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World War III was a 21st century global conflict on Earth, waged in part with nuclear weapons, in which an estimated 600 million perished. (TNG episode: "Encounter at Farpoint"; TNG movie: Star Trek: First Contact; VOY episode: "In the Flesh")
- The novel Dark Mirror comments that 40 million lives were lost in the Third World War, which contradicts "Encounter at Farpoint."
The possibility of a third global war following the first and second was feared for decades, particularly during the Cold War, when geopolitical tensions between Earth's nuclear-armed nation-states were at their height. Part of the mission of Aegis agent Gary Seven was to prevent these tensions from erupting into full-scale warfare. (TOS episode: "Assignment: Earth"; TOS - Assignment: Earth comic: "Too Many Presidents")
Historians traced the earliest phases of the war as far back as 2026, with factions of eco-terrorists launching attacks responsible for as many as 37 million deaths. In addition, it is possible that a further root cause of World War III lay in the political destabilization of several European nations, including France, which was torn between the Trotskyists and the Neo-Gaullists, circa 2024 (ENT episode: "In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II"; DS9 episode: "Past Tense, Part I").
At the time of the final conflagration in the 2050s, one side was composed of the New United Nations, including the United States and the European Union; the other side was an alliance known as the Eastern Coalition. The war's origins went back decades, but by the year 2051, Lee Kuan had emerged as a general in the military hierarchy of the Eastern Coalition, helping to overthrow the emerging democratic movement within the government of that political bloc. This ultimately helped to cement the ECON's hardline opposition-stance to the United States's policies, bringing it into direct military conflict within two more years.
The final catalyst-events for World War III were a series confrontations between the New United Nations and the ECON over oil fields located in Antarctica and Taklamakan, a few months before the first major nuclear salvos are launched. Rioting breaks out in several major American cities during the days immediately leading up to the war, with fires and looting occurring prior to the nuclear strikes as people attempted to flee the impending target zones with their lives.
At precisely 0230.26 hours Eastern Standard Time, on 1 May 2053 (an event later known as the "May Day Horror of '53"), the Eastern Coalition launched a first strike comprised of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bomber attacks, and portable nuclear weapons, against major North American and European cities, combined with a simultaneous Interface viral assault against the New United Nations computer infrastructure. Much to surprise of the ECON political leadership, the New United Nations immediately retaliated with nuclear launches of their own, as well as bomber and satellite-based attacks against targets in the Middle East and Asia. Many Pacific nations side with the Eastern Coalition against the United States when fighting finally breaks out. Other political groupings, such as the Muslim Bloc, are likewise hit extremely hard during the nuclear exchanges, despite being non-aligned with either side during the war.
The detonation of nuclear weapons over cities (in the multiple-megaton range) such as London, Moscow, Berlin, New York City, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Toronto, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Mecca, Riyadh, Samarkand, Karachi, Singapore, and New Delhi killed nearly half a billion people instantly. Smaller detonations occurred over Hong Kong, Beijing, and Ho Chi Minh City. Undetonated or failed nuclear devices were discovered in or around targets such as Washington D.C., Denver, Paris, Madrid, Rome, and Istanbul. Of the hundreds of ICBMs and bombers launched by the United States and allied forces, only one in five makes it into the air, due to EMP weapons and viral attacks against the military computer networks — of these, only a fraction detonate properly.
Conventional military forces on both sides were quickly moved into offensive position against their respective foes — on 3 May 2053, the First, Eighth, and Sixteenth Fleets under New United Nations command carry front-line troops into the Bay of Bengal, and the ECON launches a massive invasion of the North American continent, sending troops and military aircraft southward through Canada. Targets in New England (including Massachusetts), Minnesota, the Rocky Mountains, and the Midwest are hit hard by ECON forces, the U.S. military's defenses along the Canadian border failing utterly. The United States Air Force and United States Army both fight back against the invaders, but lose many fighters and ground soldiers to the enemy.
Certain military units are abandoned in enemy territory during the war, including a New United Nations brigade under the command of Colonel Green in Kashmiristan in late May. Finally, the Eastern Coalition's governing palace is destroyed by American forces, killing ECON founder Lee Kuan.
The post-atomic horror that followed severely destabilized global civilization; terrorist organizations and rogue states often detonated small-scale "suitcase nukes," while toxins and biogenic weapons were released. Drug-addled soldiers were often sacrificed in conventional battles on the ground after much of the planetary computer systems failed; numerous small-scale conflicts created chaos throughout the globe as warlords fought over the scraps of civilization. As a result of the ICBM detonations, an enormous dust cloud envelops the Earth, resulting in several nuclear winters.
Sovereign nations, including the United States, essentially cease to exist following the war, the country falling into barbarism, carved up into fiefdoms controlled by competing warlords (including Colonel Green's despotic reign over the Pacific Northwest). Without federal resources to fall back upon, most local governments are unable to feed their own people; chaos and anarchy would reign for generations afterward, well into the 22nd century. The last President of the United States, President Mendoza, survives the initial days of the war, but finds herself in command of very little afterwards, due to the mass destruction (TNG episodes: "Up the Long Ladder", "A Matter of Time"; TLE novel: The Sundered; TOS novel: Dreadnought!; ST short story: "Mestral"; ST short story: "The Immortality Blues"; ST reference: Federation: The First 150 Years).
The Siege of Las Vegas was a significant battle in the war, with American forces battling ECON troops for control of the city. The forces of the Eastern Coalition would eventually prove victorious, defeating the U.S. troops there. (DS9 - The Lives of Dax short story: "Second Star to the Right...")
In the initial nuclear exchange of World War III, Washington D.C. was completely destroyed, along with three surrounding U.S. states. Some major cities, such as Montreal, were actually spared from nuclear hits during the first rounds of ICBM exchanges. (TNG novelization: Star Trek: First Contact, TOS novel: Spectre)
During fighting in Paris during the war, the Eiffel Tower was destroyed. Additional combat took place in San Francisco, resulting in the destruction of the Coit Tower, among many other structures. (DS9 novel: Trapped in Time, TNG novel: A Time for War, A Time for Peace)
In 2054, one year following the outbreak of hostilities, Colonel Green surprises the surviving United States government by turning up in Alaska at the head of a massive army comprised of both New U.N. and ECON soldiers. President Mendoza orders Green to stand down, but is refused; Green slaughters his way across the continent, culling the "weak" and "impure" and those afflicted with radiation-sickness from humanity's gene pool, killing millions, until finally meeting his demise in Montana from an orbital strike launched by Flint the Immortal (ENT episodes: "Demons", "Terra Prime"; ST short story: "The Immortality Blues").
Humanity eventually turned over a new leaf when a few courageous people began to realize that they could make a difference. Early in the war, weather-control satellites developed by Flint the Immortal begin modifying the planet Earth's ozone layer in an attempt to regenerate it, along with raising the planetary temperature enough to mitigate the effects of the harsh nuclear winter. This proves successful, ultimately reducing the number of potential casualties from the war.
Adrenaline regimens are discovered to be useful in treating radiation sickness after the war; this will later be supplanted by the even more effective Hyronalin therapies in later decades, after the end of the Atomic Age. The philosophy of Neo-Transcendentalism will be founded by Liam Dieghan in response to the war's horrors, seeking to redress the pains of World War III by "returning [humanity] to a simpler life." (ENT episode: "Judgment"; TOS episode: "The Deadly Years"; TNG episode: "Up the Long Ladder"; ST short story: "The Immortality Blues")
Despite the end of actual hostilities, the after-effects of the war—refered to as "the post-atomic horror"—lingered for decades to follow. Rule of law broke down in many places, and legal systems were abolished, with the suggestion to "kill all the lawyers" from Henry VI being taken literally in some places. Asia was particularly devastated. (TNG episode: "Encounter at Farpoint")
Much of the United States economy was ruined, with the population reduced to standards of living less than that of the victims of the Great Depression a hundred and twenty years earlier. So great were the horrors that human genius Zefram Cochrane had himself implanted with a pain-inhibiting chip in order to cope with the world around him. Nonetheless, his Project Phoenix was able to secure backing, and led to first contact only ten years later. (TNG novelization: First Contact)
In later years, a monument honoring the hundreds of millions dead during the war was erected in San Francisco, on the former site of the Coit Tower. The monument continues to stand into the late 24th Century. (TNG novel: A Time for War, A Time for Peace)