War. War never changes.”— Ron Perlman, Fallout intro
The Great War started and ended on Saturday, October 23, 2077 when nuclear weapons were launched by all the nuclear-capable nations of the Fallout world (mainly from the United States, China and the USSR). The exchange lasted for approximately two hours, according to most survivors' accounts. Once the last atomic bomb and nuclear warhead had fallen, the world fell into the deep darkness of a nuclear holocaust.
The geopolitical situation that led to the outbreak of the long-feared global nuclear war was prompted primarily by the onset of a worldwide energy crisis when the supplies of fossil-fuels, particularly petroleum, finally began to run out by the year 2050. This energy crisis was in part the result of the ever-increasing amounts of fossil-fuel required to power the Fallout world's larger and less energy-efficient technologies when compared with those of our own world, due to their failure to develop miniaturized electronics and more advanced manufacturing materials. The result of this energy crisis was an increasing scramble by all of the advanced, industrialized nations to secure the few remaining supplies of untapped petroleum around the world. Ultimately, a series of military conflicts driven by this hunger for natural resources consumed the planet. The European Commonwealth had reacted to the rapid raising of oil prices to unacceptably high levels by the Middle East's oil-rich states in 2052 by unleashing military action in that region of the world. This intervention ultimately resulted in the destruction of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv in December 2053 by a terrorist nuclear device and a limited nuclear exchange between the conflict's participants in 2054, the world's first since 1945.
As the United Nations tried with little success to keep the peace, many of that organization's member-states pulled out, and within two months of the outbreak of what was soon called the Resource Wars in 2052, the United Nations was disbanded. Next, following the breakdown of trade talks and the unilateral American exploitation of the world's last newly discovered reserves of crude oil, the Chinese invaded Alaska in 2066 in pursuit of that American state's remaining oil reserves. The United States ultimately annexed Canada in 2076 to ensure Canadian support for its defense of the Alaskan front even as the American federal government acted aggressively against its own citizens to contain wartime rioting, anti-war civil disobedience and military desertion. The United States retaliated against the Chinese by launching its own costly invasion of the Chinese mainland in 2074 to reduce Chinese pressure on the Alaskan front. Despite initial costly setbacks, this strategy proved successful and American forces liberated the Alaskan city of Anchorage and forced the Chinese People's Liberation Army to retreat entirely from American soil in January 2077. This victory was largely won due to the more advanced military technology developed by the United States during the conflict, especially the deployment of Powered Infantry Armor. Many smaller nations went bankrupt in the ensuing conflict as their economies collapsed due to the increasing shortage of fossil-fuels. The Resource Wars ended with the Great War in 2077.
The Great War
It is not known who launched the first nuclear weapon that precipitated the conflict. President Richardson would tell the Chosen One that China launched first, but he is hardly objective. Leftover log entries within Black Mountain Radio would also seem to pin the initial launches on China, with the United States retaliating in only a handful of minutes. (See behind the scenes)
The nuclear exchange that characterized the Great War lasted for only a brief two hours, but was unbelievably destructive and reshaped the climate of the world even as it caused the fall of most of human civilization everywhere across the globe. More energy was released in the first moments of the Great War than all of the previous human conflicts in the history of the world combined. Entire mountain ranges were created as the ground buckled and moved under the strain of the cataclysmic pressure produced by numerous, concentrated atomic explosions. Rivers and oceans around the world were contaminated with the resulting radioactive fallout released by the relatively low-yield nuclear weapons used by all sides, and the climate changed horrifically. All the regions of the Earth suffered from a single, permanent season once the initial dust blasted into the atmosphere by the nuclear explosions had settled - a scorching, radioactive desert summer.
Many American citizens did not heed the air raid sirens on October 23, 2077, believing them to be signaling just another drill. The Vaults sealed in their inhabitants as the Earth burned in atomic fire. A few citizens took shelter where they could: sewers, and subway stations, drainage centers, Pulowski preservation shelters, or in the case of the Keller Family, the National Guard Depot. However, without a very strong outer shield of dense metal or rock to defend them from both the heat and kinetic shockwave of the nuclear blasts (such as Lamplight Caverns or Raven Rock), few civilians survived the full-out nuclear exchange. Some who were exposed to high levels of radiation became ghouls, and some of these ghouls, in turn, formed their own communities. Those who survived the nuclear exchange would form the basis for the brutal civilization that existed for the next 20 years, until the first Vaults re-opened.
Despite the global destruction caused by the war, many areas remained habitable, with low and tolerable levels of radioactive fallout. The surviving humans were in some parts of the Earth able to continue living in the ruins of the pre-War civilization, establishing new communities and even small cities.
Around a week after the initial nuclear explosions, rain started to fall; however, none of it was drinkable. The rain was black; tainted with soot, ash, radioactive elements produced by the nuclear explosions and various other contaminants produced by nuclear weapons. This rain marked the start of the terrible fallout that marked the true, permanent destruction caused by the Great War. The rain lasted four long days, killing thousands of species that had survived the initial destruction of the bombs, be they animal, plant or micro-organisms. Those few living things, human, animal or plant, that survived after the rain ended were left to live in the now barren wasteland that had spread across the Earth, where nearly all pre-War plant life had died either in the initial explosions or from the intense radiation produced by the fallout.
Some major global cities were not completely destroyed by the explosions because of their relatively low explosive yields, and cities such as Washington, D.C. even managed to maintain intact buildings despite relatively close detonations. However, most city streets across the post-nuclear United States were and continue to be blocked with rubble from collapsing edifices. In the ruins of Washington, D.C., most of the city's Metro system of subways remained intact. Though many Metro tunnels were blocked by collapsed masonry caused by the shock of the atomic explosions, the Metro's tunnel network remains the easiest, if not the only, way to move around the D.C. ruins.
Thanks to the efforts of Robert House, most of the city of Las Vegas, Nevada and the Hoover Dam remained intact, and many buildings still have electricity as of 2281. In the pre-War era, about 20 years before the Great War, House predicted when the bombs would fall. In the meantime he installed defenses such as laser turrets on the roof of the Lucky 38 Casino, which destroyed most of the incoming Chinese ballistic missiles before they hit Las Vegas. Had his Platinum chip been delivered only a day earlier, an even greater area of the Mojave Wasteland could have been spared the terrible destruction. In time, the remains of Las Vegas came to be known as New Vegas.
- There is debate on what time the Great War occurred, and whether it happened in the morning, or at night. All clocks on the East Coast are stuck at 9:47. However, in the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Dead Money, the bombs were launched during the night of the Gala Event, suggesting that the nuclear holocaust happened when people were sleeping on the East Coast, and getting home from work on the West Coast. This also supports the reasons that people simply did not heed the air raid sirens and didn't have enough time to get to safety. According to Carrie Delaney's holotapes, the school were packing up to leave to head back. Unless they were going to be staying in school overtime for the trip, this could place the East Coast bombs at the 2-3PM time range.
Behind the scenes
According to the script of the Fallout movie, neither China, India, nor North Korea launched the first bomb. It was in fact Vault-Tec's executive of the vaults. He launched the first bomb to fulfill his own prophecy of nuclear annihilation. This has not been established as canon.