Opinion | Can America Really Envision World War III?

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By Stephen Wertheim

Mr. Wertheim is a scholar and writer on U.S. foreign policy.

In March, as President Biden was facing pressure to intensify U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

In the 1990s, an outpouring of film, history and literature celebrated the “greatest generation,” as journalist Tom Brokaw anointed those who won the war for America. Under their watch, the United States had saved the world and stopped the Holocaust — which retrospectively vaulted to the center of the war’s purpose, even though stopping the mass murder of European Jews was not why the United States had entered. A new generation, personally untouched by great power war, reshaped the past, revering their elders but simplifying the often varied and painful experiences of veterans.

In this context, the double lesson of the world wars — calling America to lead the world but cautioning it not to overreach — narrowed to a single-minded exhortation to sustain and even expand American power. Presidents began to invoke World War II to glorify the struggle and justify American global dominance. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1991, George H.W. Bush told the country that “isolationism flew escort for the very bombers that attacked our men 50 years ago.” Commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, Bill Clinton recalled how the Allied troops gathered “like the stars of a majestic galaxy” and “unleashed their democratic fury,” fighting a battle that continued.

In 2004 the imposing World War II Memorial, one decade and $197 million in the making, went up between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. George W. Bush, a year into invading Iraq, gave the dedication: “The scenes of the concentration camps, the heaps of bodies and ghostly survivors, confirmed forever America’s calling to oppose the ideologies of death.” Preventing a repeat of World War II no longer involved exercising caution; it meant toppling tyrants.

Besides, why dwell on the horrors of global conflict at a time when no such thing even seemed possible? With post-Soviet Russia reeling and China poor, there were no more great powers for the United States to fight. Scholars discussed the obsolescence of major war.

It wasn’t just major war that seemed passé. So did the need to pay any significant costs for foreign policy choices. Since the Vietnam War roiled American society, leaders moved to insulate the American public from the harms of any conflict, large or small: The creation of an all-volunteer force did away with the draft; air power bombed targets from safe heights; the advent of drones allowed killing by remote control.

The deaths of more than 7,000 service members in the post-Sept. 11 wars — and approximately four times as many by suicide — devastated families and communities but were not enough to produce a Vietnam-style backlash. Likewise, although the wars have cost a whopping $8 trillion and counting, the payments have been spread over decades and passed to the future.

Not having to worry about the effects of wars — unless you enlist to fight in them — has nearly become a birthright of being American.

That birthright has come to an end. The United States is entering an era of intense great power rivalry that could escalate to large-scale conventional or nuclear war. It’s time to think through the consequences.

The “acute threat,” as the new National Security Strategy states, comes from Moscow. President Vladimir Putin controls thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy civilization many times over. Since invading Ukraine, he has threatened to use them.

Mr. Putin could plausibly act on that threat under several scenarios: if U.S. or NATO forces directly enter the conflict, if he believes his rule is threatened or if Ukrainian forces verge on retaking Crimea. No one knows precisely what might prompt the Kremlin to employ a nuclear weapon, but Mr. Biden recently said that the risk of Armageddon was the highest it has been since the Cuban missile crisis.

Mr. Biden has ruled out using force to defend Ukraine. His administration is pursuing a finely tailored objective: It seeks to strengthen Ukraine’s position on the battlefield in order to strengthen its hand in peace negotiations. That goal does not commit the United States to ensurie a complete Ukrainian victory. Yet the Ukrainian Army’s recent successes have prompted American commentators to redouble their backing for Kyiv and further marginalize talk of diplomacy (not that Mr. Putin has shown any readiness to stop the killing).

If the possibility of war with Russia was not enough, U.S. relations with China are in free fall, setting up the world’s two leading powers to square off for decades to come.

Despite Mr. Biden’s caution toward Russia, he is contributing to the rising chances of conflict with China. In a series of interviews, he asserted that the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan (in fact, it is obligated only to help arm the island) and vowed to send U.S. troops in the event of a Chinese invasion. These repeated gaffes are likely intended to deter Beijing in light of its many recent military maneuvers around the island. But especially in tandem with high-level congressional visits to Taipei, they risk implying that the United States wishes to keep Taiwan permanently separated from the mainland — a position it is hard to imagine Beijing will ever accept.

Equally important, Mr. Biden seems to be saying that defending Taiwan would be worth the price of war with China. But what would such a war entail?

A series of recent war games held by think tanks help us to imagine what it would look like: First, a war will likely last a long time and take many lives. Early on, China would have incentives to mount a massive attack with its now highly developed long-range strike capability to disable U.S. forces stationed in the Pacific. Air Force Gen. Mark D. Kelly said that China’s forces are “designed to inflict more casualties in the first 30 hours of combat than we’ve endured over the last 30 years in the Middle East.”

In most rounds of a war game recently conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United States swiftly lost two aircraft carriers, each carrying at least 5,000 people, on top of hundreds of aircraft, according to reports. One participant noted that although each simulation varied, “what almost never changes is it’s a bloody mess and both sides take some terrible losses.” At some stage, those Selective Service registrations required of young American men might need to be expanded and converted into a draft.

Second, each side would be tempted to escalate. This summer, the Center for a New American Security held a war game that ended with China detonating a nuclear weapon near Hawaii. “Before they knew it,” both Washington and Beijing “had crossed key red lines, but neither was willing to back down,” the conveners concluded. Especially in a prolonged war, China could mount cyberattacks to disrupt critical American infrastructure. It might shut off the power in a major city, obstruct emergency services or bring down communications systems. A new current of fear and suspicion would course through American society, joining up with the nativism that has reverberated through national politics since Sept. 11.

The economic consequences would be equally severe. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which produces most of the world’s advanced semiconductors, would profoundly damage the U.S. and global economy regardless of Washington’s response. (To this end, the United States has been trying to move more semiconductor manufacturing home.) But a U.S.-China war would risk catastrophic losses. Researchers at RAND estimate that a yearlong conflict would slash America’s gross domestic product by 5 to 10 percent. By contrast, the U.S. economy contracted 2.6 percent in 2009, the worst year of the Great Recession. The gas-price surge early in the Ukraine war provides only the slightest preview of what a US.-China war would generate. For the roughly three-fifths of Americans who currently live paycheck to paycheck, the war would come home in millions of lost jobs, wrecked retirements, high prices and shortages.

In short, a war with Russia or China would likely injure the United States on a scale without precedent in the living memory of most citizens. That, in turn, introduces profound uncertainty about how the American political system would perform. Getting in would be the easy part. More elusive is whether the public and its representatives would maintain the will to fight over far-flung territories in the face of sustained physical attack and economic calamity. When millions are thrown out of work, will they find Taiwan’s cause worth their sacrifice? Could national leaders compellingly explain why the United States was paying the grievous price of World War III?

These questions will be asked during a conflict, so they ought to be asked in advance. Even those who think the United States should fight for Ukraine or Taiwan have an interest in educating the public about the stakes of great power conflict in the nuclear and cyber age.

The last nuclear-related sign I saw, a few weeks ago, proudly declared a small liberal suburb of Washington, D.C., to be a “nuclear-free zone.” “Duck and Cover” deserves a 21st-century remake — something a bit more memorable than the Department of Homeland Security’s “Nuclear Explosion” fact sheet, which nonetheless contains sound advice. (For example, after the shock wave passes, you have 10 minutes or more to find shelter before the radioactive fallout arrives.) For every moral condemnation of adversaries’ actions, Americans should hear candid assessments of the costs of trying to stop them. A war game broadcast on “Meet the Press” in May offered one model. Even better to follow it with a peace game, showing how to avoid devastation in the first place. Without raising public awareness, political leaders risk bringing about the worst-case outcome — of waging World War III and losing it when the country recoils.

As international relations have deteriorated in recent years, critics of U.S. 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. World-rending violence remained an all-too-possible destination of the superpower contest, right up to its astonishing end in 1989.

Today the United States is again assuming the primary burden of countering the ambitions of governments in Moscow and Beijing. When it did so the first time, it lived in the shadow of world war and acted out of a frank and healthy fear of another. This time, lessons will have to be learned without that experience.

Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and Catholic University. He is the author of “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.”

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