Stephen Wertheim

World War III Begins With Forgetting

In March, as President Biden was facing pressure to intensify US involvement in Ukraine, he responded by invoking the specter of World War III four times in one day.

“Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III,” he said, “something we must strive to prevent.” He underscored the point hours later: “The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — just understand, and don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say, that’s called World War III, OK?”

More than any other presidential statement since Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Biden’s warning signaled the start of a new era in American foreign policy. Throughout my adult life and that of most Americans today, the United States bestrode the world, essentially unchallenged and unchecked. A few years ago, it was still possible to expect a benign geopolitical future. Although “great power competition” became the watchword of Pentagonese, the phrase could as easily imply sporting rivalry as explosive conflict. Washington, Moscow and Beijing would stiffly compete but could surely coexist.

How quaint. The United States now faces the real and regular prospect of fighting adversaries strong enough to do Americans immense harm. The post-Sept. 11 forever wars have been costly, but a true great power war — the kind that used to afflict Europe — would be something else, pitting the United States against Russia or even China, whose economic strength rivals America’s and whose military could soon as well.

This grim reality has arrived with startling rapidity. Since February, the war in Ukraine has created an acute risk of US-Russia conflict. It has also vaulted a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to the forefront of American fears and increased Washington’s willingness to respond with military force. “That’s called World War III,” indeed.

Yet how many Americans can truly envision what a third world war would mean? Just as great power conflict looms again, those who witnessed the last one are disappearing. Around 1 percent of US veterans of World War II remain alive to tell their stories. It is estimated that by the end of this decade, fewer than 10,000 will be left. The vast majority of Americans today are unused to enduring hardship for foreign policy choices, let alone the loss of life and wealth that direct conflict with China or Russia would bring.

Preparing the country shouldn’t begin with tanks, planes and ships. It will require a national effort of historical recovery and imagination — first and foremost to enable the American people to consider whether they wish to enter a major war if the moment of decision arrives.

Navigating great power conflict is hardly a novel challenge for the United States. By 1945, Americans had lived through two world wars. The country emerged triumphant yet sobered by its wounds. Even as the wars propelled the United States to world leadership, American leaders and citizens feared that a third world war might be as probable as it today appears unthinkable. Perhaps that is one reason a catastrophe was avoided.

For four decades, America’s postwar presidents appreciated that the next hot war would likely be worse than the last. In the nuclear age, “we will be a battlefront,” Truman said. “We can look forward to destruction here, just as the other countries in the Second World War.” This insight didn’t keep him or his successors from meddling in third world countries, from Guatemala to Indonesia, where the Cold War was brutal. But US leaders, regardless of party, recognized that if the United States and the Soviet Union squared off directly, nuclear weapons would lay waste to the American mainland.

Nuclear terror became part of American life, thanks to a purposeful effort by the government to prepare the country for the worst. The Federal Civil Defense Administration advised citizens to build bomb shelters in their backyards and keep clean homes so there would be less clutter to ignite in a nuclear blast. The film “Duck and Cover,” released in 1951, encouraged schoolchildren to act like animated turtles and hide under a makeshift shell — “a table or desk or anything else close by” — if nukes hit. By the 1960s, yellow-and-black signs for fallout shelters dotted American cities.

The specter of full-scale war kept the Cold War superpowers in check. In 1950, Truman sent US troops to defend South Korea against invasion by the Communist North, but his resolve had limits. After Gen. Douglas MacArthur implored Truman to blast China and North Korea with 34 nuclear bombs, the president fired the general. Evoking the “disaster of World War II,” he told the nation: “We will not take any action which might place upon us the responsibility of initiating a general war — a third world war.”

The extreme violence of the world wars and the anticipation of a sequel also shaped President John F. Kennedy’s decisions during the Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet Union moved to place nuclear weapons 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy, who had served in the Pacific and rescued a fellow sailor after their ship went down, grew frustrated with his military advisers for recommending preventative strikes on Soviet missile sites. Instead of opening fire, he imposed a naval blockade around Cuba and demanded that the Soviets withdraw their missiles. A one-week superpower standoff ensued. Approximately 10 million Americans fled their homes. Crowds descended on civil defense offices to find out how to survive a nuclear blast. The Soviets backed down after Kennedy secretly promised to remove US Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The world had come so close to nuclear Armageddon that Kennedy, citing the danger of a third and total war, took the first steps toward détente before his death in 1963.

But memory is never static. After the Soviet Union collapsed and generations turned over, World War II was recast as a moral triumph and no longer a cautionary tale.

As international relations have deteriorated in recent years, critics of US global primacy have frequently warned that a new cold war was brewing. I have been among them. Yet pointing to a cold war in some ways understates the danger. Relations with Russia and China are not assured to stay cold. During the original Cold War, American leaders and citizens knew that survival was not inevitable.

The New York Times