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World War III

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"World War III lasts in our heads,
in our cities, on the streets, in our homes!
World War III — everyone against everyone!
Line up and don't ask why!"
Click for the original Polish
Grupa Operacyjna, "III wojna światowa"

Some psychologists believe Humans Are Warriors and naturally predisposed towards violence. For almost the entire 20th 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 long may it stay there (indeed, it's not a sequel anyone is looking forward to, we hope). 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 Cyberpunk 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 Christmas 1991, Communists are involved, even if the war is supposedly set years after 1991. 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. Scenarios which have China, North Korea and/or Middle Eastern powers as the antagonists may actually involve Russia joining the Western side.

It's rare to find a piece of fiction set 20 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.

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.
  • Nukes, or No Nukes: In many fictional accounts, nuclear weapons are not employed straight off for political reasons. Sometimes they're not used at all. This is based on NATO's assumptions about probable Warsaw Pact actions during the Cold War. However, actual Warsaw Pact plans put on display after the end of the Cold War revealed that the Soviets were planning to open the war with a sizeable nuclear bombing campaign.
  • 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. Macross Missile Massacre ensues.
  • The Soviets Start It: Most scenarios have the USSR kicking things off, for various reasons.
    • Even for the informed public and many governments, the byzantine internal politics of the USSR made it extremely hard for outside observers of the Soviet system and its policies to judge what they were thinking. 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 submarines, ships and aircraft. It will often include a Backfire Raid.
  • Battle of Germany: Most scenarios pre-1989 will feature the Soviets invading West Germany - quite realistic, as the Soviet Army's response to war (or NATO mobilisation for war) would be to execute its North German Plain Offensive Operation/Campaign to destroy as much of the 'forward' NATO forces as possible before NATO could fully mobilise.
    • Alternatively, the Soviets may start the conventional war by invading West Germany, but NATO use tactical nuclear weapons against them to save a failing defense — and it escalates from there. (That was the scenario in The Day After). NATO initially intended on retaliating with nukes in the "Massive Retaliation" doctrine, but from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War "Flexible Response" dictated that nukes be used in case conventional defense failed. By the 1980s, NATO began to give their conventional options more viability by developing weapons to attack Warsaw Pact tank formations well before they were committed to battle in the Follow On Forces Attack (FOFA) plan.
    • A once-classified Cold War-era wargame released by the Polish government in 2005 shows one nuclear-based contingency plan from the late 1970s, although it must be emphasized that the Soviets moved increasingly towards conventional warfare during the 1970s and '80s. For much of the Cold War the Fulda Gap, where the U.S. incorrectly expected this invasion would take place (swallowing a longtime Soviet ruse), was one of the most highly militarized places on Earth.
  • 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.
  • Status Quo Ante Peace Treaty: In many literary World War III stories, if it doesn't end in a total nuclear exchange, it ends in a rough draw, with millions dead, but no real political changes, unlike every real European war on this scale. Instead, the Cold War then resumes.

Classic Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Apparently, L from Death Note stopped World War III when he was just a little boy. Also, Mello threatens the POTUS with this, saying he'll write down the President's name in the Death Note and cause him to launch nukes and start a world war if the President fails to comply with Mello's demand to fund the Kira investigation. (It isn't known if Mello really meant it, or if he was just bluffing.) Note that it likely would not have worked even if he had tried it, because one of the rules is that you cannot use a Death Note to kill someone indirectly.
  • Future War 198X: Based loosely on The Third World War, it chronicles Japan's contributions (and consequences:Tokyo takes a Nuke) to a NATO/Warsaw Pact was sometime in the 1980s
  • Part of the backstory of Ghost in the Shell includes WWIII in the mid-1990s, followed by WWIV in 2019.
  • In Heat Guy J, humans appropriated the technology of the resident Superior Species (which sounds an awful lot like nuclear power the way it's described). Originally, they used it for peaceful purposes like energy production, but eventually started using it as a weapon of war. Although the war is long since over by the time the series begins, most of humanity has been obliterated, except for seven city-states (with a few small villages/towns clustered around them). Some people still mistrust the Celestials and their technology, and/or mistrust other people.
  • Red Eyes: The Third World War is fought against the USA after they managed to effectively conquer the world. The war starts when the US Kill Sat network are set to only intercept ICBMs and unable to attack strategic targets like cities.

    Comic Books 
  • Blake and Mortimer: The Secret of The Swordfish (and its animated adaptation) starts off as a repeat of World War II: An Asian empire (the fictional Yellow Thibet, headed by Basam Damdu) launches a simultaneous raid on just about every world capital (and Pearl Harbor) including Washington and Moscow. Fortunately, the British have an Elaborate Underground Base from which they can launch nuclear powered superplanes (the titular swordfish), and as things get worse for Damdu he decides to fire off all his nukes before an entire squadron of Swordfish blows them up before they can launch.
  • 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.
  • In Grendel, World War III is ignited in 2120 when the US President and the Premier of the USSR are simultaneously assassinated at a summit. It ends up causing permanent damage to human civilisation.
  • In Letter 44, World War III resulted from the US President revealing the existence of the "Builders" that was kept secret by America.
  • Jour J:
    • In "Texan Apocalypse", World War III happened when the Cuban Missile Crisis went nuclear. Unfortunately, the Soviets were unaware the US had something like three times as many nukes as them, so while parts of what's left of the U.S. are still inhabitable (if split into multiple autonomous regions), the U.S.S.R. is completely destroyed (and Japan isn't doing too well, what with receiving a lot of fallout), leaving France and the UK as the only nuclear powers left.
    • Oddly enough, averted in "Red Dragon", where nuking the Vietnamese forces when they were still only fighting the French doesn't trigger a world war. That said, the U.S still gets its land war in Asia- against China this time.
  • Judge Dredd: American President Robert L. Booth is single-handedly responsible for unleashing the Atomic Wars in the setting. An insane, jingoistic lunatic who murdered his way to the White House, Booth declared that the entire world was living off America's back and proceed to send American troops to occupy key industrial sites all around the globe. When the UN demanded a cease of operations, Booth gave them an ultimatum: either back off or he'd personally order every city in the world to be nuked. Which he did. Once the ultimatum expired, Booth unleashed all the nuclear arsenal of the USA into the world and was hit with a massive counterattack. The subsequent wars reduced the entire planet to a smoldering, radioactive wasteland.
  • 52 has the World War III incident which pit Black Adam against the remaining heroes following Infinite Crisis, who went on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge when his wife and her brother are killed.
  • In the Grand Finale of The New Universe titled The War, tensions between the US and the Soviets, thanks to no one knowing who caused the events of The Pitt, come to blows. They try to use nukes to destroy each other, only for The Starchild, the main holder of The Star Brand, to deactivate them. When they decide to use conventional weaponry, he steps in again, revealing its power was behind both the Mass Empowering Event known as the White Event and the destruction of Pittsburg, the so-called Black Event. It also urges them to stop fighting and live in peace and if they don't, he's not saving them a third time. Thankfully, that one sticks.

    Comic Strips 
  • World War III broke out in an arc in Conchy. Being on a remote island, the characters only learn about from television. However, the war ends almost as soon as it begins when the supercomputers in charge of launching the missiles put them in orbit around Pluto instead of launching them at enemy powers.

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live Action 
  • Multiple James Bond villains have conspired to provoke this.
  • 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 City.note  It's 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, and their predecessor, The War Game - still considered horrific more than a quarter of a century later.
    • In The War Game, World War III occurs when the United States authorizes the use of nuclear weapons against China when they invade South Vietnam, resulting in the Soviet Union invading West Berlin in retaliation. America launches its nukes against China and the Soviets, the latter of whom nuke Britain in response.
    • Threads is an interesting twist to the "Soviets Started It" scenario: the conflict kicks off when the US backs a coup in Iran against supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini (whose politics were both anti-American and anti-Soviet), leading the USSR to invade in an attempt to install a pro-Soviet regime. The two superpowers can't come to an agreement over the country, leading to conventional military attacks that quickly escalate into nuclear war. 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), but the timing of the all-out attack in the wee hours of the morning Washington DC time (when the President will most likely be asleep and NATO response will be slowest) suggests that the Soviets launched their ICBMs first.
    • The Day After depicts World War III as the result of a Warsaw Pact blockade of West Germany that quickly escalates over the course of a few days, but is ambiguous regarding which superpower launches the nukes first. This ambiguity was put in by Nicholas Meyer, the director and writer of the movie, on the belief that assigning blame to either side was pointless — millions would be dead no matter who struck the first blow. This cost the movie a chance to be Backed by the Pentagon, as the Air Force was fine with lending resources to film the movie only as long as it was made clear that the first strike was a Soviet strike.
    • Testament is another example from the same era. Unlike other examples, the film is set on the outskirts of a nuclear war, with the drama stemming from the influx of fallout and the collapse of outside society, showcasing how Mutually Assured Destruction impacts everyone, not just the people in the superpowers' crosshairs.
    • The HBO movie By Dawn's Early Light from The '90s isn't exactly a cheerful story, either.
    • Countdown to Looking Glass is another '80s World War III movie, told as a series of breaking news stories.
  • 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 simulationnote , 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
    • An earlier scene refers to World War III directly. When McKittrick tells David what his playing with their computer nearly did, McKittrick mentions that if they hadn't caught him, DEFCON 1 would have been declared.
      McKittrick: See that sign up here - up here. "DEFCON." That indicates our current defense condition. It should read "DEFCON 5," which means peace. It's still on 4 because of that little stunt you pulled. Actually, if we hadn't caught it in time, it might have gone to DEFCON 1. You know what that means, David?
      David: No, what does it mean?
      McKittrick: World War III.
    • An even earlier scene has Paul Richter directly referring to the WOPR as "spend[ing] all of its time thinking about World War III."
  • The Time Machine (1960): George arrives in London on August 19, 1966 immediately before the city is struck by a nuclear bomb. He later learns from one of the Talking Rings that this marked the beginning of the war between the East and West which lasted for 326 years. After the last remaining factory for the production of oxygen was destroyed, the survivors split into two factions with one living underground and the other taking their chances on the surface. This eventually gave rise to the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks.
  • In Blast from the Past the main character and his parents spend decades in a subterranean fallout shelter because his paranoic father though that a minor exchange between the US and the USSR caused World War III, and when the father goes outside after confuses 90s society with a post-apocalyptic world.
  • Ocelot and Rahmat from Expend4bles try to start World War III by stealing a nuclear weapon and then loading it onto their ship to detonate it off the coast of Russia in an attempt to get America and Russia to fight and so Ocelot and Rahmat can gain profit from the war.

  • 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: a few million people die, but not one border or significant political change happens, unlike every other major war of such scale in European history.

  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • The 2015 novel Ghost Fleet, features a Third World War with China starting it. The Chinese actually invade and occupy Hawaii at the start. It centers on different characters playing different roles in the war. From La Résistance in occupied Hawaii, to the conventional military, to hackers that have become cyber warriors. The title comes from the U.S. reactivated some of it's decommissioned naval ships it had mothballed, pitting them against the Chinese.
  • The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger are set in some time after what is only known as The Ruin. Little is known about it, but Gathering implies it was a combination of warfare and environmental disasters.
  • Robert A. Heinlein:
    • 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.
    • Farnham's Freehold takes place in the aftermath of a version of World War III which utterly wrecks Western civilization.
    • Part of Between Planets takes place in New Chicago since Old Chicago was destroyed during a limited nuclear war.
    • Tunnel in the Sky makes reference to World War III having happened, but the world seems largely to have recovered. The narration does specify that the war was fought out of necessity for resources due to overpopulation, rather than any ideoligical motivations. China is stated to have taken over Australia, but it's unclear if that was part of the war or a separate action.
      The hydrogen, germ, and nerve gas horrors that followed were not truly political. The true meaning was more that of beggars fighting over a crust of bread.
    • While he did write some more apocalyptic or even full-on "The End of the World As We Know It" stories featuring a nuclear war, Heinlein often included some version of World War III merely as part of the backdrop of his stories, where the war did involve the use of nuclear weapons but was evidently relatively mild (as nuclear wars go), with Western civilization carrying on and only a few mentions of New Chicago or of all the futuristic new buildings in Washington, D.C. "off to the east, where the Bomb had landed" (The Puppet Masters—in that one, both the United States and the Communist bloc survive the war). Such a limited World War III (which the U.S. won) is a major part of the backdrop to The Door into Summer—on the one hand, the U.S. capital is now in Denver, but on the other hand, Los Angeles apparently came through unscathed. There's a brief mention of the Fourth World War in The Star Beast.
  • In contrast to the "limited nuclear war" scenarios found in some stories by Heinlein and other authors, other science fiction writers realized very quickly that a war fought with weapons of mass destruction would utterly devastate modern civilization. The short story "Tomorrow's Children" by Poul Anderson and F.N. Waldrop shows the aftermath of a war involving nuclear, radiological ("dust"), and biological weapons: Much of the United States is a wasteland, its "capital city" an obscure town in Oregon—there are no more real cities—and with a "government" that struggles to maintain even the most nominal control over what's left of the country; the rest of the world is even worse off. The story was written in 1947.
  • The Last Ship is set after a very brief World War III that consisted of nukes wiping out most of humanity.
  • 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.
  • Brian Aldiss' Moreaus Other Island has a shipwrecked soldier surviving on an island where a Dr. Moreau copycat is repeating his experiments. World War III is in full with NATO and China fighting the USSR and its Middle Eastern allies.
  • 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.
  • Ralph Peters's Red Army depicts World War III from the perspective of several Soviet soldiers and officers, the novel notable for being a more grounded approach to the war as opposed to being a dramatic political thriller as was common in the eighties (we never even find out what caused the war) and a Soviet victory.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Sprawl Trilogy several times mentions "The War", which is implied to have been WWIII, although it was only a few weeks long.
  • Andre Norton's Star Kaat 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).
  • 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 Survivalist series by Jerry Ahern, set in a United States occupied by Soviet forces. The Soviets invade Pakistan, then when faced with a US ultimatum decide to launch a first strike attack.
  • Team Yankee The story is centered around an American tank platoon in the Battle for Germany. The Soviets Start It.
  • 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.
  • In William Prochnau's Trinitys Child, features a limited nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States, with both sides trying to limit their strikes to each other's nuclear forces. A Succession Crisis in the U.S. sees an unknowingly illegitimate presidential successor trying to escalate the war, forcing the SAC Looking Glass plane to ram his to prevent a full scale, end-of-life-as-we-know-it exchange. Notably, the book takes into account the other nuclear states, with the Chinese striking Russia, India and Pakistan going at it, and the Isrealis nuking just about everyone else in the Middle East.
  • Warday (1984) by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka was somewhat unusual in that it depicted the resulting world after a "limited" nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the USSR.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In the Left Behind series, World War III is triggered by the former heads of world powers who, eighteen months after the formation of the One World Order called the Global Community, decide to rebel against the authority of that order's supreme leader Nicolae Carpathia to regain their own national autonomy. This results in major cities such as London, New York City, and Washington, DC being destroyed in the process, and Carpathia setting up economic sanctions against the global regions responsible to punish its citizens for the rebellion of the former heads.
  • Bernard Wolfe's 1952 novel Limbo has World War Three involving vast airfleets ranging across Europe and Africa, destroying cities with H-Bombs and radioactive dust. The protagonist deserts from the military hospital he's working at and returns years later to a rump United States inhabiting underground cities in the centre of the country. Ironically, he returns right when another war is about to break out with what's left of the Communist bloc.
  • Isaac Asimov:
  • Harry Turtledove's Hot War trilogy has an Alternate History version breaking out in 1951 during The Korean War. The Chinese counter-attack at the Chosin Reservoir successfully destroys three U.S. divisions leading President Harry S. Truman to authorize the use of atomic bombs on Chinese logistic centers. The Soviets retaliate in defense of their ally and World War III is on. It is mostly fought with conventional weapons with the USSR invading West Germany and NATO trying to halt their advance.
  • Dolphin Trilogy: In Destiny and the Dolphins, China and India engage in increasingly violent border disputes while Russia eggs China on. Then, while China is occupied with the fighting in India, Russia invades China. The war gradually spreads across the whole world. Unlike most examples, the war never turns nuclear - everyone worries it will, but the real devastation turns out to come from biological warfare. Someone releases genetically modified strains of typhoid fever and bubonic plague, which wipe out most of humanity.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Delete: The US plan risks this, since China says it will regard any nuclear blasts above them as an act of war.
  • Maggie Beckett's world in Sliders is a dystopian nightmare where the Cold War got hot. If atomic bombs were used, however, a nuclear holocaust did not result.
  • 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.
  • Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: World War III broke out on November 22, 1987, only six months after Buck was frozen, when the Soviet Union launched an all-out nuclear attack on the United States, destroying all of its major cities. The US counterattacked, devastating the Soviet Union, and a second wave of missiles was launched against it. Millions of people were killed in the war and millions more died of radiation poisoning in the coming months. Many humans and animals were mutated by the radiation. Society very quickly broke down. The only man made structures to survive the nuclear holocaust were the Egyptian pyramids, various Aztec ruins in Mexico and Mount Rushmore.
  • The Twilight Zone (1985):
    • In "A Little Peace and Quiet", a nuclear war breaks out between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1985.
    • In "Quarantine", 80% of the world's population was wiped out in a nuclear war in 2043. The authorities of the time considered it a limited engagement as only six missiles were fired by each side.
    • In "Profile in Silver", John F. Kennedy's assassination is averted by Professor Joseph Fitzgerald, a time traveling historian from 2172 and one of Kennedy's descendants. This creates an Alternate Timeline in which Soviet troops invade West Berlin, resulting in World War III. In order to restore the proper timeline, Fitzgerald takes Kennedy's place and allows himself to be killed. Kennedy is transported forward in time to 2172.
    • In "Shelter Skelter", Harry Dobbs and Nick Gatlin see and hear reports about an escalating crisis in the Middle East and the US preparing to take any means necessary to defend itself. Harry witnesses an immense explosion and concludes that the nearby Wakefield Air Force Base has been destroyed and World War III has begun. They enter the fallout shelter in Harry's basement to protect themselves from the high levels of radiation. It turns out that a nuclear cruise missile detonated while a B-1 bomber was preparing to take off from the base, destroying much of the surrounding area. The outbreak of nuclear war was avoided as the destruction of Dunston, Kansas illustrated the folly of war to the entire world.
  • Logan's Run: Earth was devastated by a nuclear war in 2119. In "Man Out of Time", it was revealed to have started as a result of the Eastern Bloc launching a preemptive strike on the United States out of fear that it would use its newfound access to time travel as a weapon of war and alter the past. The US responded in kind.
  • The Barrier: In the series, it started in 2020 and ended in 2025. It's already going on in the Distant Prologue set twenty-five years prior to the proper beginning of the plot, while announcement made in the present day mentions it ending twenty years prior.

  • Tom Lehrer:
    • "So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)", from That Was the Year That Was is a parody of a jingoistic "soldier off to war" song from World War I, updated for changing circumstances and featuring the stinger "I'll look for you when the war is over ... an hour and a half from now".
      Lehrer: I feel that if any songs are going come out of World War III, we'd better start writing them now!
    • "We Will All Go Together When We Go", from An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, offers the mock-optimistic consolation that if World War III wipes the entire human race out in one go, nobody will have to deal with grief or go to the trouble of rebuilding civilization.


  • Some Christians believe that a World War III is inevitable as is predicted in the Apocalypse. This is more common among pre-millennialists who believe that the Millenium (Jesus ruling the Earth for a thousand years) would happen after Jesus' Second Coming (whilst postmillennialists believe that Jesus would return only after the world is ruled according to Christian principles for a thousand years). The exact nature of this conflict might depend vastly on what interpretation the particular church or pastor abides, from a war between Israel and the entire world ruled by the Antichrist, Israel against all or some of its Islamic neighbors, sometimes also Russia, sometimes a "confederation" of (usually Islamic) nations lead by the Antichrist, etc. This all depends on the difference interpretation on whether the Antichrist is going to be a Muslim leader resurrecting the Caliphate as some pastors believe, a Roman leader, a Russian leader, the Pope, an American President, a Jewish leader and so on. Also might depend on whether the interpreter is talking about the War of Gog and Magog and the Armageddon which are also different conflicts.
  • Islamic eschatology also believes in a future world war between Muslims and its enemies.
  • Some racist religious groups like the white supremacist Church of the Creator and the Christian Identity theology Churches believe that the third world war would be a racial war. For the Christian Identity churches the Armageddon would be a war between the Western white nations (who they consider are Israel) and all its enemies (the non-"Whites").

    Tabletop Games 
  • Twilight: 2000 is set in the aftermath of a limited nuclear World War III between NATO and the Soviet Union. It started in 1995 with a war between the Soviets and China. When Soviet forces were transferred out of eastern Europe to support the Chinese war in '96 West Germany decided it was time to re-unify, opening the war in Europe. By '97 the Soviets started using tactical nukes, which escalated to using enough strategic strikes to destroy the world's infrastructure. The second edition written after Soviet collapse changed this to something much less plausible; 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).
  • In Chrononauts, you can alter the time line so that the Cuban Missile Crisis went hot, destroying all civilization. A couple of cards actually require this as part of a secret win condition. Notably, World War III has an extra effect: once someone plays that patch, everything after it on the timeline effectively ceases to exist until it's undone.
  • Team Yankee features a Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany in 1985, under the premise of a Stalinist hardliner becoming the Soviet premier instead of Gorbachev, and a naval skirmish in the Middle East providing the pretext to war. The sourcebook Oil War explores how the Iran-Iraq War would've developed if NATO and the Warsaw Pact got more heavily involved.

    Video Games 
  • 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, there were technically two wars, the "Sino-American War" started in 2066 by a Chinese invasion of Alaska, which lasted for almost eleven years before nuclear weapons were exchanged in the "Great War" in 2077, which 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. In Fallout 2 the leader of the Enclave, a faction made up of the descendants of high-ranking government officials, outright states this was the case with later games corroborating this claim at various points.
    • The Fallout series itself is set between 25 to 210 years after the nuclear exchange depending on which game you are playing. 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. For example, the United States forcibly annexed Canada to access better pathways to Alaska and engaged in a bloody war with every other country to secure the last oil field in the Pacific. The world itself was embroiled in the Resource Wars, a series of conflicts over shrinking oil fields that left Europe and the Middle East in ruin as the oil fields dried up and left the U.S. and China as the remaining powers.
  • 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.
  • The original Harpoon game and expansion packs focused on the naval theater of a NATO-Warsaw Pact war.
  • Cold Waters: Command a U.S. submarine during the Second Battle of the Atlantic as war breaks out in Europe in either 1967 or 1984, or in the South China Sea in 2000.
  • Tom Clancy's EndWar 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 the Hearts of Iron IV mod The New Order Last Days Of Europe, this is explicitly Heinrich Himmler's end goal.
    • Set in a timeline where the Axis won World War II but lost the peace, the USA, Japan and Germany emerge as the three definitive superpowers of the world, only by the 1960s Germany to fracture entirely upon Adolf Hitler's death as four successors war for the throne to the Führer's seat. In particular, Heinrich Himmler was part of a contingent of Nazis the Nazis themselves thought were too insane leading to the almost-cartoonishly dystopic Burgundy hellstate to emerge in place of North Korea in this world. Ultimately, being something of a Story Branching-type game, the game has multiple ways, or "fail states" as the devs call them, that will almost assuredly lead to thermonuclear war, all of them invariably leading to the onset of this trope. Aside from the great enemy being Fascists than Communists, it otherwise fulfills much of the general criteria as a traditional example, especially for the era the game starts in.
    • Amusingly, if Himmler's plan to annihilate the world to institute his own Aryan state over the ashes succeeds, Himmler still fails by virtue of everything going as planned; the Aryan civilization is similarly cremated equally alongside all the old world, and the emergent, chosen "scions" from the Burgundy bunkers, uneducated as they often are to become more easy to control by virtue of Burgundy's hyper-authoritarian ethics, assumed anyone else on the surface was an Aryan like them, ensuring his plan's outright failure from the word go to create an ethnically pure nation state. Yes, you read that right: the world of The New Order is so openly hellish that thermonuclear war is explicitly an improvement.
  • 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.
  • Modern Warfare:
    • A variant occurs in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The Big Bad orchestrates a fake US-sponsored terrorist attack on a Russian airport, which leads 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. However, tie-in materials state that this was not WWIII proper, but simply the Russo-America War — it didn't involve enough countries to truly count as a World War.
    • The events of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (appropriately enough) put 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 crossing that line 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 then into the Far East in Wargame: Red Dragon.
      • Unlike the other two games, were each campaign is set in its own timeline, all four of the campaigns in Airland Battle depict parts of the same war.
      • Scenarios in Red Dragon include a Soviet invasion of Japan in 1984, a Sino-Soviet conflict in 1979, and a Second Korean war in the 1992, featuring South Korea, NATO, Japan, and Australia versus North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, in a timeline where the attempted coup against Gorbachev and Yeltsin succeedednote .
  • 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).
  • World War III breaking out in 1989 forms the backstory for the scenarios in Flashpoint Campaigns.
  • Apparently World War III was started by Irem.note 
  • The eponymous World War 3, made by The Farm 51. It's set Next Sunday A.D., focusing on a European war between NATO and Russia. Interestingly, they avert the usual focus on the US vs. Russia or the US and Western Europe vs. Russia, not just in having the war set almost exclusively in Central and Eastern Europenote , but also by having the initial three armies in the game be the Heer, the Polish Army, and the Russian Army, with the options of playing Russian Partisans actually being added one update before they added the ability to play the USMC Expeditionary Force, and plans to add non-Russian Partisans before they add the British and the French. In addition, Year One Roadmap also hints for further plans to implement Chinese, South Korean, Japanese and Turkish factions, maps and weapons in the future.
  • Mission Impossible (1990): This is the end goal of the main villains in the game. (Released in 1990) Their plan is to force the launch of US nuclear missiles, and trigger the likely worldwide response.

    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.
  • In New Deal Coalition Retained, the Cold War starts to heat back in the 80s after hardliners seize control from reformers throughout the Warsaw Pact, straining relationships with the West, with both sides spreading alliance networks around most of the world. Finally, in 1988, a Pretext for War comes after a brief firefight on the inter-German border triggers a series of events that leads to the outbreak of war — the Soviets and Warsaw Pact invade Western Europe, their Latin American allies tie up the US and their own allies in that part of the world, and pro- and anti-Communist nations in Africa and the Middle East begin invading each other. The only exemption is Asia, where Moscow's allies (like China and India) choose instead to declare neutrality.

  • Norman Podhoretz claimed that the Cold War could be considered World War III, just that it was fought by proxies and not directly between the superpowers. He also describes the War on Terror as World War IV. This thought is popular among many scholars.
  • On that sense, the War on Terror was also described as World War III by some analysts, but also as IV.
  • Both King Abdullah II of Jordan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari described the War against ISIL as "World War III" due to ISIL's goal of world domination. This, however, was debunked by Barack Obama himself.
  • Plenty of politicians like former Ukranian statesmen have referred to the current Russo-Ukranian War as World War III:

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).
  • In Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a nuclear war was fought... somewhere... Tokyo was leveled again, and America has split into at least two nations, 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 southern 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. There's also the Colonel, one of Kenshiro's foes, whose superiors are implied to have started the nuclear war. 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, World War III 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, ironically, the United States.
  • 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. The sides are not well-defined: it's known that the USA, Japan, most of Europe, and at least part of Russia were on the UN side, but the composition of the Anti-UN forces is mostly unknown (and the side material actively wonders just how the last remnant of the Anti-UN got their hands on cutting-edge Russian-made mecha, as the Russian government was on the UN side).
  • 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.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds (dub version only), when Bommer summons his Flying Fortress SKY FIRE, Crow quips, "That's not a monster, that's World War IV!", suggesting World War III has already happened by that point (set decades after the events of the original and GX series, which were mostly set in and around modern times). Given the dialogue, it was likely not fought with card games.
  • The "Thirteen Day War" happened in 2039 in Legend of the Galactic Heroes, well over 1,000 years before the start of the series. However, its effects are still felt in the form of a very strong taboo against the use of nuclear weapons against planets.
  • Saikano takes place during what is eventually revealed to be a global war. Though it is never called "World War III", Chise states that Japan is actually better off compared to all other countries—and Japan has lost all of its cities to firebombings, communications have been cut off, hospitals are no longer able to adequately treat the wounded, civilians are starving, and the SDF is reduced to drafting teenagers and old men, to say nothing of turning an innocent schoolgirl into the ultimate weapon. The action never leaves Japan, but it's clear that there are no alliances or neutral countries. It all ends with the extinction of the human race, after Chise finds out that the governments of the world did something just before the war started that made the planet no longer able to support life, making the whole thing even more pointless.

    Comic Books 
  • The DCU:
    • In a case of them using this for a title twice, there for two stories titled World War III: the first being the finale to Grant Morrison's time on JLA (1997) (which the entire population of the Earth got superpowers to battle the ancient weapon of the Old Gods, Mageddon) and the second was a tie-in series for 52 (detailing a week-long war fought against a single person, Black Adam).
    • In Wonder Woman (1987) Wonder Woman was first 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 referred to as World War 4 on certain occasions, though the fighting only involved two Mega Cities—even the other American and Soviet city states were neutral. There's also the events of "Judgement Day", a global Zombie Apocalypse that resulted in several overrun Mega-Cities being nuked off the map to deny Sabbat more zombie soldiers.
  • 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.

  • World War III is the setup for the Terminator series of films, in the form of a Robot War: it was Skynet that started it. 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.
    Kyle Reese: 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.
  • Whether the Mad Max series takes place after World War III, and if so, what type of war it was, depends on which movie in that series you're watching.
  • Lingers as a background threat in both Escape from New York, and Escape from L.A.. In the former, there was a conflict between the USA and the USSR-China that already became hot—Snake Plissken is mentioned to be a veteran of the "Leningrad and Siberia campaigns". In the latter, a coalition of Latin American countries led by the Shining Path are poised to invade the United States. 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, the Enterprise travels back in time to a period shortly after World War III. See the Star Trek entry under the "Live-Action TV" tab for more information.

  • 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 also 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 Rainbow, World War III acts as the most major historical event which forms the backstory of the setting. The "International Revolution" is a worldwide conflict that occurred over one thousand years before the events of the novel. It was initiated by a coalition called the "Atheistic State," who were reportedly Well-Intentioned Extremists who believed that they must impose enforced atheism on all civilization before religion could cause humanity to destroy itself. The Atheistic State easily won, established the World Hegemony, and has since maintained an uncontested rule over the entire Earth since then until the events of the novel.
  • In the backstory to the Star Carrier series by Ian Douglas, 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.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four's unnamed Forever War between three mercilessly totalitarian and nuclear-armed Space-Filling Empires, 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.
    • Though it's implied that the wars are deliberately kept limited, both to give the population a foreign enemy to hate instead of their own leadership, and as a justification for the crapsackworld the rulers have created.
  • The backstory of the Shannara series always alluded to "The Great Wars" which brought our civilization to an end and then the magic comes back and the high fantasy setting unfolded. After a Retcon and Canon Welding with Brooks' Word and Void series, this was shown to be World War III, taking place sometime in the early 22nd century. Although supernatural forces were pulling the strings, nuclear and chemical weapons, deployed in several steps, were responsible for wiping out the vast majority of humanity.
  • in The War of the World, historian Niall Ferguson says that there was a Third World War, and that it was fought in the Third World. Millions died in a long series of proxy wars between governments and insurgents which were ultimately backed by the USA and the Soviets.
  • In We Are Legion (We Are Bob), World War Three technically happens in the 117 years since Bob was hit by a car, although it's pointed out that it was more of a series of brushfire wars, most evidently in the Middle East, in large part caused by the development of controlled nuclear fusion, instantly devaluing the main Middle East commodity. The latter has turned that entire region into a nuclear wasteland. A more proper global conflict happens shortly after the Von Neumann probes are launched by the superpowers. It's "civil" at first, with only tactical nukes employed against military targets, but quickly devolves into all-out chaos when China decides to nuke all of Brazil, signaling that cities are now fair game. The remains of the Brazilian Space Navy obliterates all Solar System objects and then starts dropping asteroids on Earth as part of a scorched earth tactic. By the time two of the Bobs return three decades later, there are about 15 million people left alive on the planet out of over ten billion. The planet is rapidly cooling and will become uninhabitable for millennia.
  • In the short story "Time and Time Again" by H. Beam Piper, the Third World War began in or before 1975. A transpolar invasion of Canada led to the fall of Ottawa. As such, the US forces in Canada were forced to retreat but they made their stand at Buffalo, where Allan Hartley was killed. It is never specifically stated what country or countries the United States and Canada were fighting.
  • In In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove, Nazi Germany and Japan defeated the United States and Canada in World War III in the 1970s. Nuclear weapons were extensively used with Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia being completely destroyed. Before its defeat, however, the US inflicted significant damage on Germany. After the war, millions of Jewish-Americans and African-Americans were murdered in concentration camps, reducing the United States population by one third from its pre-war levels. In the 2010s, the US still had to pay war reparations to Germany on an annual basis.
  • In the Crosstime Traffic series by Harry Turtledove, the titular organization is aware of alternate universes where China and Nazi Germany started World War III, which destroyed human civilization. The sixth book is set in an After the End LA where the Soviets and Americans nuked each other in the 1960s.
  • Isaac Asimov:
    • Pebble in the Sky: Schwartz assumes that Earth's radioactive crust is due to a war fought with atomic bombs.
    • The Stars, Like Dust (written after Pebble in the Sky but a very distant prequel, set thousands of years earlier) the numerous radioactive areas of Earth's crust (which literally glow in the dark) are explicitly said to be the places where nuclear weapons had been detonated "a full generation before the force-field defense against nuclear explosions had been developed so that no other could commit suicide in just that fashion again".
  • The Irregular at Magic High School has WW3 break out after an unexpected drop in global temperatures from 2030 triggered a global food crisis, and in turn led to a subsequent dispute between Russia and China over the former's forceful deportation of refugees from the latter, escalating to worldwide conflicts over resources erupting in 2045 and lasting until 2064. In the aftermath, the world population was reduced from approx. 9 billion to less than 3 billion, much of Africa and South America suffered extensive balkanization (with only Brazil remaining more or less intact from the latter), the European Union splitting into Western and Eastern blocs along the Franco-German border, much of the rest of the world conglomerated into sprawling superstates (the major ones being the United States of North America, the New Soviet Union, the Great Asian Union, and the Indo-Persian Federation), and most importantly the ascension of Magicians as a potent political, military, and economical force in world affairs.
  • U.S.S. Cunningham Quintet: In Real Life, China and Taiwan dispute the latter's independence and tensions are high. In the Sea Strike, this finally erupts into a full-blown war that threatens to pull the rest of the world as a losing China decides to throw thermonuclear weapons into the mix.

    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.
  • The 100 has a nuclear war in its backstory to set up the After the End situation, though who fought war and why is not delved into until the Season 2 finale, when an artificial intelligence called ALIE is implied have been involved. It is eventually revealed that ALIE was programmed to save humanity/the world, and decided the problem was "too many people". Her solution was to launch nuclear missiles at everyone, triggering a counterattack to reduce the number of people on the planet.
  • Babylon 5 had a nuclear one 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).
  • Deadliest Warrior showed a highly likely 'what if scenario' of North Korea and South Korea redeclaring war in the episode US Rangers vs NKSOF. The allies of both nations would most likely assist them, causing this trope. United States of America, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, France, Great Britain, 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.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "World War Three" actually depicts a near miss. As part of a cosmic business venture, the Slitheen plan to bait humanity into waging WW3 to reduce the Earth to ruin so they can sell the remains for fuel.
    • "Dalek" mentions another, as former child genius Adam boasts about how at age eight he breached the U.S. Defence System.
    • Implied by the Doctor mentioning World Wars Five and Six (in "The Unquiet Dead" and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", respectively).
    • Subverted in "The Pyramid at the End of the World". An expected alien invasion begins in the fictional Central Asian country of "Turmezistan", where American, Russian, and Chinese forces are confronting each other, and it's assumed that the aliens are intending to take advantage of the imminent World War III to invade while human civilisation is being trashed. It's then revealed that the location is a distraction, and the real threat to human civilisation that the aliens have foreseen and want to take advantage of is the accidental creation and release of a Synthetic Plague.
  • 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.
  • The Star Trek franchise is infamous for frequently referencing a World War III, but giving very vague details about it. Here is what we do know about the World War III of the Trek Verse:
    • Star Trek: The Original Series equated World War III with the Eugenics Wars, which supposedly took place during the 1990s. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, a Retcon moved the setting of World War III to sometime in the mid-21st century. Thus, the Eugenics Wars and World War III became separate conflicts, even though the Eugenics Wars apparently took place on a global scale. Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds pushed the Eugenics Wars into at least the 2020s, essentially retconning the Eugenics Wars back into being the same conflict as World War III. They also established that they were spun off by the Second American Civil War. Ultimately, it’s revealed that meddling time travelers lead to the timeline and events being altered so that certain events still happen, but are pushed up further and further.
    • World War III was incredibly devastating, with a death toll higher than that of World War II (according to SNW, a third of the world's population was wiped out). Nuclear weapons were used and most governments did not survive the war, leading to an After the End Dystopia described as "the post-atomic horror". In Star Trek: First Contact, the Enterprise crew travels back in time to this "post-atomic horror" period in order to ensure that humankind's First Contact with aliens takes place. The movie explains that it was this first contact which caused the Earth to rise from the ashes of World War III and become a Utopia.
    • The war featured genetic engineering and genocide on a massive scale. Star Trek: Enterprise establishes that Colonel Phillip Green was involved in this.
    • Information about the factions involved is extremely scanty. From First Contact, we know that something called the "Eastern Coalition" was an enemy of the United States, vaguely suggesting that the war was fought between the West and an alliance of Asian countries. (Early scripts for First Contact explicitly said "China", but later drafts replaced "China" with "Eastern Coalition".)
    • According to the EU novel Star Trek: Federation, the war happened largely due to a fascist movement called the Optimum gaining control over much of the planet. Much of the novel was later Jossed by Star Trek: First Contact, however.
    • During the war, a small group of civilians and soldiers hiding out in a church was rescued by a strange angelic figure that transported them to a habitable planet 51,000 light years away. The planet (Terralysium) wouldn't be visited again until the 23rd century, when the USS Discovery used the spore drive to cross the distance. Even though its inhabitants are human, Captain Pike insists on invoking General Order 1 (the term Prime Directive wasn't invented yet) since they have no knowledge of the warp drive.
  • A non-Earth version is prevented in the classic Battlestar Galactica. There are two superpowers on Planet Terra (which isn't Earth): the fascist-like Eastern Coalition and the democratic Western Coalition. Despite signing a peace treaty with the Coalition, the Alliance launches an all-out nuclear strike, trying to kill two birds with one stone: wipe out their hated enemy and alleviate their overpopulation problem by not warning their citizens about the retaliatory strike. The Coalition launches its own missiles in return. Fortunately, the Galactica arrives and intercepts all missiles in the air. The Alliance assumes it's a secret Coalition defense system and decides to sue for peace.
  • The Outer Limits (1995):
    • In "Resurrection", humanity was wiped out in a biological war on July 24, 1997.
    • In "Bits of Love", billions of people were killed in a nuclear war on November 3, 2046. Aidan Hunter managed to survive in a special bunker. He believes that he may be the last living person.
    • In "Lithia", the Great War, which began in or before 2015, killed seven billion people (99% of the population).
    • In "Final Appeal, Part One", a nuclear war, known as the War of 2059 or the New Holocaust, killed 80% of the world's population (6.8 million people).
    • In "The Human Factor", everyone on Earth, with the exception of several high-profile political figures and their families, is killed in the war between the Free Alliance and the Coalition of Middle Eastern and Pacific States on April 23, 2084.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959):
    • In "Time Enough at Last", a nuclear war breaks out. Henry Bemis survived as he was reading in the bank vault when the H-Bomb that destroyed his city was detonated.
    • In "Elegy", Professor Kurt Meyers tells Jeremy Wickwire that Earth was devastated by a nuclear war in 1985 and it has taken 200 years for humanity to rebuild.
    • Played with in "Two". The man and woman appear to be American and Soviet soldiers respectively who are still alive five years after the war devastated the world but Rod Serling's opening narration leaves the time period vague, even stating that the story could have taken place two million years ago.
    • In "The Old Man in the Cave", a nuclear war devastated Earth in 1964. Millions of people were killed and the world is contaminated with radiation.

  • Grupa Operacyjna: "Trzecia Wojna Światowa", as the name implies. It is described as a war to survive, a war on the streets and in homes, between everything and everyone. But when you look deeper into the song's lyrics, it actually describes a crappy everyday scenario.
  • 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.
  • Third World War was a British rock group of the early 1970s, which released two albums: Third World War and Third World War II. Their name was mostly a reflection of general Cold War paranoia, but they were definitely political. Sample song: "I'd Rather Cut Cane For Castro".

  • This is the theme of the "Ruiner" table in Ruiner Pinball; the player must raise the threat level to DEFCON 1 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 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...
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • 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. Your goal in the game is to stop the NSA from getting their hands on an even bigger supply of anti-matter from an alien mothership.
  • Battlefield series
    • 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.
    • Battlefield 4 depicts the same war in Battlefield 3 after an indeterminate amount of time. China has entered the war. In the campaign, they're mostly allied with Russia, but the multiplayer suggests that it broke down and became a Mêlée à Trois between three of them.
    • 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.
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert
    • Command & Conquer: 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" (with the Soviet Union as the agressor against an Allied alliance in place of Germany). The next war is the Soviet Union versus everyone else, with the United States as their primary target this time instead of Europe. However, add to that Red Alert 3 (where the Soviets remove Einstein but only succeed in removing their own nuclear technology and allowing Imperial Japan to become a rival superpower along with the Soviets and Allies) 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.
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3's Challenge mini-campaign pits you as working for Private Military Contractors Future Tech, pitting you against commanders from all three factions all over the world.
  • World War III 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 this 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 2150 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.
  • The backstory of how the world got the be in the state it is in 2062 in Girls' Frontline involves a stated World War III. It takes place after a semi-apocalyptic event, where an alien chemical cloud was released from a Precursor facility, contaminating and rendering uninhabitable most of the world around the equator. In the massive humanitarian crisis and rush to evacuate the affected areas, old political and military borders dissolved, and a new world with new superpowers and a drastically reduced population emerged. The major players in the Third World War are never made clear, as the political landscape is alien to our modern one, but the stated reason for the war was tension over control of uncontaminated land.
  • World War III 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.
  • The later games in the Tekken series are set against a massive global war between the Mishima Zaibatsu and G Corporation, which Jin Kazama instigates after taking control of the Zaibatsu. The war, in essence, is an evolution of the long-raging family feud within the Mishima family, with Kazuya Mishima, Jin's father, siding with G Corp, while Heihachi, the Mishima patriarch, fighting to regain control of the Zaibatsu. The characters in the series consist of those aligned with the Zaibatsu or G Corp, in addition to those caught in the middle.
  • 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.
  • An enormous thermonuclear war occurred in the Backstory of Shin Megami Tensei IV, twenty-five years prior to the game's setting to be specific. It was caused by the sudden appearance of demons throughout the globe, with every country blaming practically every other country and ending with all of them except Japan as bombed-out wastelands. An NPC implies at one point that the Archangels may have started or at least helped this war along somehow, in order to whittle humanity's population down to a handful of Chosen Ones, though Lucifer was also a player.
  • Jonathan Irons of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare instigates a world war against his own Private Military Contractor organization "Atlas Corporation" by openly threatening the UN with a superweapon. As he already controls the world's global security infrastructure through some manipulation of world events, the other nations struggle to match him. Even by the end of the game, the only goal that gets accomplished is the death of Irons himself. Everyone knows that Atlas's efforts will continue with or without Irons in command and the war isn't over.
  • In the Civilization Series, the AI is coded to declare war on the perpetrator of the First Strike with Nuclear Weapons on any other Civilization. When getting into a late game war with India, Ghandi will nuke you, no questions asked.
  • This is what the main villains, the Sinister 7 want to achieve in Mission Impossible (1990). They programmed a supercomputer to launch nuclear weapons, aiming for a short but quick World War III which will herald The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Phoenix Point: In this universe, World War III began (around 2032) because China and the USA were unhappy that they were crossing each others territory while researching the Pandoravirus. The exact details of the war are not covered, but the aftermath is clear in-game and side-stories: the USA divided due to economic collapse, cities around the world damaged from the war, and the whole world left venerable to the Pandoravirus onslaught.
  • Ketsui is set in 2054 after World War III is started due to climate change — global warming in particular — causing the polar ice caps to melt, leading to rising sea levels, an increased rate of natural disasters, and nations going to war over increasingly scarce resources. EVAC Industry is found to be supplying weapons to all sides of the war to line their pockets, but they are impossible to negotiate with as they're wealthy enough to even maintain a standing army of their own, and it takes a covert operation by the United Nations disguised as a rebellion within the company to stop them from maintaining the war with their constant arms dealing.

    Visual Novels 
  • In one Bad Future of Steins;Gate, a scientist brings plans for a fully functional time machine to The New Russia. It doesn't take long for other countries to discover what's going on, and eventually a time machine race starts which eventually erupts into World War III. The result: 5.7 billion people dead.
  • In The Bottom of the Well, the start of a nuclear war (apparently between the United States and Russia) is the cause of the story. The city in which the protagonist lives is hit by nuclear detonations, and she needs to survive both these and the aftermath — radioactive ash, looters, and such. There's no background as to how it happened — there's brief early warning of the attack, but no explanation of it.

  • Book 4 of Harry Potter Comics takes place during World War III. Besides nuclear weapons, magic is also involved, as well as hybrid tech (including invisible missiles and beam-spamming wand/guns that even muggles can use.)
  • Kiwi Blitz takes place after World War III, though things have largely settled down by the time of the story. The Frohlich family originally made its fortune building war machines.

    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.
  • It is mentioned that when using SCP-2000, which can reset humanity to a certain time in the event of a Apocalypse How, one can't set it any further back than twenty years, or they'd be liable to trigger this. After all, that's how World War 2 happened. Another interpretation is that the SCP Foundation fabricated World War 2 to explain away the massive destruction and loss of life caused by whatever incident led to the activation of SCP-2000.
  • The Innocent is set during a war between children and adults that turns into this and ends with the children winning and creating a Teenage Wasteland.
  • Timeline-191: After the End: After Timeline-191 ended WWII with the US, Germany, and Japan as the major superpowers of the world, Japan and the US enter an extremely destructive Fourth Pacific War in the 1960s.

    Western Animation 
  • The DCAU made reference to "the near apocalypse of '09" headed by Ra's al 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.
    • There's also the world the Justice League is pulled into in Legends where it seems World War III happened and killed the Justice Guild of America.
  • Metalocalypse: Dethklok nearly starts this when they double-book a gig on the same day with Israel and Syria. The two countries threaten to start a third global war and the only way to stop it is to put on a giant holographic show that can be seen in space over the two countries and snow cones.
  • The Simpsons: In the 1995 episode "Lisa's Wedding", set in 2010, Moe says to Lisa's English fiancé "You know, we saved your ass in World War Two!". He responds "Yeah, well, we saved your arse in World War Three!". Moe concedes the point.
  • A sight gag in Futurama references the page quote when the characters visit a war museum and pass by a spear in a display case. It's noted to come from the 22nd century.
  • Pinky and the Brain: "Brain of the Future" involved a possible future where the United States ends up in a nuclear war against not Russia, not China, but against.... Canada in 3502. The war begins with an argument between the Canadian Prime Minister Warren Mapleleaf (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. He is described as the United States' first 377 term President.
  • One episode of Phantom 2040 makes a reference to "World War IV" suggesting that World War III had already happened.
  • Implied: in an episode of The Flintstones, a member of the loyal order of Water Buffaloes suggests staging a beauty contest for their wives:
    Fred: I've got a better idea. How about World War III? (everybody laughs)
  • Inside Job (2021): Among the many screwed-up things Cognito is up to is planning out and casting for World War III, where the Americans will be the villains.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): World War Three, WW 3, Third World War, World War 3


Captain Pike's Speech

"Strange New Worlds". After a first contact operation goes badly awry due to faulty intel, Captain Pike makes a second attempt. He lays out to the Kileans the violent history of Earth that led up to World War III (which uses stock footage of civil unrest from the 2010s and early 2020s), and tells them that's where they're headed if they can't put aside their differences. But they have another choice: be better, and join the United Federation of Planets.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (12 votes)

Example of:

Main / PatrickStewartSpeech

Media sources: