By Colin Salt
World War III fiction in written form (and sometimes in wargames too) tends to cluster into two sizable segments. The first period is the classic 1980-1991 phase of the dominant technothriller. The second is the “Operation Unthinkable” period in books like Robert Conroy’s 1945: Red Inferno that roughly starts in 1945/6 as World War II closed and the superpower relations worsened and roughly ends around 1953, where the Korean War armistice was signed. An underused period is everything in between.
The two most likely reasons for the disparity are the probability of nuclear escalation and the conventional force balance. However, those are the most handwaved anyway in writing, and justifiably so. Another one I feel is familiarity. In short, in the 1960s-70s, why invent a World War III to have T-55s and T-62s against Centurions and M60s when you can just write/wargame the Arab-Israeli Wars?
A look at each time period and my thoughts on them seems proper.
For this time period, with a few exceptions, there’s going to be just World War II equipment. This I feel explains much of the appeal. It’s dipping into the gigantic pool of World War II fiction/gaming and giving the chance for a Soviets/Western Allies battle.
This is also the period where the least handwaving to accommodate nuclear weapons has to be done. The Soviets did not detonate their first nuclear bomb until 1949, and a slapdash structure negated most of the western powers’ theoretical advantage.
The early 1950s are dominated by the Korean War, showing what’s brought to the table. World War II and early postwar equipment, particularly jet fighters. The later 1950s are in my opinion, the most underrated and underused period for a World War III. There is just such a mixture of World War II surplus, the first glimpses of the later Cold War mainstays, and flash-in-the-pan decade oddballs like the last heavy tanks.
Of course, the later the decade goes on, the more advanced the nuclear weapons get. This is the period of the greatest Western superiority in atomic weapons, and where the infamous Strategic Air Command finally comes of age.
The nuclear elephant in the room needs to be mentioned for the early 1960s, because it is the period where both superpowers were at their most monomaniacal concerning them. For the Americans, it was the ill-fated “Pentomic Divisions” only suited for surviving nuclear blasts. For the Soviets, it was a matter of tripling down on tanks. The later 1960s are of course occupied by Vietnam and the Six Day War, and by the “Flexible response”.
To me at least, forcing these nuke-crazy formations to fight a conventional war holds a lot of twisted promise. After all, it would be neither the first nor last time an army had to fight with a “system” it was unsuited for.
This decade has the bane of mostly familiar equipment employed in the familiar later Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, with the shinier stuff like the F-15 fighter mostly just barely starting to spool up later in the decade. This is itself the product of timing and interesting divergences such as the MBT-70 tank project sputtering out.
Soviet primary sources from this time period start talking about conventional operations in more detail-still (very reasonably) expecting a European WWIII to end in nuclear blasts but not necessarily to start with them. This began the paradigm of what Sovietologist David Glantz would call “nuclear-scared”, where one had to take the possibility of both conventional and nuclear weapons into account.
This is it. The primary location of conventional WWIIIs. The time period where the tanks boom and the Northern Fleet lands on Iceland.
It’s kind of a chicken and egg question to ask how much of the enduring popularity of this comes from the technothrillers of the period and how much is the same conditions that led to the popularity of those books. If I had to give an answer, I’d say the latter is responsible for causing the 1980s-centric (particularly 1985-centric) boom, and the former responsible for sustaining it.
The period after the historical fall of the USSR is an example of both literary ‘adaptation’ and alternate history spectacle. In most literary endeavors, one can see a parade of ‘crisis overloads’ as different powers team up to allow for a truly worldwide World War III, along with other technothriller contrivances like super-gadgets.
But the continued existence of a USSR has also been fodder for alternate historians and speculators. OPFOR training manuals of the 1990s depicted Soviet-style formations at their most ideal, powerful, and sometimes reformed. The timeline/book Zhrinovsky’s Russian Empire shows the opposite, with the “Union of Independent States” resorting to a “billion Kalashnikovs and one nuke” strategy of deterrence and unconventional destabilization. The extent to which one allows the many developed weapons and force structure changes on the drawing board in the late 1980s and early 1990s to take effect makes for a huge variety of choices in alternate history, one where different writers have gone different lengths.