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Get ready for World War III with Wikipedia!

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: World War III

What it’s about: The Great War, a.k.a. the First World War, was so devastating, it was called “the war to end all wars,” as no one believed anyone was willing to relive the experience again. That feeling lasted about 20 years, before the Second World War proved the naysayers wrong. Since then, the world has been bracing for a third scale of global conflict, one with the potential to be far more devastating, thanks to the advent of nuclear weapons. Reader Zach Godwin suggested we take a look at “the war to end all wars, but, seriously, for realsies this time.”

The Day After

Strangest fact: Nuclear war may have been avoided thanks to a made-for-TV movie. In 1983, The Day After shocked audiences across America with the aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The film’s narrow focus followed residents of Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri (including John Lithgow, Jason Robards, Steve Guttenberg, and JoBeth Williams), as they dealt with fallout, radiation sickness, and a country in shambles. Among the 100 million people who watched this bleak glimpse of a possible future was President Reagan, who later said the film helped convince him that there was no such thing as a “winnable” nuclear war.

Biggest controversy: Depending on who you ask, World War III may have already happened. Some suggest the Cold War was deserving of the name, as it was a fight between two sprawling alliances on a global scale, even if the two main powers—the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.—never came to blows directly. CNBC’s Lawrence Kudlow once declared that the Cold War was WWIII, “World War IV is the terror war, and war with China would be World War V.” Well, fingers crossed.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Had WWIII broken out, everyone would have been well prepared. The Wikipedia page takes us through 20 contingency plans different countries drew up at different times in the event of a clash between global superpowers—whether or not nuclear weapons were involved. Most belong to NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but France had Warning Shot—a plan to fire a single nuclear missile at an advancing Soviet Army as a warning, before launching larger tactical strikes. The U.K. had Operation Square Leg, a plan to move the nation’s urban population to the countryside to avoid a nuclear attack, as well as Britain’s “letters of last resort”—secret instructions each Prime Minister gives to missile submarine captains, to be opened only in the event of a nuclear strike destroying the U.K.’s government.

A possible culprit of the 1979 incident

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: WWIII nearly started by accident—twice. In 1979, NORAD watched in horror as the Soviets launched a full-scale nuclear attack against the United States. After a brief span of time which a U.S. Senator inside the facility described as “an atmosphere of absolute panic,” a backup system showed that no such launch had taken place, and it was a computer error. NORAD promptly added another layer of safeguards.


Four years later, the Soviets had a similar scenario play out, after their early warning system showed a handful of American ICBMs launched in their direction. Only three weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner, and the international situation was tense. Unlike the earlier NORAD incident, the Soviet system had no signal that an attack wasn’t actually happening. Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov, acting only on instinct, declared a false alarm, reasoning that an American first strike would include more than just a few missiles. Because he was right, a nuclear war was averted. While this undoubtedly makes him one of the greatest unsung heroes of the 20th century, not only was Petrov not rewarded, he was demoted to a less sensitive post, because his superiors were embarrassed by the failure of their warning system. In Soviet Russia, missiles fire you!

Also noteworthy: World War III has been a ripe topic for fiction, TV, and film, with Red Storm Rising, Trinity’s Child, On The Beach, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, Red Dawn, and even Adventure Time dealing with either the start or the aftermath of a global nuclear war.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: With some claiming the “War On Terror” is in fact WWIII, Wikipedia links to a fairly comprehensive rundown of wars and battles involving ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL’s fight against the civilized world is a sprawling conflict that grew out of Bush’s War On Terror and invasion of Iraq, but has tendrils in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Caucasus, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Phillippines, Syria, and Yemen. It’s exactly the kind of sprawling mess you need Wikipedia to help make sense of.

Further down the wormhole: One unlikely WWIII scenario is that most life on Earth could be wiped out, but remnants of the population could survive either underground, or on bases on the moon or Mars. The success of the Curiosity rover and the discovery of water on the red planet (not to mention the success of The Martian), has spurred discussion of a human mission to Mars sometime in the next few decades. We’ll take our first step into the final frontier next week.


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