World War III


noun

a hypothetical world war of the future, often conceived as a nuclear war resulting in the total destruction of the human race.

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“I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right. I do believe that right makes might and that if I am wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”
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ABOUT THIS WORD

What is World War III?

World War III or World War Three (WW3) is a hypothetical, catastrophic global conflict.

Where did the term World War III come from?

Before the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, journalists and politicians discussed a second global war as World War II after the Great War, retroactively named World War I (1914–18). The term World War II (1939–1945) was mentioned in a speculative article as early as 1919 in the UK’s Manchester Guardian. President Franklin Roosevelt formally called the Nazi assault on Europe World War II in 1941, helping to cement the term.

Considerations of a possible World War III, often shortened to WW3 in the 1990s–2000s, emerged before the U.S. even entered World War II. Time magazine used the term World War III in 1941 before Pearl Harbor was bombed. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill started actively planning for World War III while World War II was still ongoing. They feared that World War II would end without an utter defeat of Germany.

Use of WW3 ramped up after World War II when the Cold War (1947–1991) between the U.S. and Soviet Union threatened nuclear annihilation, often referred to as World War III.

Since then, many have imagined a WW3 to invoke possible global conflicts on the scale of the first and second World Wars. In geopolitics, the term has been especially used in reference to a conflict with Iran and North Korea amid their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Showdowns between the US.. and China, the world’s leading superpowers, have also been cast as WW3 in the 2000s.

How to use the term World War III

WW3 is often imagined as the world being on the brink of nuclear annihilation, wiping out humanity once and for all. Some experts, however, have argued that the Cold War or War on Terror already constituted a WW3.

In contemporary political commentary, many cite WW3 to criticize a politician’s foreign policy, a common example in the late 2010s including “President Trump’s tweets will start WW3.”

In colloquial speech and writing, WW3 is often humorously used as hyperbolic reaction to a small annoyance (e.g., If he breaks my pencil one more time, I’m gonna start WW3.).

In popular media, WW3 is often used for dramatic effect, providing plots, backdrops, or various tropes in action movies and political thrillers. The 2011 film X-Men: First Class, for instance, features a villain engineering the Cuban Missile Crisis in hopes of inciting WW3. Other works of fiction imagine future World Wars (e.g., World War 7).

More examples of World War III:

“The title, World War III, refers to a three year “limited war” conflict Friedman predicts to occur around 2050 following a technological arms-race involving militarized space programs between the United States, Japan, and Turkey.”
—Bob Chipman, Screen Rant, February 2016

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.