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A world war is a war affecting the majority of the world's most powerful and populous nations. World wars span several continents, and last for multiple years. The term has usually been applied to two conflicts of unprecedented scale that occurred during the 20th century: World War I (1914–1918), World War II (1939–1945), although in retrospect a number of earlier conflicts may be regarded as "world wars". The other most common usage of the term is in the context of World War III , a phrase usually used to describe any hypothetical future global conflict.

Origins of the term

The term "World War" was coined speculatively in the early 20th century, some years before the first World War broke out, probably as a nearly literal translation of the German word 'Weltkrieg' German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the word in the title of his anti-British novel Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume ("The World War: German Dreams") as early as 1904, published in English as The coming conquest of England. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first known usage in the English language as being in April 1909, in the pages of the Westminster Gazette.

It was recognized that the complex system of opposing alliances — the German Empiremarker, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire vs. the French Third Republic, the Russian Empiremarker, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Irelandmarker was likely to lead to a global conflict in the event of war breaking out. The fact that the powers involved had large overseas empires virtually guaranteed that a conflict would be global, as the colonies' resources would be a crucial strategic factor. The same strategic considerations also ensured that the combatants would strike at each others' colonies, thus spreading the fighting far more widely than in the pre-colonial era.

Other languages have also adopted the "World War" terminology; for instance, in French, the two World Wars are the Guerres Mondiales; in German, the Erste und Zweite Weltkrieg (World War I was only known or commonly recognized in public as der Weltkrieg in Germany when it was over, while priorly the word was rather used in the more abstract meaning of "a global conflict"); in Russian the мировые войны (miroviye voyni); in Spanish the Guerra Mundial and so on.

The term "First World War" was used in the book The First World War: A Photographic History, edited by playwright and war veteran Laurence Stallings and published in 1933. The term "World War I" was invented by Time magazine in its issue of June 12, 1939. In that same issue, the term "World War II" was first used speculatively by Time magazine to describe the upcoming war. The first use for the actual war came in its issue of September 11, 1939.

Earlier worldwide conflicts

Other examples suitable to be classified as world wars in terms of their intercontinental and intercultural scope are the Mongol invasions leading to the Mongol Empire, which spanned Eurasia from Chinamarker, Japanmarker, and Koreamarker to Persiamarker, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, Hungarymarker and Russiamarker, and the Dutch–Portuguese War from the 1580s to the 1650s, which was fought throughout the Atlanticmarker, Brazilmarker, West Africa, Southern Africa, the Indian Oceanmarker, Malaysiamarker, Indiamarker and Indonesiamarker.Other wars in earlier periods that saw conflict across the world have been considered world wars by some:

These, however, were confined to the European powers and their colonial empires and offshoots. The Asian powers were not involved (counting in this instance the Ottoman Empire as a European power).

Prior to the late 19th century, the concept of a world war would not have had much meaning. The Asian powers of Indiamarker, Chinamarker and Japanmarker did not act outside their own territory. India was an early target of the creation of trade colonies due to its strategic importance on the maritime equivalent of the Silk Road to the East Indies and China while both China and Japan were able to remain mostly isolationist until the 19th century. The European conflicts of earlier centuries were essentially quarrels between powers which took place in fairly limited, though sometimes far-flung, theaters of conflict.

Where native inhabitants of other continents were involved, they generally participated as local auxiliaries rather than as allies of equal status, fighting in multiple theaters. For instance, in Britain's wars against France, Native American assisted both European powers on their own ground rather than being shipped to continental Europe to serve as allied troops there. By contrast, during the World Wars, millions of troops from Africa, Asia, North America and Australasia served alongside the colonial powers in Europe and other theatres of war.

Characteristics of the World Wars

The two World Wars, of the 20th century, took place on every populated continent on Earth. Many of the nations who fought in the First World War also fought in the Second, although not always on the same sides. Some historians have characterized the World Wars as a single "European civil war" spanning the period 1914–1945. However, this concept overlooks the war in the Far East caused by Japan's programme of territorial expansion, which started independently of events in Europe.

The World Wars were made possible, above all else, by a combination of fast communications (such as the telegraph and radio) and fast transportation (the steam ship and railroad). This enabled military action to be coordinated rapidly over a very wide area and permitted troops to be transported quickly in large numbers on a global scale.

Effects of the World Wars

The two World Wars of the 20th century caused unprecedented casualties and destruction across the theaters of conflict. The numbers killed in the wars are estimated at between 60 and 100 million people. Unlike in most previous conflicts, civilians suffered as badly as or worse than soldiers, and the distinction between combatants and civilians was often erased .
Affected States' World War I World War II
Deaths 20 M 60 - 100 M
Injured 20 M 35 M
Conscripts 70 M 110 M
Battlefield Size 4 M km² 22 M km²
The outcome of the World Wars had a profound effect on the course of world history. The old European empires collapsed or were dismantled as a direct result of the wars' crushing costs and in some cases the defeats of imperial powers. The modern international security, economic and diplomatic system was created in the aftermath of the wars. Institutions such as NATOmarker, the United Nations and the European Union were established to "collectivise" international affairs, with the explicit aim of preventing another outbreak of general war . The wars also greatly changed the course of daily life. Technologies developed during wartime had a profound effect on peacetime life as well—for instance, jet aircraft, penicillin, nuclear energy, and electronic computers.

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, there has been a widespread and prolonged fear of a Third World War between nuclear-armed superpowers. The fact that this has not come to pass has been attributed by many to the devastating and essentially unwinnable nature of nuclear warfare, with the end result being the extermination of human life or, at the very least, the collapse of civilization.

When asked what kind of weapons would be used to fight World War III, the physicist Albert Einstein replied (in obvious reference to the advent of nuclear weapons):

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

Subsequent world wars

Some groups define "world war" to include other far-reaching multi-national conflicts, such as the Cold War or current War on Terrorism. The Project for the New American Century holds both views, calling the Cold War "World War III" and the War on Terrorism "World War IV"; this was also agreed by Jean Baudrillard and Andrew J. Bacevich. However, these characterizations have attracted little support and have not been agreed upon by the majority of historians.

War on Terrorism as a world war

The term "World War IV" is occasionally used in the United Statesmarker political and policy debates that continue in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. As long ago as 1992, Count de Marenches, the former head of French intelligence, wrote a book alleging that a "fourth world war", of terrorism versus civilization, was taking place. As a designation for the post-9/11 war on terrorism, its use was first proposed by Eliot A. Cohen in his opinion piece written for the Wall Street Journal opinion page on November 20, 2001 titled, "World War IV: Let's call this conflict what it is." A core quotation from his thesis is

The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multimillion-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map. The analogy with the Cold War does, however, suggest some key features of that conflict: that it is, in fact, global; that it will involve a mixture of violent and nonviolent efforts; that it will require mobilization of skill, expertise and resources, if not of vast numbers of soldiers; that it may go on for a long time; and that it has ideological roots.

On November 16, 2002, James Woolsey, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, gave a speech at Restoration Weekend, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, titled "World War IV", in which he outlines the entire rationale for fighting World War IV. In the most provocative portion of his speech, he says

But, I would say this. Both to the terrorists and to the pathological predators such as Saddam Hussein and to the autocrats as well, the barbarics, the Saudi royal family. They have to realize that now for the fourth time in 100 years, we've been awakened and this country is on the march. We didn't choose this fight, but we're in it. And being on the march, there's only one way we're going to be able to win it. It's the way we won World War I fighting for Wilson's 14 points. The way we won World War II fighting for Churchill's and Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter and the way we won World War III fighting for the noble ideas I think best expressed by President Reagan, but also very importantly at the beginning by President Truman, that this was not a war of us against them. It was not a war of countries. It was a war of freedom against tyranny. We have to convince the people of the Middle East that we are on their side, as we convinced Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel and Andrei Sakharov that we were on their side.

Cohen was one of the first publicly to single out Iraqmarker as the second battlefield after Afghanistanmarker in his version of World War IV. On December 23, 2001 he then wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "War with Iraq will have its perils. Some are likely to be illusory: the Arab 'street,' for example, which never quite rises as promised. Others may be quite real, to include the use of chemical and biological weapons. Should the U.S. fail to take the challenge, sooner or later it is sure to find Iraqi terror on its doorstep. It may have already. Should the U.S. rise to the occasion, however, it may begin a transformation of the Middle East that could provide many benefits to the populations of an unfree region. That will, in the end, make us infinitely more secure at home."

Following Cohen's lead, Norman Podhoretz wrote an article for Commentary magazine titled, "How to win World War IV" (Norman Podhoretz) in February, 2002. Podhoretz was not as certain as Cohen about specific tactics: "Yet whether or not Iraq becomes the second front in the war against terrorism, one thing is certain: there can be no victory in this war if it ends with Saddam Hussein still in power." He agrees fully with Cohen's overall thesis, though: "In my opinion, by raising the possibility of a transformation of the Middle East, Cohen cuts to the heart of the matter. The real enemy in this war, Cohen argues -- as Daniel Pipes has also so persistently and authoritatively done at greater length -- is not the generalized abstraction 'terrorism,' but rather 'militant Islam.'"

A documentary film titled "World War IV: A Letter! to the President" was released in 2007 by former Governor George Bush's Governor's Circle member, Don A. Craven Jr. The film is a conservative critique of the strategic wisdom of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and suggests that the war could escalate, and historically be viewed as the opening salvo of "World War IV", rather than stabilizing the region—a principal casus belli justifying the invasion.

Another faction of conservatives, led by Newt Gingrich, do not consider the Cold War a world war, preferring to call the War on Terrorism the third world war rather than the fourth.

Competition between financial powers as a world war

Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation asserts that the Fourth World War is being conducted "between major financial centres" over the world's resources. Like Cohen, he sees the Cold War as World War III.

See also


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary entry for World War
  2. " Ten Million Dead", Time, July 31, 1933.
  3. "In World War I, for example, command of the air changed hands several times, and the command changed not only when numbers varied but when one side introduced a superior new plane which could outfight the opposing machines." " War Machines", Time, June 12, 1939.
  4. "In World War II it is possible that even nations who do not take sides may play a vital military part, for they may be invaded." " War Machines", Time, June 12, 1939.
  5. "World War II began last week at 5:20 a. m. (Polish time) Friday, September 1, when a German bombing plane dropped a projectile on Puck, fishing village and air base in the armpit of the Hel Peninsula." " World War: Grey Friday", Time, September 11, 1939.
  6. "War of the Spanish Succession"., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  7. "War of the Spanish Succession"., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  8. Fred Anderson. "Crucible of War": The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 ., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  9. "Introduction: The Seven Years' War"., Accessed 2009-08-05.
  10. ISBN 978-0688092184
  11. R. James Woolsey. "World War IV"., 2002-11-22. Accessed 2008-05-01.
  12. Eliot A. Cohen. "Iraq Can't Resist Us"., December 23, 2001. Accessed May 1, 2008.
  13. “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win” by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary magazine, September 2004
  14. "World War IV: A Letter to the President"(movie)
  15. The fourth world war has begun, Le Monde diplomatique, september 1997

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