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The Psychotechnic League

by Sandra Miesel

1958, the year the H-bombs fell, set human history careening in a new direction. So obvious is this nexus, an entire genre of fantastic fiction asks the question “What if World War III had not happened?” Although romantics prefer to imagine alternate twentieth centuries as lost paradises of peace and plenty, the opposite is likelier to be true.

We modern historians generally regard World War III as a mitigated catastrophe. Regrettable as its megadeaths and global devastation were, it drove humanity to establish effective world government and to colonize the solar system decades sooner than these objectives might otherwise have been achieved. More importantly, in strictly pragmatic terms, the early atomic era was the best time to resolve East-West rivalry; the crude weapons of that day could not sterilize Earth. From the standpoint of our mature integrated culture, World War III was a painful childhood illness of our race.

Conflict was inevitable once Eisenhower’s death from surgical complications elevated Nixon to the U.S. presidency in June, 1956. Cold War paranoia distorted Nixon’s reactions to unrest within the Communist bloc in the autumn of that year. Covert U.S. aid to the Hungarian rebels so enraged the Soviet Union that it backed Egypt past the limits of prudence during the Suez Crisis. The savage Mideast war that followed left Socialism dominant throughout the region and the U.S.S.R. in possession of northern Iran.

The assassination of Tito shortly afterwards enabled the Soviets to bring Yugoslavia back under their control. Political strife among Krushchev, Bulganin, and Zhukov made Soviet policy too erratic for American analysts to predict. International tensions built during 1958. When the U.S.S.R. threatened a new Berlin blockade and the People’s Republic of China seized the Nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu, Nixon took adamant stands on two fronts at once. The East responded with a pre-emptive strike at the West on Christmas Eve, 1958.

These first bombs destroyed prime U.S. targets at home and abroad. The Philippines and Australia’s major ports were immobilized. NATO countries lost their capitals and military bases but most of their territory was spared pending future conquest. However, U.S. counter-strikes carried by missiles and the Strategic Air Command inflicted proportionately more damage on enemy targets simply because there were fewer significant ones to be hit.

The Soviets crossed the Rhine, but with their industrial base virtually gone and internal communications cut, they could not resupply their armies adequately, even for conventional warfare. Satellite troops mutinied rather than support a losing cause—their nationalism overpowered their Marxism. Europe liberated itself through a bitter war of attrition. Meanwhile, American and British Commonwealth forces futilely campaigned on the Asian mainland from Indochina to Manchuria.

Behind the lines, anti-Party revolutions shattered the Communist world to bloody bits. The trauma of bombardment exposed hatreds formerly hidden by the blandness of prewar American society. Racial and social clashes erupted throughout the country. Newly freed Europe faced a swarm of civil wars as each ethnic group sought to exploit the general chaos to its own advantage. Worldwide economic collapse ruined those colonies and non-aligned nations that had escaped military attack.

By the fall of 1964, the fires of international conflict had sunk to a few sullen embers. Whether these would die to ashes or burst into fresh flame depended on a single man. . . .

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