The question of how many World Wars have taken place in history has come up in response to President Donald Trump’s comment about his former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and a comment made about World War 6.
….many more mistakes of judgement, gets fired because frankly, if I listened to him, we would be in World War Six by now, and goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book. All Classified National Security. Who would do this?
Popular historical memory recognizes only two named World Wars. The Great War was later re-named as The World War, and then later re-named again with a number when the Second World War broke out. World War One raged from 1914 to 1918, and pitted an alliance of nations (Primarily France, Britain, Russia, and later on, Italy and the United States) against another coalition of European states (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire). Combat took place in many parts of Europe, as well in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. Naval combat took place throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
World War Two is generally recognized as running from 1939 to 1945 (some historians put the start date at 1937, with the start of Japan’s war in China), and featured alliances similar to World War One, with Germany, Italy, Japan, and a few smaller states fighting against almost every other European nation, plus the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, China, and most of the rest of the world, to one degree or another. Combat took place in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, South-East Asia, East Asia, many Pacific Islands, and naval combat throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and also in the Indian Ocean.
So, two conflicts called World Wars. But have there been other large, multi-continent conflicts that should also be considered “world wars?"
Let’s look at a few candidates for world war status.
World War 6?
From 1754-1763, a large-scale war took place called, in Europe, the Seven Years’ War, and in America, referred to as the French and Indian War. This conflict pitted two coalitions of European states against each other (Britain, Prussia, Portugal, and several smaller German states, plus Britain and Portugal’s colonial empires vs. France, Austria, Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Sweden, and the French and Spanish colonial empires) plus several states in India.
Combat took place in North and South America (where the British/French part of the war actually started first), the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and India. Naval combat took place throughout the world. In terms of consequences, this war was significant in that it stripped France of much of her American colonies, and in many ways set up the events that led to the American Revolution, which began a few years after this war ended.
Can the Seven Years’ War be considered a World War? Yes.
Another war, or set of very related conflicts that can be considered as a World War, is the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The first of these conflicts began in 1792 and the last of them concluded in 1815. Alliances shifted several times, but the main antagonists were Britain vs. France. Prussia, Spain, Austria, Russia, Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, and others were also part of these wars. As with other world conflicts, every inhabited continent saw combat, including North America, as the United States was drawn into war first with France (the Quasi-Naval War) and later with Britain (the War of 1812), which, while the U.S. was NOT an ally of France or Britain, many of the causes of these Franco-American and Anglo-American wars came about because of the British-French Conflicts related to the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon.
The consequences of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars are many, and the death toll world-wide was also large. World War? Yes.
While many do not consider these two big wars of the 18th Century as world wars, the label of World War Three has at times been applied to the Cold War. This conflict was a series of crises, wars, insurrections, nuclear brinksmanship and proxy wars between an alliance of mostly democratic Western nations and their allies, led by the United States, against the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and their allied (or satellite) communist and associated states and groups. The Cold War touched every continent, and, in some manner, nearly every nation on Earth. When counting the many actual, hot wars that took place because of, and as a part of, the Cold War, such as the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and many others, the death toll for the Cold War is easily in the millions. No less than the course of human history was on the line, and in many ways, the Cold War set the stage for today’s continued Russian expansionism, and the now decades-long War on Terror. Should the Cold War be considered a “World War?" Yes.
Some would say that the War on Terror is a world war, and it does have the hallmarks of one (spanning the world, many participants, shifting alliances, etc.), but the death toll is no where near the level of the other “world wars" of the last 100+ years, nor, comparatively, with the two 18th Century conflicts (yet).
To summarize, we have identified five world-spanning conflicts that deservedly can be referred to as “World Wars."
The Seven Years’ War
The French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars
World War One (AKA the Great War)
World War Two
The Cold War
Whether President Trump, in his insulting tweet about John Bolton, was historically aware enough to have thought of this list of five prior “world wars," or just tweeted out a typo, or there is some other explanation for his comment, we may never know. Regardless of what he really meant, he was pretty close to the historical truth, this time.