It’s the mid–late 20th century, and NATO and the Soviet bloc wipe each other out in a nuclear war while the southern hemisphere eats its popcorn. Dust fills the atmosphere and nuclear winter sets in; the ecosystem collapses. Which third world countries would be most likely to survive and why? If the answer is “zero”, how could the events of the nuclear war be changed so that at least one would survive?

A country is considered to have “survived” if:

  • Its government either has continuity from before the war, or has successfully transferred authority to a single successor government
  • Its people regard themselves as belonging to the same state as from before the war

It can:

  • lose a substantial amount of its population
  • lose its agricultural base as long as it has some means of feeding a sustainable subset of its population (greenhouses, hydroponics, etc)
  • lose segments of its population unevenly (“only the rich survive” or “only the military survive”)
  • alter its policies or nature of governance radically (a democracy can become a military dictatorship or vice versa)
  • integrate survivors and territory from outside its original borders
  • move its capital or have a radically different population distribution

It cannot:

  • be itself integrated into another larger federation
  • collapse and be refounded by survivors in the same “ethos” as the original country
  • be a first or second-world country involved in the nuclear war
  • be a state or province from a first or second-world country involved in the nuclear war (so no Republic of Wisconsin).
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Doesn't this rather presuppose not only that nuclear winter is a thing but also that it would affect the southern hemisphere to the same extent as the northern? Opinions vary, and fortunately we haven't yet done the experiment. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 26, 2016 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ you are free to make any assumptions about the extent of the nuclear winter $\endgroup$ Dec 26, 2016 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ This really makes a lot of parochial, and probably irrelevant , assumptions about the primacy of the nation-state. Why would you expect those countries that shoehorn multitudes of differing cultural groups into straight-line borders defined by European colonial powers to continue to exist, nuclear winter or not? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 27, 2016 at 19:14

4 Answers 4


Fortunately in the event of a nuclear winter you only have to follow this travel advice


Since all of the world’s nuclear powers are in the northern hemisphere, stay south of the equator.

Countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina are temperate with plenty of space to grow food, and since they’re well out of the way you’re unlikely to be targeted.

If you choose to stay at home, it’s probably best to avoid Alice Springs, due to America’s top secret facility at Pine Gap.

According to the classic post-apocalyptic fiction On The Beach by Nevil Shute, Melbourne is an excellent bet. The plot suggests that if nuclear war breaks out in the northern hemisphere, the Victorian capital is likely to be one of the last places the radiation cloud reaches.

If war spreads, you could always go further south to Antarctica. It will be chilly, but with adequate supplies and shelter you could survive several months.

This suggests that the more likely survivor countries will be Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

However, all is not lost for the survivors in the Northern Hemisphere. This scenario about a global nuclear war between the NATO and Warsaw Pact nations and occurring in 1988.

It estimates ~3 billion survivors a year after the exchange, and ~45 million survivors in the US alone.

The geopolitical situation has moved on significantly since this scenario was devised. So the re-establishment of a GMD Nationalist government in China is a fantasy (it would take an interesting set of political conditions for this to happen). The glib statement about peat bogs burning for several years overlooks the fact that this will contribute substantially to global warming in the post-WW III world.

This scenario can be used for guidance. It suggests that the US government is most likely to survive. While, by 2040, or fifty-two years after a nuclear war in 1988:

Some of the surviving nations have emerged by now as major powers, including Australia, New Zealand, China, Argentina, and Brazil.

Obvious the place to be in the aftermath of a nuclear war and in the event of a nuclear winter is to go South.

The question was about which Third World countries will survive in the event of a nuclear winter. Australia and New Zealand are certainly First World countries. Argentina and Brazil can almost qualify too. China historically has been a major super-power, and is modernizing fast but may fit the bill of being a Third World country. South Africa has a mixture of affluence and poverty. All in all, it is more probable that many nations will survive with their governments intact. Most likely they will be coalition governments or military dictatorships but generally similar to the governments during the Firs and Second World wars. Third World nations are probably going to be "eaten up" by stronger nations in their rush to survive and rebuild.

A recent review of the consequences of nuclear war specifically about the climatic impact. While the Physicians for Social Responsibility published a report suggesting even a limited nuclear war will result in global climate change and a famine affecting two billion people.

Research was unable to find anything about the impact of a nuclear winter on the South East Asia region. Nations like Malaysia and Indonesia surely will survive. While countries close to China will politically realign themselves in its sphere of influence to ensure their survival. Possibly India and Pakistan will wage nuclear war against each other, but if the northern hemisphere has been devastated this might stay their hand.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Argentina and Brazil can by no means qualify as First World nations, given that the first world is specifically America's allies. China is definitely not a Third World country, given that it's the only major Communst (Second World) power that still exists. $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Dec 27, 2016 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @SPavel: How do you justify defining "first world" as purely American allies (something that is irrelevant here), rather than economic/industrial development? And China is emphatically not communist, even if they keep the name for face-saving reasons, any more than the Holy Roman Empire was holy, Roman, or an empire. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 27, 2016 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf That's literally what the term describes - sides in the Cold War, and China was (and is) very much on the Russian side of the spectrum. Click the link in my comment. The terms that describe economic development are "developing country," "newly industrialized country," and "developed country." Lots of people use first/third world as substitute terms but they are wrong and should know better. $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Dec 27, 2016 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ @SPavel Interesting comment. It gives historical insight, but even the Wikipedia entry provided in your link notes the definition has shifted in the post-Cold War era. I used the terms in their current usage. Researching this question made me realize how some things have changed drastically & sadly others have not. I concede you are correct regards the original meaning of the terms. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Dec 28, 2016 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ @SPavel: I think you, and to some extent the authors of that Wikipedia article, are misinterpreting the origins of the term. First and Second Worlds are economic & political terms: that most of the First World happened to be more-or-less allied with the US was a consequence of their different E&P systems. But it wasn't a 1:1 relationship. For instance France is firmly part of the First World, but not always allied to the US. Likewise Switzerland is a First World country but politically neutral. Other US allies (at various times) were firmly in the Third & Fourth Worlds. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 28, 2016 at 2:38

I don't see why the tropical "3rd world" countries, or at least those south of the Equator, for example Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, would have experienced so much more instability than what they usually do. Unless the nuclear winter was so cold that the entire Earth froze solid, agriculture would still be possible in the tropical belt. With America and Europe gone those countries would lose access to the global markets, but that would not kill them--those countries have enough qualified people to keep the lights on. It may be that some small countries, e.g. Ecuador or Guyana, would be annexed by larger ones, but other than that I see no insurmontable problems. African countries are different because at the time they were inherently unstable and in the absence of a world police force they would have probably gone through a phase of wars and rearrangements along ethnic lines.

An interesting line may be the develeopment of those countries freed from the supervision of the great powers, with the heart of civilization moving from Europe and North America to South America, Australia and New Zealand.

  • $\begingroup$ why do i feel like so many answers on this site assume the entire planet would be uninhabitable after a nuclear war $\endgroup$ Dec 26, 2016 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ @taylorswift: The point of the answer is that the countries in the tropical belt would have survived without excessive damage. The countries in the northern hemisphere would of course be utterly devastated by the war, no nuclear winter needed. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 26, 2016 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ Ha! A world police force! What delusion are you operating under? Unless you're just talking about international pressure by world powers. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2016 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon: Yes I am, of course. And in mid-20th century it was much stronger. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 27, 2016 at 5:34

Independent Polynesian Nations like Samoa, Tonga, perhaps even Fiji etc,. would be good bets. So long as the sea still provided food. The land is fertile and crops are varied. The people are tough and versatile.

The political structure is only a thin veneer over underlying chiefdom/royalty lineages. Due to the strength of these connections the govt would not change although a lot of it's individual members would come to a sticky end. They would be replaced by others perhaps even from the same families. Taking away the First World would actually be better for the majority. They're isolated and self sufficient if they need to be.

They're homogenous populations with one main language, no religious conflict, and no real minorities except Fiji, which would probably get messy real quick, but would still probably keep it's govt unchanged.


We are looking for a country in the southern hemisphere with (1) enough agricultural output, (2) reliable source of energy, and (3) ability to avoid being invaded by some other power.

Indonesia seems to fit the bill perfectly. It is the fourth largest agricultural producer in the world and an exporter of coal and crude oil. It is made of up of islands which makes it difficult to invade. It has a large population and a reasonable military to further deter aggression from China (which may or may not have been involved in the nuclear exchange in your scenario).



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