The Four Horsemen: the Nuclear Apocalypse of 1962
Fortunately for a generation of post-war historians seeking to explain how World War III came about, there is a fairly abundant amount of sources available. This may seem surprising given the enormous amount of devastation inflicted by the thousands of nuclear strikes. Certainly, at the time it seemed like the end of the world and there was a massive religious revival all over the world as this seemed to be the apocalypse, with the four horsemen as harbingers of last judgement: conquest, war, famine and death. Indeed, radioactivity caused famine as tonnes of now irradiated harvests and foodstuffs had to be thrown away while irradiated rivers could no longer be used for irrigation, making some of the most important of the world’s food producing regions useless in the short term. The hunger led to outbreaks of diseases once thought of as eradicated thanks to modern medicine. In addition to this, soot ejected into the atmosphere would lead to a global cooling even worse than the 1815 Tambora eruption.
The reason for all of this information for historians is that the world didn’t end: though heavily damaged, the United States survived as a country and so did Great Britain, despite being in even worse shape. Several European countries were neutral – Austria, Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia – and saw no physical damage, though they faced food shortages and a refugee crisis. Except for Cuba and Panama, Latin America also didn’t participate in the conflict and neither did Africa and Asia, though they too didn’t escape the effects of nuclear winter and enormous masses of refugees. All of these countries have partially or completely intact historical records. Though the Soviet Union was virtually destroyed, some Soviet and Eastern Bloc survivors have also contributed to the historiography of World War III in recent years.
In collective memory WW III has since come to overshadow the preceding two World Wars. Given the horrors of the First but especially the Second World War plus the interbellum years – including the battles of Verdun and Stalingrad, chemical weapons in WW I, the Gulag, the Holodomor, the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – this is perhaps unfair. WW I and WW II combined caused 80 million deaths. It’s understandable, however, given that the number of casualties of WW I and WW II combined amounted to less than one sixth of the number of WW III. To remedy this, some historians have chosen to treat the entire 1914-1962 timeframe as one long war with some breaks in between, as a twentieth century analogue to the Thirty Years’ War. In this view WW I destroyed the old monarchical order and replaced it with a three-way conflict between democracy, fascism and communism, reduced to democracy vs. communism when fascism was eliminated in 1945. In this view the struggle for dominance by democracy over totalitarian ideologies was completed in 1962.
Hotly disputed is the question of whether or not a conflict between the two victors of WW II was inevitable, particularly because of the blame game: if the conflict was inevitable then the West had done nothing wrong, but if not then the conflict could be the result of a misunderstanding in which the West had a part as well, making the half billion casualties in one week of the Third World War avoidable.