What and when, exactly, was World War III in Star Trek, and did Strange New Worlds retcon the Eugenics Wars?

In the pilot episode of Strange New Worlds (titled, appropriately enough, "Strange New Worlds") Captain Christopher Pike's condensed history of the 21st Century raised some eyebrows.

Warning: Spoilers follow for Strange New Worlds, Picard Season 2, Enterprise, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, The Next Generation and The Original Series.

At the climax of the episode, Pike gives a patented Star Trek Captain's speech to two factions on the planet Kiley 279, which includes footage from the January 6 2021 riot, explaining the history of how World War III in the Star Trek universe started, in a bid to show the Kileyans that they were on a path to annihilation.

The speech raised a few eyebrows in the Star Trek fan community, because it sounded as if Pike was saying that the Eugenics Wars, previously established as having taken place between 1992-1996, actually took place in the 21st Century, in a progression that went from the Second Civil War to the Eugenics War and then to World War III. If correct, that would be a severe retcon to the already established timeline.

However, this perception is based on a mishearing of Pike's statement. The actual line spoken by Pike to the Kileys is this:

PIKE: Our conflict also started with a fight for freedoms. We called it the Second Civil War, then the Eugenics War, and finally just World War III.

[my emphasis]

The reason I emphasize the it is because if we focus on it it becomes clear that Pike is not talking about three different conflicts, but one conflict that has been given different names by historians. Therefore, historians called it first the Second Civil War, then as understanding changed, the Eugenics War, and then finally called this broader conflict World War III. In The Original Series: "Space Seed", Spock said this:

SPOCK: Records of that period are fragmentary, however. The mid-1990s was the era of your last so-called World War.

[again, my emphasis]

Fragmented records aside, this actually very nicely dovetails with real history, even if the writers never intended it. Spock didn't necessarily say World War III was in the 1990s. He said it was the era of World War III - a longer period of history that involved it. 

The Cold War - the ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union - began after the end of World War II in 1945 and lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the same year the Cold War ended, the term "culture war" - an ideological conflict between authoritarian/conservative and liberal/progressive viewpoints - was repopularized by James Davison Hunter's Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. The term "culture war" has been used to describe the tension between conservatives and liberals since, and commentators have suggested that this is leading to a second American Civil War.

One thing to remember is that the Cold War never escalated into outright conflict between the two superpowers. There were major wars like the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and smaller skirmishes between, which were essentially proxy wars. It is historians who take a broader view of all these wars and put them together under the umbrella term of the Cold War.

In the same way, I suggest that there were several conflicts during the period from the 1990s to 2053 (the end of World War III was established in Enterprise: "Terra Prime" as being 10 years before the Vulcans made first contact) that eventually came under the umbrella of World War III. Historians would naturally begin to look at what happened at the end of the Cold War and take 1991 as their natural starting point, much as 1945, the end of World War II, was the natural point to date the start of the Cold War.

From here, the timeline as it stands seems clearer. Here's my proposed history of World War III. Caveat: I understand this will likely be rendered obsolete if Trek retcons more explicitly in the future.

The escalating conflict between progressive and conservative values of the culture war headed for a Second Civil War starting in the 1990s and on into the 2020s. However, a broader view of geopolitics suggests that wasn't the only conflict that could be attributed to this. Internationally, a group of augmented "supermen" seized power in Asia and the Middle East (The Original Series: "Space Seed"), leading to a military response against them between 1992 and 1996 - the Eugenics War(s), a war that Jonathan Archer's great-grandfather Nathan fought in (Enterprise: "Hatchery"), serving in North Africa. This particular war ended when the last of the tyrants, Khan Noonien Singh, fled Earth in a sleeper ship, the SS Botany Bay, in 1996.

(Kirk tells Khan in "Space Seed" that he's been asleep for about 200 years when it's actually 271 years, but I choose to believe he's still fixated on the DY-500 class ship he first identified the SS Botany Bay as. In any case, even McGivers makes the mistake of identifying Khan as a Sikh when he wears no turban, sports no beard, wears no kukri. Chalk it up to fragmented history or just plain ignorance.)

The international Shenzhen Convention (as stated in Picard Season 2) outlawing genetic experimentation on the military was enacted in the wake of the Eugenics Wars, but that didn't stop underground experiments, nor did it stop scientists like Adam Soong proposing revivals like the 1996 funding proposal for a Project Khan - seen on a folder that Soong retrieves in the Picard Season 2 finale. To preserve the current dates of the Eugenics Wars, it is more consistent to say that Project Khan was a proposal to create another Khan, rather than equate it with the original program that bred the Augments, which had to have taken place in the 1960s.

The Eugenics Wars having taken place in Asia and North Africa also explains why we see no real signs of it during Voyager: "Future's End" (taking place in 1996) or in Picard Season 2 (taking place in 2024). Even if America had been impacted, by 2024 it has been 38 years since the end of the war, and rebuilding would have been done. The absence of evidence here is not evidence of absence.

But historians also look at the overarching curve of history. The Eugenics Wars, in a way, were also an ideological conflict - between authoritative supermen who, in Khan's words, "offered the world order", and liberal democratic governments who wanted to stop these dictatorships. So it is not difficult to see that 23rd Century history might view the Eugenics Wars as being a manifestation of the culture war taken out of the United States context.

And, in doing so, it meant that the Second Civil War arising out of the culture war became a misnomer, as it no longer was accurate to describe it as a purely American affair. In America, the fight between the two ideologies was fought in elections, in courtrooms, in public opinion. It occasionally erupted into civil unrest, and even if it never escalated to military conflict and its participants not always recognize it as such, it was nonetheless a war.

But why link the Eugenics War to the Second Civil War when the latter didn't directly involve the Augments? Because the Second Civil War can also be said to have ties to improving the species. One feature of authoritarianism is ethnic supremacist rhetoric. The removal of undesirables like the weak, the non-native, the poor, the homeless, the differently sexual oriented or just different in general, are all features of the ugliest parts of conservative rhetoric. In Picard Season 2 we see immigration issues being touched on even as we see the Sanctuary Districts in the background. Sterilization and elimination of weak traits is a core tenet of eugenics. And we also see Soong possibly reviving the Augment program, which leads - if production art is to be believed - to the final phase of World War III. Calling it the Eugenics War acknowledges its links to the Augment wars of 1992-1996.

Disagreements between conservative and liberal views on what to do with the homeless led to the creation of the Sanctuary Districts and the destructive Bell Riots of September 2024 (Deep Space Nine: "Past Tense"), several months after the events of Picard Season 2. Our world right now is seeing the battle between Russia's authoritarian Putin regime and the liberal democracies of NATO.

Sisko said in Deep Space Nine: "Past Tense, Part I" that in the aftermath of the Bell Riots, the United States began to correct the social problems it had been struggling with for over a century, but by this time, in 2026 the final phase of the World War III has begun. The production art in Enterprise: "In a Mirror Darkly, Part II" says:

2026: Earth's World War Three begins, over the issue of genetic manipulation and human genome enhancement. Colonel Phillip Green leads a faction of ultra-violent eco-terrorists resulting in 37 million deaths.

(For what it's worth, that same piece of art says the first successful warp demonstration by Zephram Cochrane was in 2061, not the established 2063, so we have to treat the information with some caution. Given Pike's remarks as I note below, we can assume the 37 million was not the total casualty count of WWIII but merely Green's terrorist incident.)

The motivation behind Green was genetic manipulation and human genome enhancement, which ties in both to eugenics in eliminating the weak while promoting the strong. In this way, the causes and motivations of the World War III era come to be seen by historians as encompassing racism, class struggle, ideological conflict and eugenic manipulation, in the United States and beyond.

This last phase of the conflict lasted for the next 27 years, ending in 2053 in a nuclear exchange - the Last Day. Pike says it erupted in one, unspecified, nation and ended in the eradication of 600,000 species of animals and plants and 30% of Earth's population. By today's count that's about 2.4 billion people. Despite First Contact in 2063, the chaos and post-atomic horror would last until at least 2079 (The Next Generation: "Encounter at Farpoint").

The bottom line is this: Strange New Worlds didn't retcon anything, and the current timeline as established hasn't changed. On the contrary, it actually fits quite nicely (with a few adjustments) to our previous understanding of the timeline once we understand what Pike's line meant: the Second Civil War, the Eugenics War, World War III - from the standpoint of the 23rd Century, all of them took place in the era of World War III, 1991-2053.

Terence Chua has had a more interesting life than some, but right now he works as a prosecutor. He lives in a secret volcano base somewhere in the Pacific, where he watches dozens of TV shows and movies, often simultaneously, while reading, playing video games and occasionally dealing with two young children. During the day, he fights crime.
What and when, exactly, was World War III in Star Trek, and did Strange New Worlds retcon the Eugenics Wars? What and when, exactly, was World War III in Star Trek, and did Strange New Worlds retcon the Eugenics Wars? Reviewed by Terence Chua on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 Rating: 5
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