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Has World War III Begun?

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Newt Gingrich believes the Israel-Hezbollah conflict is the opening salvo of World War III. Other intellectuals on the right say the World War began on September 11th. But what do historians think?

DON GONYEA, host:

Fighting in Israel and Lebanon, the mounting death toll in Iraq, North Korean missiles flying over Japan, Iran creeping closer to the nuclear club, bombs in Bombay - are we in the midst of the next world war? That's what some prominent people are saying.

NPR's Guy Raz spoke to politicians and historians about the state of world affairs.

GUY RAZ reporting:

Winston Churchill was shouting from the rooftops in the 1930s. War was coming, Germany was rearming, the Japanese were eyeing China, and the Italians had designs on Abyssinia. But few heeded Churchill's call, and today, Newt Gingrich sees history repeating itself.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): I'm describing this the way Churchill would have described it between 1935 and 1939.

RAZ: To be precise, Churchill was warning of an impending war. In this case, Newt Gingrich is saying it's already started and announced it to the world on Meet the Press a few weeks ago.

Mr. GINGRICH: We're in the early stages of what I would describe as the Third World War. And frankly, our bureaucracies aren't responding fast enough, and we don't have the right attitude about this.

RAZ: Gingrich isn't alone in his sentiment. There's Bill Bennett...

Mr. BILL BENNETT: Because I think we're in World World III now.

RAZ: And the king of cable news, Bill O'Reilly.

Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Newscaster): The whole thing is part of World War III, ladies and gentlemen - Islamic fascism against the West.

RAZ: But there's a problem with this analysis, says conservative intellectual Norman Podhoretz.

Mr. NORMAN PODHORETZ (Conservative Intellectual): However inconvenient it may be and difficult to explain, I still think that the truth is that it's World War IV.

RAZ: You'll be forgiven for wondering whether you missed a war in between numbers II and IV. Podhoretz explains that World War III was actually the Cold War. It lasted 42 years. Many prominent conservatives like Elliot Cohen believe World War IV - like III - is a war against an ideology.

Mr. ELLIOT COHEN (Prominent Conservative): It's quite unlike any other war that we've fought. And that's why one does have to be careful about the World War metaphor, because it conjures up a world of nation-states.

RAZ: And the fighting is being carried out in many conflicts around the world by non-state actors. So how do we know if it's World War III, or even IV? How did people know it was World War II when it was World War II?

Sir JOHN KEEGAN (Military Historian): I don't think they called it World War II until it was nearly over.

RAZ: That's the eminent military historian, Sir John Keegan. While references were being made to a world war, it was only in September 1945 when President Truman officially designated the war World War II. By then, it was over.

So couldn't one make the argument that we may be in the midst of World War III, but we just don't know yet?

Mr. KEEGAN: No, no, no, no, no. Believe me, we do not have a world war on our hands at the moment, because if we did, we would know all about it. You and I would probably not be speaking to each other on the telephone. The telephone networks would have been destroyed. You might not be alive. You might have been killed in a missile strike. I might have been killed in a missile strike.

American cities would be going up in flames. There would be vast nuclear strikes. There would be loss of shipping in the oceans...

RAZ: And that could be strangely reassuring. And one more thing: in 1950, Gallup conducted a nationwide poll during the Korean War. As it turned out, 57 percent of Americans at the time believed that the country had entered World War III.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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