World War III in popular culture

World War III in popular culture

World War III is a common theme in popular culture. Since the 1940s, countless books, films, and television programmes have used the theme of nuclear weapons and a third global war.Biggs, Lindy and Hansen, James (editors), 2004, "Readings in Technology and Civilisation", ISBN 0-759-33869-8.] The presence of the Soviet Union as an international rival armed with nuclear weapons created a persistent fear in the United States. There was a pervasive dread of a nuclear World War III, and popular culture reveals the fears of the public at the time.Worland, Rick, 2006, "The Horror Film: An Introduction", Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 1-405-13902-1.] This theme in the arts was also a way of exploring a range of issues far beyond nuclear war.Franklin, Jerome, 2002, "Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film", Routledge, ISBN 0-415-93660-8.] The historian Spencer R. Weart called nuclear weapons a "symbol for the worst of modernity."

During the Cold War, concepts such as mutual assured destruction (MAD) led lawmakers and government officials in both the United States and the Soviet Union to avoid entering a nuclear World War III that could have had catastrophic consequences on the entire world.Lipschutz, Ronnie D., 2001, "Cold War Fantasies: Film, Fiction, and Foreign Policy", Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 0-742-51052-2.] Various scientists and authors, such as Carl Sagan, predicted massive, possibly life ending destruction of the earth as the result of such a conflict.Fact|date=August 2007 Strategic analysts assert that nuclear weapons prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from fighting World War III with conventional weapons.Angelo, Joseph A., 2004, "Nuclear Technology", Greenwood Press, ISBN 1-573-56336-6.] Nevertheless, the possibility of such a war became the basis for speculative fiction, and its simulation in books, films and video games became a way to explore the issues of a war that has thus far not occurred in reality. The only places a global nuclear war have ever been fought are in expert scenarios, theoretical models, war games, and the art, film, and literature of the nuclear age.Martin, Andrew, and Petro, Patrice, 2006, "Rethinking Global Security: Media, Popular Culture, and the "War on Terror" Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-813-53830-0.] The concept of mutually assured destruction was also the focus of numerous movies and films.

Prescient stories about nuclear war were written before the invention of the atomic bomb. The most notable of these is "The World Set Free", written by H. G. Wells in 1914. During World War II, several nuclear war stories were published in science fiction magazines such as "Astounding". In Robert A. Heinlein's story "Solution Unsatisfactory" the US develops radioactive dust as the ultimate weapon of war and uses it to destroy Berlin in 1945 and end the war with Germany. The Soviet Union then develops the same weapon independently, and war between it and the US follows.Fact|date=August 2007 The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 made stories of a future global nuclear war look less like fiction and more like prophecy. When William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, he spoke about Cold War themes in art. He worried that younger writers were too preoccupied with the question of "When will I be blown up?"Halliwell, Martin, 2007, "American Culture in the 1950s", Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 0-748-61885-6.]

1950s: fears of the new and unknown

American fears of an impending apocalyptic World War III with the communist bloc were strengthened by the quick succession of the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomb test, the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. Pundits named the era "the age of anxiety", after W. H. Auden. In 1951 an entire issue of "Collier's" magazine was devoted to a fictional account of World War III. The issue was entitled "Preview of the War We Do Not Want". In the magazine, war begins when the Red Army invades Yugoslavia and the United States responds by conducting a three month long bombing campaign of Soviet Union military and industrial targets. The Soviet Union retaliates by bombing New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Detroit. [cite book |title=The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture |last=Oakes |first=Guy |year=1994 |publisher=Oxford University PressUS |location= |isbn=0195090276 |pages=56-57 ]

Against this background of dread there was an outpouring of cinema with frightening themes, particularly in the science fiction genre. Science fiction had previously not been popular with either critics or movie audiences, but it became a viable Hollywood genre during the Cold War. In the 1950s science fiction had two main themes: the invasion of the Earth (symbolising the US) by superior, aggressive, and frequently technologically advanced aliens; and the dread of atomic weapons, which was typically portrayed as a revolt of nature, with irradiated monsters attacking and ravaging entire cities.

In "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), a flying saucer lands on the Mall in Washington DC, where it is surrounded by troops and tanks. The alien Klaatu delivers an ultimatum that the Earth must learn to live in peace or it will be destroyed. "The War of the Worlds" (1953) has a montage sequence where the countries of Earth join together to fight the Martian invaders. The montage conspicuously omits the Soviet Union, implying that the aliens are a metaphor for communists. The most elaborate science fiction films in the 1950s were "This Island Earth" (1955) and "Forbidden Planet" (1956). In the climax of both films the characters witness the explosion of alien planets, implying Earth's possible fate. "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" (1959) is also in the science fiction genre. In it, a man, a woman, and a bigot (the devil) roam New York City after a nuclear war. Only those three characters appear in the film. Also released in 1959 was On The Beach, directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire. Based on the successful novel by Nevil Shute, the film deals with the citizens of Australia as they await radioactive fallout, a result of a catastrophic nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere. The French author Stefan Wul's 1957 novel "Niourk" provided a portrait of New York after World War III. [Horn, Pierre L., 1991, "Handbook of French Popular Culture", Greenwood, ISBN 0313261210, page 236.]

1960s: expanding popularity

In the 1960s, media about the threat of nuclear world war gained wide popularity. According to Susan Sontag, these films struck people’s "imagination of the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself."Quart, Leonard, and Auster, Albert, 2001, "American Film and Society", Praeger/Greenwood, ISBN 0-275-96743-3, p. 76-77.] A leading member of the 1960s anti-war movement, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan evoked the topic of WWIII thrice in his seminal Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in Masters of War, Talkin' World War III Blues, and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.

In 1964 three films about the threat of accidental nuclear war were released, "Dr. Strangelove", "Fail-Safe", and "Seven Days in May". Their negative portrayal of nuclear defence prompted the United States Air Force to sponsor films such as "A Gathering of Eagles" to publicly address the potential dangers of nuclear defense.

"" is a black comedy by Stanley Kubrick about the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Following a bizarre mental breakdown the C.O. of a SAC base orders the B-52 wing operating from his base to attack the Soviet Union. The title character, Dr. Strangelove, is a parody of a composite of Cold War figures, including Wernher von Braun, Henry Kissinger, and Herman Kahn. The secret code Operation DROPKICK, mentioned by George C. Scott's character, may be an oblique reference to Operation Dropshot.

The 1964 film "Fail-Safe" was adapted from a best-selling novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. In it, nuclear disaster is caused by a technological breakdown that mistakenly launches American bombers to attack the Soviet Union. The US president allows New York to be destroyed after the bomber destroys Moscow in order to save the world. The film was made in a semi-documentary style with a compelling and gruesome montage of the destruction of Moscow and New York at the end of the film.

"The War Game" (1965), produced by Peter Watkins, deals with a fictional nuclear attack on Britain. This film won the Oscar for Best Documentary, but was withheld from broadcast by the BBC for two decades. [cite web|url=|title=Peter Watkins - The War Game|accessdate=2007-08-15]


The American public's concerns about nuclear weapons and related technology continued to be present in the 1970s. The most talked about events in the 1970s were the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Iran hostage crisis, the energy crisis, and stagflation. None of these issues easily lent themselves to apocalyptic scenarios. In the 1977 Robert Aldrich film "Twilight's Last Gleaming", a nuclear missile silo is seized by renegade US Air Force officers, who threaten to start World War III if the American government does not reveal secret documents that show that the military needlessly prolonged the Vietnam War. [cite book |title=History of the American cinema |last=Harpole |first=Charles |year= |publisher=University of California Press |isbn=0520232658 |pages=203 ]

1980s: belief in an imminent threat

In the early 1980s there was a feeling of alarm in Europe and North America that a nuclear World War III was imminent. In 1982, 250,000 people protested against nuclear weapons in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany.Nichols, Thomas M., 2002, "Winning the World: Lessons for America's Future from the Cold War", Praeger/Greenwood, ISBN 0-275-96663-1.] On June 12, 1982, more than 750,000 protesters marched from the U.N. headquarters building to Central Park in New York to call for a Nuclear Freeze.Rosenzweig, Roy, and Blackmar, Elizabeth, 1992, "The Park and the People: A History of Central Park", Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-801-49751-5.] The public accepted the technological certainty of nuclear war, but did not have faith in nuclear defence. This worry manifested itself in the popular culture of the time, with images of nuclear war in books, film, music, and television. In the mid 1980s artists and musicians drew parallels with their time and the 1950s as two key moments in the Cold War.

There was a steady stream of popular music with apocalyptic themes. The 1983 hit "99 Luftballons" by Nena tells the story of a young woman who accidentally triggers a nuclear holocaust by releasing balloons. The music video for "Sleeping with the Enemy" had images of the Red Army parading in Red Square, American high school marching bands, and a mushroom cloud. The 1984 hit "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood had actors resembling Konstantin Chernenko and Ronald Reagan fighting each other amidst a group of cheering people. At the end of their fight, the Earth explodes. Sting's 1986 song "Russians" highlighted links between Nikita Khrushchev's threats to bury the US and Reagan's promise to protect US citizens.

Films and television programmes made in the 1980s had different visions of what World War III would be like. "Red Dawn" (1984) portrayed a World War III that begins unexpectedly, with a surprise Soviet and Cuban invasion of the United States. A small band of teenagers fight the Soviet and Cuban occupation using guerrilla tactics. In the 1983 James Bond film "Octopussy", James Bond tries to stop World War III from being started by a renegade Soviet general.

In the early 1980s there were a number of films made for television that had World War III as a theme. ABC's "The Day After" (1983), PBS's "Testament" (1983), and the BBC's "Threads" (1984) depicted nuclear World War III. The three movies show a nuclear war against the Soviet Union, which sends its troops marching across Western Europe. These films inspired many to join the anti-nuclear movement. "Threads" is notable for its graphically disturbing and realistic depictions of post-nuclear survival.Fact|date=August 2007

"The Day After" was shown on ABC on November 20, 1983, at a time when Soviet-US relations were at rock bottom, just weeks after the provocative NATO-led Able Archer 83 exercises, and less than three months after Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet jet interceptors. ABC warned its audience about the graphic nature of the film. "The Day After" became a political event in itself and was shown in over forty countries. The shocking and disturbing content discouraged advertisers, but had the largest audience for a made-for-TV movie up to that time (a record which still stands as of 2008)Fact|date=March 2008 and influenced the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiations in 1986. [ Fallout from 'The Day After'] , November 19 2003]

The 1982 NBC miniseries "World War III", directed by David Greene, received little critical attention. In the programme, a Soviet Spetznaz (Special Forces) invasion of Alaska in order to destroy the Alaska oil pipeline escalates to a full scale war. The miniseries abruptly ends with the President releasing US nuclear forces against the Soviets. This narrative is almost unique because the film ends moments before the world is annihilated with nuclear weapons. Similar stories about the destruction of the world showed the possibility of the world's rebirth following global destruction.

During the 1980s, the techno-thriller became a literary phenomenon in the United States. These novels about high-tech non-nuclear warfare reasserted the value of conventional weapons by showing how they would be vital in the world's next large scale conflict. Tom Clancy's novels proposed the idea of a technical challenge to the Soviet Union, where World War III could be won using only conventional weapons, without resorting to nuclear weapons. Clancy’s detailed explanation of how and why World War III could begin involves oil shortages in the Soviet Union caused by Islamic terrorism within it. "The Hunt for Red October" (1984) hypothesized that the Soviet Union’s technology would soon be better than the American’s. "Red Storm Rising" was a detailed account of the coming world war. Soon after the Cold War ended techno-thriller novels changed from stories about fighting the Soviet Union to narratives about fighting terrorists.

"When the Wind Blows", a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, was published in 1982. The novel is a bitter satire on the advice given by the British government about how to survive a nuclear war,Ousby, Ian, 1996, "Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English", ISBN 0-521-43627-3, p. 51.] where a working-class couple that do not believe that nuclear war is possible die of radiation sickness after a nuclear explosion. It reflects Briggs’ participation in the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.Silveiy, Anita, 2002, "The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators", Houghton Mifflin Books, ISBN 0-618-19082-1, p. 58.] Briggs is best known as a writer and illustrator of children’s literature, but this novel was written for an older audience and is his bleakest work. The novel’s message greatly affected young adult readers. Briggs rewrote the novel for radio, stage, and an animated film that was released in 1986.Beck, Jerry, 2005, "The Animated Movie Guide", Chicago Review Press, ISBN 1-556-52591-5, p. 309.]

1990s: fears subside

The Cold War ended without the destructive final global war that had often been envisioned in popular culture, and the public's fears of World War III were allayed. People now enjoyed movies about nuclear weapons that saved humanity, such as "Armageddon" (1998). "Blast from the Past" (1999) is a comedy about a 1960's family caught in the grip of Cold War paranoia. Falsely convinced that World War III has started, they hide in their fallout shelter, only to emerge 35 years later in the post-Cold War world. Jonathan Schell complained to the "New York Times" that "the post-cold war generation knows less about nuclear danger than any generation."

"Yellow Peril" (1991) by Wang Lixiong, is about a civil war in the People's Republic of China that becomes a nuclear exchange and soon engulfs the world. It was banned by the Chinese Communist Party but remained popular.Fact|date=August 2007

2000s: concern over terrorism

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a scenario of World War III beginning as a result of a nuclear or other catastrophic terrorist attack became prominent. Terrorism in the form of nuclear, chemical, or biological attacks now occupy the place in popular culture once held by the vision of a nuclear World War III between world powers.

Paramount Pictures released a film adaptation of Tom Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears" in 2002. The production of the film began before 9/11, and was originally intended as an escapist thriller where CIA analyst Jack Ryan fights neo-Nazis who conspire to detonate a nuclear weapon at a football game to start a nuclear war between Russia and the US. However, the film’s release just seven months after 9/11 made it very topical. Phil Alden Robinson, the film's director, commented that "a year ago, you'd have said, 'great popcorn film,'...Today you say, 'that's about the world I live in.'" There was an aggressive promotional campaign, with movie trailers and television commercials showing the nuclear destruction of a city and a special premier for politicians in Washington DC. "The Sum of All Fears" was Paramount Pictures most profitable film of 2002.

Recently, World War 3 has also become the topic of several popular video games, reflecting the trend towards increased public consciousness of the possibility of a future global war. Games such as Tom Clancy's EndWar, , and , paint scenarios about a Third World War driven by the need for resources on the part of the various combatants. While others games such as World In Conflict or take place in an alternate history where global war is a reality.

KMFDM's fifteenth album was titled WWIII, with the first song of the same name blasting President Bush's foreign policy and war on terror as the new World War.

See also

*Nuclear weapons in popular culture


External links

* [ "Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction", By Paul Brians, Professor of English, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington.]

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