman each nearly caused World War III to occur, with Coldman being the one who came the closest to succeeding in achieving it.
  • Wargame: European Escalation has four different World War III scenarios from 1975 to 1985 depicted mainly at the conventional level.
    • Although there is speculation that one of the four scenarios takes place in a post-nuclear exchange Europe.
    • The scenarios are based around real incidents (the defection of NVA soldier Werner Weinhold in 1975, Solidarity and Martial law in Poland, the Able Archer incident and the last one, which does indeed feature a nuclear-ravaged wasteland and is obviously fictional.
    • Now expanded to the Scandinavian front in Wargame: Airland Battle, and even further afield in the upcoming Wargame: Red Dragon. Scenarios hinted at are the Chinese military liberating Hong Kong in the 1980s, a Soviet invasion of Japan, a Sino-Soviet conflict in 1979 and a Second Korean war in the 1990s.
  • Missile Command was all about stopping (and eventually failing) nuclear missiles from hitting your cities.
    • An unofficial Japanese port of the game to the Sharp X68000 computer was even subtitled The World War III.
  • Many of the Steel Panthers games typically include a number of scenarios revolving around NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact. Since they're tactical wargames, nukes almost never come into play, being outside of the games' scope.
  • The early 80s Apple II/C64 game Raid Over Moscow involves the Soviets launching nukes at major American cities, and the U.S. sending orbital space planes to take out their control centres. The very limited scale of the nuclear strikes is Hand Waved by a fictional treaty where both sides were supposed to have completely eliminated their nuclear arsenals, so the Soviets had to hide theirs.
  • Star Ocean The Last Hope kicks off with the clash between the World Republic Federation and its foes causing this. The conflict quickly resulted in WMDs launching and the eventual devastation leads to the search for a new home planet in space.
  • Singularity is one where the USSR wins hands down, by dropping what amounts to a continent-buggering 'roided-up nuke on America, after assimilating all of Europe with the help of their E-99 weapons.
  • The RTS Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath, which is about a conventional war in the aftermath a nuclear exchange resulting from the Cuban Missile Crisis. A big part of gameplay is exploiting fallout zones (either by dodging them or cleaning them up).

    Web Originals 
  • "The Effects of a Global Thermonuclear War" is a scenario researched and plotted out by Wm. Robert Johnston, originally in 1985 and revised twice before appearing on the web in 2003. The scenario, which involves an assassination of Gorbachev directly leading to an invasion of Europe and nuclear war, is an attempt at plotting out the absolute worst-case scenario as it takes place around the point that the amount of nuclear warheads were at their peak, and a nuclear war in August has the greatest impact on farming worldwide. Even then, Johnston notes that his scenario is uncertain, going on record saying that the number of American casualties could be as much as four times worse.
  • 1983: Doomsday is located at the Alternate History Wiki and involves a world where a worldwide nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States happens on September 26th, 1983. The USA has been succeeded by a much smaller rump nation and a host of small states, the USSR is a rump state in Siberia, the Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand is the most influential nation on Earth and South America is an economic powerhouse. Most of Europe has had its population numbers knocked down to Dark Age levels and the only European nations that aren't broken up into collections of mini-nations (some little more then city states) and empty wasteland are the Nordic Union (all the Nordic Nations, plus a couple of others) and the Alpine Confederation (Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Austria), thanks to them having been neutral in 1983.
  • Protect and Survive: A Timeline: A Spiritual Successor of sorts to Threads. Detailing the geopolitical effects of a nuclear war on the world.


Non-Classic / Undefined Examples:

The After the End scenarios that aren't "Oh no, we accidentally invented a supervirus/oxygen-destroying chemical / pie so delicious it kills you."

    Anime and Manga 
  • Tokyo was wiped out in 1988 as part of the backstory to AKIRA, inciting World War III.
  • Appleseed from the creator of Ghost in the Shell also features a World War III in its Back Story. Notably, it also includes a World War IV, which was said to be conventional (after WWIII exchanged a number of cities for suspiciously round lakes).
  • A nuclear war was what brought about the post-apocalyptic world of Fist of the North Star.
  • In Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a nuclear war was fought... somewhere... Tokyo was leveled again, but the Japanese managed to save the world by inventing machines that could could remove radiation from the environment. The series also contained World War IV a series of several guerrilla conflicts and minor land wars six years before the start of the series around 2030. As in Nuclear World War III, World War II, but not World War I, Berlin was leveled over the course of the conflict, but has since been rebuilt.
  • Mazinger Z: In the New Mazinger spin-off, the action begins one hundred fifty years after World War Three between USA and Soviet Union at the start of twenty-first century. Nuclear weapons and nuclear winter wiped out ninety percent of humankind turned the planet into a radioactive, barren wasteland, and the survivors realigned in northern and sourthern superpowers and kept fighting. One century and half later, they are still fighting over whatever is left of Earth.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion blends this with a conventional After the End scenario for its backstory, with the combination of the Second Impact and a nuclear war killing half the world's population.
  • The Death Note tie in novel L: Change the World mentions that L's first solved case was that of the Winchester Bombings, the solving of which averted World War III. He solved it at 8 years old and met Watari shortly afterwards. The date is unclear, but is unarguably between 1987 and 1988.
  • It's all but stated that a nuclear war happened in the not too distant past of Fist of the North Star due to the presence of radiation and part of Toki's backstory involving saving people from a nuclear strike by closing them into a fallout shelter. It's never explicitly called a World War, but the implication is that the whole world is an After the End-type Scavenger World wasteland as is seen during the show and manga, so if it wasn't a full blown World War, it's a civilization-ending nuclear war that manages to come pretty close.
  • In Future War 198X, WWWIII starts after A Nuclear Error made by Americans.
  • In A Certain Magical Index, Fiamma of the Right engineers World War III by getting Russia to declare war against Academy City, leading to a twelve-day conflict between the magic and science factions. Strangely enough, it's not the conflict itself that matters (other than powering himself up with the malice of the combatants), he's just doing it so that he can draw out the people he needs, namely Touma (or more specifically, his Imagine Breaker), Index, and Sasha Croitsef.
    • Other nations involved were the Elizalina Alliance (a group of secessionist states from Russia, whom Russia was just dying to have an excuse to invade), England (AC side) and France (Catholic side), and it is briefly mentioned that China and India are supporting Academy City, though their armies never make a direct appearance. The only world power to sit the war out is the United States.
  • Superdimension Fortress Macross has the "Unification Wars" (which we get to see a bit of in Macross Zero), a series of conflicts between a strengthened, militarized United Nations and anybody who didn't want to join together with them to fight the coming Zentraedi invasion. It's mostly settled by the time the aliens arrive in that version, though.
    • In Robotech, the Global Civil War is raging in the 1990s, basically a non-nuclear WW III, though everyone expects it to escalate, when the arrival of Zor's starship puts a sudden stop to it.

    Comicbooks 
  • In The DCU, World War III was a week-long war fought against a single person, Black Adam.
    • The DCU had also previously had another World War III, in which the entire population of the Earth got superpowers to battle the ancient weapon of the Old Gods, Mageddon.
    • Wonder Woman was sent to Man's World to stop Ares, the God of War, from igniting a third World War.
  • Judge Dredd had nuclear war in the backstory, which was essentially America vs everyone else. This had severe ramifications, including the abolition of democracy.
    • Then there was the Apocalypse War between Mega City One and East Meg One (a Soviet Mega City) that was actually depicted in the comic. This has also been refereed to as World War 4 on certain occasions
  • In Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja , World War III is waged by the United States and China against Russia after a powerful Reality Warper neutralizes the world's entire nuclear arsenal.
  • Marvel 2099 didn't feature World War III, but did include the line "Minor disturbance? What's major, World War IV?", suggesting it had happened.

    Film 
  • World War III is the setup for the Terminator series of films, in the form of a Robot War.
    • Though we discover in T2 that Skynet actually started the war itself—this was something of a Retcon, in response to the fact that the Soviet Union was in the process of breaking up between the first and second films, but it's canon nonetheless.
    • It was Skynet that started the war in T1 also. Kyle Reese says that nobody even knew who'd started it (i.e. at the time the bombs began falling), then reveals that "the machines" were to blame.
    "Nobody knew who started it. ... It was the machines, Sarah. Defense network computers. New. Powerful. Hooked into everything. Trusted to run it all. They say it got smart... a new order of intelligence. That it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. It decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination."
  • Reversed in The Matrix movies, where it was the humans using nukes against the machines in an effort to stop them.
  • Lingers as a background threat in both Escape from New York, and Escape from L.A.. Notably, at the end of the latter film the Anti-Hero averts it by EMP-bombing the entire world in a classic Omnicidal Neutral scene.
  • The hyperspace-capable Earth of the movie Dark Planet is still trying to blow itself up. They're on World War VI now, but it'll be the last because a chemical weapon from one side induced a mutation in a bioweapon from the other side.
  • The Book of Eli is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war that, at the very least, brought about the collapse of the United States.
  • Pumzi is set 35 years after World War III, which started because of water conflicts.
  • In Star Trek: First Contact, Commander Riker mentions that "the Third World War wiped out most governments", enabling Earth to seek space exploration on a unified front because there were so few countries left.

    Literature 
  • In David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series, this is how China conquered the world.
  • World War III occurs a year before the setting of Z for Zachariah, causing a Class 2/borderline Class 3 Apocalypse How.
  • The Robert McCammon book Swan Song opens just before World War III causes Class 1 Apocalypse How, thanks to lots of deadly mushrooms.
  • The Final War in the Drakaverse is that setting's World War III. It goes badly for the good guys. It turns out later that the name is a bit of a misnomer.
  • Joan Vinge's Fireships had as backstory that the big devastating nuclear war was fought between the Soviet Union and Red China. The United States stayed out of the matter completely. For some reason, many people from other countries seem to regard this as being unfair, and call Americans "backstabbers" for not getting their society shattered and millions of their people killed along with the Russians and Chinese.
  • Animorphs has the Yeerks attempt to start WWIII between the U.S. and China. They get pretty damn close before the Animorphs stop it.
  • Mortal Engines is set after WWIII...and IV...and V...and VI... It is implied that the war that really destroyed civilization, however, occurred when an "American Empire" fought a thermonuclear war with "Greater China", and that most of the world except for Africa was involved.
  • In Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, the great powers, acting on the fatal motives of Progress and Nationalism, obliterated each other's civilizations with not only atomic bombs but Synthetic Plagues and plant diseases of all kinds. Some areas of the world, including New Zealand and Equatorial Africa, survived due to being too remote to be of any strategic importance; elsewhere, the increasingly mutated survivors refer to the catastrophe only as "the Thing."
  • The Books Of Ember are set 200 years after World Wars III, IV, V, and VI. If The Prophet Of Yonwood is anything to go by, the first of "The 4 Wars" was between the USA and a group called the Phalanx Nations, and went nuclear pretty fast. These wars, combined with The 3 Plagues, are what knocked civilization back to pre-industrial levels.
  • In the backstory to the Star Carrier series by William H. Keith, Jr., prior to the creation of the Terran Confederation, there were two Sino-Western Wars. It's not clear if nuclear weapons were employed. If there were, they were likely of the tactical variety, as most cities remain intact. However, at the end of the second war, a Chinese spaceship maneuvers three asteroids to Colony Drop the Atlantic in order to devastate the coastal Western powers. Two of them are destroyed in Earth's orbit, but one (dubbed "Wormwood") splashes down in the Atlantic and devastates a number of American, European, and African coastal cities. China disavows ordering the attack, claiming the captain went rogue. However, they were never admitted to the Confederation, despite sending their ships to assist the Confederate Space Navy in a number of engagements against the Sh'daar Masters.
    • In the fourth novel, another global conflict happens when the (European-controlled) Confederation attempts to force the United States of North America in line. However, the Confederate use of illegal weapons (and then, of course, disavowing giving any such orders) and the unprovoked destruction of the North American capital causes Russia and North India to secede from the Confederation and ally with the USNA. The Chinese Hegemony and the Islamic Theocracy (both non-members) offer to ally with the USNA if the latter supports their petition to join the Confederation after the war. At the same time, Mexico and Honduras secede from the USNA to ally with the Confederation.
  • 1984's unnamed Forever War between three mercilessly totalitarian and nuclear-armed {{Space Filling Empire}‎}s, oddly enough, seems to be waged mostly with conventional weapons similar to those used in World War II, and conditions in London evoke that time with rationing, bombing raids, "Victory"-themed propaganda, and Russia (now Eurasia) suddenly becoming an ally instead of the enemy.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 24 loves teasing the idea of World War III whenever Jack Bauer or The President has to make a decision or causes a situation that could threaten America's shaky relations with other countries such as Russia and China.
  • In Doctor Who, both the episodes "World War Three" and "Dalek" allude to near-misses of WWIII, but not an actual conflict occurring.
    • The Fourth Doctor mentions a World War Six at one point, so presumably this trope wasn't averted indefinitely in that Verse.
    • Not to mention the Ninth Doctor talking about World Wars Four and Five.
  • Star Trek had the Eugenics Wars in The Nineties, as well as a World War III some time in the mid-21st century. Note the Eugenics Wars are not World War III — except when they are.
  • Deadliest Warrior showed a highly likely 'what if scenario' of if North Korea and South Korea redeclare war in the episode US Rangers vs NKSOF. The allies of both nations would most likely assist them, causing a WW 3. United States of America, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, France, Great Britian, and South Korea vs China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. And these are only the most likely ones to join the war, more nations could join most likely.
  • Babylon 5 had a nuclear WW 3 in its backstory, though not much is known about it other than that the United Nations was dissolved afterwards.
    • The RPG gives more information. It started as a war between Pakistan and India, escalated when both sides' allies tried to break the stalemate, went nuclear when Pakistan nuked advancing Chinese troops, and became a World War after China's collapse and the invasion of Russia from some of the Chinese warlords, at which point US, NATO and the European Union stepped in to try and stop the fighting. Amazingly, widespread devastation was avoided: the US had in place Earthshield, a network of satellites equipped with lasers to shoot down missiles, so only tactical nukes were exchanged. At the end of the war the political situation had returned to pre-war status quo (except for a divided China occupying North Korea), and the US called for disbanding the United Nations and the creation of what would become Earth Alliance, including a military capable to enforce its decision (to which they pledged both Earthshield and the national military forces).
  • In Outcasts the colonisation project is to escape the destruction of Earth by World War III. Not much detail is given, but there is a reference to tension over Taiwan, suggesting that the war may have been primarily between the USA and China.

    Music 
  • The Tom Lehrer songs "So Long Mom (A Song For World War III)"note  and "We Will All Go Together When We Go."
    Tom Lehrer: "If there are going to be any great songs about World War III we need to start writing them now!"
  • Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele's earlier Thrash Metal band, Carnivore, had a song about World War III (and IV), even called World Wars III and IV.
  • Front Line Assembly's Artificial Soldier and Fallout albums.
  • KMFDM's appropriately named WWIII.

    Pinball 
  • This is the theme of the "Ruiner" table in Ruiner Pinball; the player must raise the threat level to DEFCON 5 and start a nuclear war.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Fall in Eclipse Phase was a combination of this and Robot War, resulting in the sterilization of Earth.
  • In 1968, a tongue-in-cheek game, Nuclear War was made, where missiles and bombers fly to nuke fictional countries (your fellow players), prompted an early Memetic Phrase: "Have you got change for 25 million people?"
  • The Shadowrun universe has the planet on the brink of a nuclear war in the 2010s, but it is averted by the advent (or return) of magic. In the following decades, there is no direct World War, but we get the Eurowars in the 2030s, including an Islamic Jihad 32-37, so History Repeats as the Turks once more stand before the gates of Vienna. Two cities get nuked: Damascus and Tripolis (if memory serves).
  • Paranoia might be set after World War III: the historical files are too messed up to really know, and you don't have clearance for them anyway.
    • While the truth may not be known, the rulebook does give a "suggested" history that could be used, or at least heavily subverted to surprise those people who already know it. Of course, the rulebook is ULTRAVIOLET clearance, so if you aren't ULTRAVIOLET clearance, don't highlight this spoiler: After the end of World War III, the 'Polity' (a One World Order) was formed. Many Alpha Complexes were built in that time period, including one located in the city of San Francisco, controlled by The Computer. Everything was fine and dandy, until an asteroid the size of Sheboygan made its way to Earth, causing the Big Whoops. A Russian missile silo mistook the asteroid for a nuclear attack, and The Computer mistook that counter-nuclear attack as an attack by Communists (its information records were damaged, and it could only retrieve 1950's cold war propaganda at the time). The San Franciscan Computer challenged the Polity and the rest of the Alpha Complexes, declaring them all traitors working with the Communists...and the resulting confusion and chaos caused all the other Complexes to view themselves as the 'one true Complex' and every other Complex as being subverted by traitors. So, technically, PARANOIA takes place during World War IV...
  • The Chronicles Of Fate, currently in production, is mainly about a World War III between essentially a future United Nations / One World Order called "The Socs" and a heroic La Résistance called "The Revs."
  • In Rifts, World War III started with nukes being hurled at each other. It ended shortly afterwards. Not because of the nukes themselves, but because they happened to land during a total summer eclipse, on a solstice, during a planetary alignment. The Ley Lines flared up and everything went to hell.
  • Twilight Struggle features World War III as a Nonstandard Game Over: Trigger it, and your superpower loses immediately.
  • All Flesh Must Be Eaten, the zombie tabletop rpg system, features a splatbook so that you can set your campaign in the middle of WWIII (where zombies want to Take Over the World) as well as post-apocalyptic settings.

    Videogames 
  • DEFCON is basically a World War III simulator. Typical games last about two or three hours in real time.
  • BattleTanx features a massive nuclear war which was actually precipitated by something more horrible, a plague which wiped out 99.9% of the female population, with the war being caused by the fight over the surviving women. Predictably, the majority of the surviving women were killed in the conventional/nuclear conflicts that followed.
  • The exact scope is never delved on, but Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri has the Crusader Wars, the Twelve Minute War and the Indian Border Wars, all of which were nuclear. At least one of these might have been World War III.
    • Then there is the nuclear holocaust that happened some time after Unity left for the eponymous star system.
  • The Tex Murphy games are set after World War III. Things are kind of crummy, but life goes on, and in a fairly acceptable way.
    • The Pandora Directive reveals that the war was a pretty short nuclear exchange with a bunch of countries in Middle East, when the U.S. military decided to test their new anti-matter missiles against them. The geniuses didn't consider the ramifications of blasting bombs this powerful in a region known to dabble in bio- and chemical weapons. Much of that stuff, not to mention all the radiation, got spread throughout the world.
  • Battlefield 2 has World War III between the US, the European Union, China, and the fictional Middle Eastern Coalition. The cause of the war is never explicitly stated, but one map description hints that it was over oil. Russia was originally going to be a faction too, but they were downgraded to a spec-ops faction in the expansion pack.
    • The Bad Company subseries depicts what is most likely the same war, with the focus shifted towards fighting between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, who is allied with the MEC. By the time of Bad Company 2, Russia has taken over vast swathes of Europe and South America, and is advancing on the U.S. from the north and south.
    • Battlefield 3 appears to show what might be the beginning of that World War occurring on the Iran-Iraq border.
    • 2142 has World War IV (assuming nothing happened between Battlefield 2 and 2142) between a futuristic European Union and the Pan-Asian Collation. No word on what the rest of the world is doing.
      • Supposedly, the whole conflict is over a dwindling number of global resources and the two hemispheres are vying for whatever's left. One of the expansion packs also adds a third wheel to the war, meaning it truly is a new World War.
  • Red Alert 2 would probably count as World War III, in spirit if not in name; due to Einstein's meddling, "World War II" as we know it was replaced with "The Great War". However, add to that Red Alert 3 and the entire Tiberium series (which, maybe chronologically takes place after one or more of the Red Alert games), and the idea of a "World War" kinda loses its impact.
    • World War 3 basically happens in Command & Conquer: Generals expansion Zero Hour, but is downplayed. In the original game, an N.G.O. Superpower known as the GLA (Global Liberation Army) takes control of most of Central Asia, the eastern half of the Middle East, and parts of North Africa, including Somalia. The People's Republic of China takes over the the parts of Central Asia that aren't GLA-occupied (including a lot of Kazakhstan). Apparently in retaliation to Chinese and American imperialism, the GLA nukes Beijing (using a nuke they stole from China), establishes a presence in western China, and attacks American-held Iraq. This leads to a a struggle across Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western China, with the GLA and a faction of Chinese military defectors on one side and China and America on the other. Eventually, American and Chinese forces decimate the GLA and capture their capital. Then Zero Hour happens, where the GLA is revealed to be Not Quite Dead, and the game becomes World War 3 proper, featuring major battles across Central Asia, the Middle East, West China, North Africa, the Eastern United States, and Europe. The United States is forced to withdraw, leaving the nations of the world to turn to China for help. They eventually drive the GLA out of Europe and become the new world superpower.
  • The manual for the Earth games reveals that WW3 was of the "everyone against everyone" variety, with most of the nations obliterated in a matter of hours by massive nuclear strikes. Due to a better anti-missile system, a decent chunk of the U.S. remained unscathed, and the remaining twelve states reformed into the United Civilized States. On the other side of the pond, a Russian army colonel took his surviving men out of the fallout shelter, walked to Mongolia and met up with the nomadic Khan tribe. Realizing the potential, he married the chief's daughter and formed the Eurasian Dynasty that conquered all of Europe and Asia.
    • From the same developers came World War III: Black Gold which has the Middle East deciding to stop oil exports to the west. Naturally, the US decides to step in with military force... but somewhere around the way, the once-again Soviet Russia decides that the Middle East is in their sphere of influence and steps in. And to drive the point even further, some of the game's cutscenes were included in Earth 2160's trailer which heavily implies that this game is actually a prequel of sorts to the Earthverse and shows how the world seen in Earth 2140 came to be.
  • World War 3 is mentioned in the backstory for Ground Control as the reason for war being abolished on Earth (but not everywhere else). Too bad the Draconis Empire doesn't agree with this policy.
  • Another World War was part of the backstory for Youju Senki AD 2048. The player is never given the details, just that a lot of nukes were used and most of the world is now completely uninhabitable for normal humans.
  • Depending on the player's decision at the end of Killer7, Japan may attack the US and trigger WWIII. The alternative is having Japan nuked off the face of the planet.
  • Averted in Star Control, where the closest thing is the Small War Of 2015, a short nuclear exchange in the Middle East which killed 1 million people and led to the world's nuclear weapons being sealed in the Peace Vaults.

    Visual Novel 

    Web Originals 
  • The "Eye in the Sky" story from the Transformers Mirror Universe of Shattered Glass mentioned a World War III as having occured in the 1980s.
  • The Chaos Timeline has one, appropriately at the end of the story. It doesn't last long (less than one day, in fact), but afterwards, the world will never be again as it was before.

    Western Animation 
  • The DCAU made reference to "the near apocalypse of '09" headed by Ra's ah Ghul, took the entire Justice League to stop and implied that Batman was instrumental in stopping it. Whether or not that is an example of this trope is unclear. 2009 has passed, so it looks like we'll never know what happened.
  • In one of the future-set episodes of The Simpsons, Moe says to Lisa's English fiance "We saved your asses in World War II!" He responds "Yes, well, we saved your arses in World War III!" Moe concedes the point.
  • Rock and Rule ended up having this in the backstory. Mok specifically cited it in his Theme Song ('I'm the biggest thing since World War Three!')
  • One episode of the Pinky and the Brain involved a possible future where the United States ends up in a nuclear war against not Russia, not China, but against.... Canada. The war begins with an argument between the Canadian Prime Minister (who wears a space helmet with the Canadian maple leaf painted on it, apparently because this is how Canadian leaders dress in the far future) and the President of the United States: Bill Clinton, who is still alive thanks to being preserved as a head in a jar Futurama-style and is somehow still President.
  • Referenced as having been underway in Robo Tech prior to the arrival of the SDF-1. But then bigger problems came around.
    "Global war ravaged the Earth at that time, but even this devastation paled before the threat of invasion from outer space."
  • Adventure Time: What kind of Mushrooms did you think were in the Mushroom War? (Hint: Not those shrooms, though you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.)

    Real Life 
  • Considering what your definition of what a World War is, WWIII already happened with the Cold War, which was fought with proxy nations, opposed to (mostly) large-scale confrontations between world powers. This title could also be given to the War On Terror. But what most people think about when they hear "World War III" is a Defied Trope in Real Life.
    • Depending on which historian you talk to, there have already been far more than just two world wars, some of them fought over a century before World War I ever was. It's debatable which one could actually be considered World War III, but possible candidates for "world war" status include, The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), the War Of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Seven Years' War (fought from 1756 to 1763), The American Revolution (1775-1783) and the Napoleonic Wars (fought on and off between 1799 and 1815).
    • An inversion: some historians regard all conflict in Europe from July 28, 1914 (the start of World War One) to June 21, 1999 (the end of Yugoslavia's civil war) as a single European war (dubbed by some as the Long War). Other historians would incorporate all conflict in Europe since 1870's Franco-Prussian War as well in a more generalized European Civil War.
    • Maybe Russia vs Ukraine will trigger the next world war?

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alternative title(s): World War Three; W W3; Third World War; WWIII; World War 3
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