With the depredation of World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) haunting people’s collective memory, relying on fear has led to many imaginative theories about the onset of a much-feared World War III. That subliminal anxiety has bled into our fear of both past and invented enemies, as well as the great unknown. And with populism, racism and cross-border tensions rising across the globe, how has the concept of WWIII shaped people’s minds?
Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the world inhaled a heart-stopping breath. These events not only put a resolute end to World War II, but displayed the thunderous power of a weapon that seemed to have crawled out of the pits of human dread. Atomic weapons would be seen as a revolt of nature in the 1950s, giving rise to a choking fear of a threat so debilitating, it would render its victims powerless – and suspicious.
In 1951, an entire issue of Collier’s magazine, titled Preview of the War We Do Not Want, focused on the account of a possible World War III. Its portrayal of two opposing parties, meaning the United States and the Soviet Union, was tied to the ongoing Cold War (1947-1991), and would succumb future musings about another war to those two sides for many years to come.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a 1949 dystopian novel about the grim world formed after a Third World War – the state of which would be eerily reflected in communist Poland in 1984 – rose to notability in the 1950s.
The 1960s saw a rise in a general anti-war movement, with Bob Dylan referencing World War III in his LP The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Meanwhile, the fear of a possible nuclear threat was still palpable. Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adapted to film as Blade Runner (1982), portrayed an Earth blighted by the radioactive fallout of a nuclear war called “World War Terminus”. In an episode of Star Trek, titled Bread and Circuses, Spock evaluated the death toll of Earth’s Third World War at 36 million.
In the 1980s, as the decades neared the end of the Cold War, people were afraid that a nuclear World War III, well-established in everyone’s minds by that point, was only a matter of time. In 1982, protests against nuclear weapons took place in Bonn, the same year as the 6th NATO summit, and New York. Then, as the Cold War came to an end in 1991, hearts seemed to settle. So much so, that talk of WWIII was reduced to hypothetical contemplation of the past. In 1998, Robert Stone directed a German alternate history television pseudo-documentary titled World War III (German: Der Dritte Weltkrieg), which pondered the fate of a theoretical world, in which Soviet troops opened fire on demonstrators in Berlin in the fall of 1989, purposefully sparking WWIII.
It wasn’t until September 11th 2001 that a new threat loomed over the world. Changing the course of history forever, terrorism became the prime catalyst of another world war in everyone’s collective psyche. Most recently, Christopher Nolan toyed with the idea of World War III in his science fiction thriller Tenet (2020), presenting danger in the form of superior technology and time alteration.
However, as the years have gone by, a new type of warfare has been detected. A clandestine, invasive and omnipresent threat that is as difficult to pinpoint as a spreading virus. In his work on economic and cognitive warfare, Giuseppe Gagliamo outlines a few ways in which power and influence are gained in today’s world. One of these is the purchasing of foreign companies, another lobbying.
With globalisation leading to the unspoken ascent over borders, international trade has become a mighty weapon, with specific tariff and non-tariff rates imposed as a form of equalizing trade protection. In the 19th century, the United States and Germany both became global powers because of the protectionism of their industries, stemming from the War of 1812 in the U.S. and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) in Germany. This allowed the countries to compete with Great Britain’s economy. Now, international financial flow is an entity of its own, difficult to seize and master.
This destabilization boasts a fundamental role in psychological warfare. What we can sometimes observe consciously are the conspiracies set up as part of cognitive warfare, as Gagliamo points out. The psychological manipulation we are subjected to is dangerous because of its boundless possibilities, from fabrication to deception – from propaganda to prohibition.
Where once alertness seemed like the best weapon against a possible WWIII, now it’s economic intelligence. In a world with no more borders of time or space, there is a constant influx of news – wither valid or fake – and it takes a practised and informed mind to judge true threats. Reaction time appears nonexistent, eradicated by social media. Events can easily be manipulated before being unleashed onto the world, robbing people of time to brace for another attack. A prime example of this would be the spread of misinformation in the run-up to Brexit. As a result, we have seen a rise in nationalist, anti-immigrationist and populist views, forever contributing to widespread anxiety. And so, from the perspective of economic and cognitive warfare, WWIII might have already begun.