Chilled By The Cold War

January 1, 2007 by John M. Robertson



“If disaster be inevitable, make the best of it, is what Confucius is popularly supposed to have advised.

No doubt Confucius said nothing of the sort, but during the Cold War that sentiment seemed, to many of us, to be the guiding principle behind the federal government’s defence policy. Nuclear war was on the horizon, a very close horizon, but few of us understood quite how close. And since much of my time and interest was involved with a federal government organization known as Emergency Measures, I quickly learned that the “measures” had little to do with protection in the event of a nuclear attack, but everything to do with planning for the survival of what was left of our civilization after the inevitable Armageddon had done its worst.

And just as Emergency Measures planned for recovery of whatever might remain, the Canadian Army was training to face a situation more dangerous than any it would encounter during its later peacekeeping operations. One of the army’s main roles was defined at that time as “re-entry.” The soldiers’ job would be to re-enter and search for survivors in the shattered remains of Canadian cities and communities incinerated by Soviet nuclear weapons. But at the time it was not known exactly how long the lethal radioactivity would remain in the target areas, so the principle of re-entry was regarded by many with skepticism. Nevertheless, the army continued to train. And the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the U.S.S.R. continued to grow.

From this present time of relative security I remember life during the Cold War period as if it were a continuing dream world, or more correctly, a nightmare world. The cliché “The end of civilization as we know it” was ever present in our minds. The facts that we were able to glean from reluctant governments were increasingly the stuff of science fiction.

The films made during American bomb tests on Pacific islands left no doubt of the utter and ghastly destruction that could face most of North America and the U.S.S.R. I could never comprehend how hundreds of millions of people could watch television or read in the newspapers of the growing imminence of annihilation without rising in revolt against their governments: how they could continue about their daily lives when such a horror story of the future should strike terror into any population, and how we could wait patiently for a worldwide nuclear winter to result from a choleric decision of one shoe-thumping Soviet premier, and how any reasonable man with any reasonable concern for humanity could bring himself to turn the key in the security lock and launch the first blow in the destruction of a continent.

I suppose the answer to everything was simply the Confucius Principle.

Perhaps because any instruction like “duck and cover” or “stay indoors” was so patently pointless, we seemed to ignore the major threat and turn our attention to the lesser problem of fallout, which would be in the form of radioactive dust drifting with the wind or falling with the rain for a considerable time after the attack. The Canadian government, as did the U.S. government, provided a number of fallout shelters for those of us who had escaped destruction. We learned that we would be safe from fallout behind eight inches of concrete, or even partly protected in a room with the floor above covered with a sufficient thickness of books. We were relieved to learn that water from a well contaminated by radioactive dust would be filtered clean by passing through 30 feet of gravel. And that food in cans dusted by fallout would not be radioactive once the dust was washed off the cans.

We were not, however, instructed how to get at the food without handling the cans. By the 1960s pamphlets were available giving instructions on rudimentary protection against fallout. Family shelters were being advertised on television. Fallout parties were being planned as if the danger would pass after a few cocktails. “Fallout” passed into our language and still remains. And the consumption of tranquillizers rocketed. (An unfortunate choice of metaphor in the circumstances.)

Again looking from this present viewpoint, my own attempts to assure my family’s survival from fallout were obviously doomed to failure. I had a wife and son, so I was determined to do what I could to be prepared. I had already built a small house on five acres of forested mountainside 25 kilometres east of Vancouver.

If the house should be within the flash area, the forest and the house itself would become an inferno. If it should be within the blast area, it and the surrounding forest would certainly be destroyed. But if the house were far enough from the impact point to escape those hazards, there seemed to be “only” the problem of fallout. So I decided to seal off the downstairs bathroom with a concrete wall to make a shelter inside the concrete basement. I bought a gas-powered generator, because the power supply would inevitably fail, either due to high winds or because the power station workers were dead or in shelters.

During any emergency I would probably be away in the Emergency Measures headquarters, so I arranged for two friends to share the shelter with my wife and son, and between us we stocked up with canned food, bottled water, and enough of everything to maintain them for several months until radioactivity in the outside world should be sufficiently reduced.

Before I had started construction of my house, I had found an old World War II Bren-gun carrier which I had fitted with a winch on the back and a bulldozer blade on the front, so that I could excavate the hillside for my basement. A Bren-gun carrier was a small armoured vehicle on tracks, large enough for four machine-gunners and their ammunition, and powerful enough to climb tank-like over obstacles. It seemed the ideal vehicle for a terrain cluttered with fallen trees and downed power lines. And since the army was expecting to meet starving survivors desperate enough to loot and rob and even kill, and there was a possibility of attack by small gangs under the leadership of local warlords, a powerful armoured vehicle seemed like the sort of defence we might need.

In retrospect it also seems like the ludicrous product of an over active imagination. But that was the climate we lived in. Those were the desperate measures we felt compelled to take. Those were the decisions we had to make. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best or disbelieve all the official information and the news and the rumours and pretend the world was as normal as it had ever been. As we discussed the family’s survival, the situation changed from a science fiction nightmare to an exercise in futility. We could imagine the scenario of waiting week after week after week, sealed in the shelter, never seeing daylight, and wondering when it would be safe to venture out. How would we decide when to leave? Who would be the first to brave the unknown? How would we know the extent of the residual radiation? Would there be food available in the local stores? Would it have become radioactive? Would it already have been looted? And then we realized we had made no arrangement for ventilation. We dared not draw in fallout-polluted air, and yet there must be some sort of air supply.

It was not only the individual people and families who were faced with the alternatives of hoping for the best or making extensive preparations. There was a growing awareness that a probable result of a nuclear duel was the destruction of the country’s industry and business structures, including our manufacturing and food processing plants. We would also lose records, plans, blueprints and specifications, not to mention our engineers, scientists, technicians, managers and typists–and the people to locate paper supplies for the typists to use. In fact, we would lose everything the surviving few would need to rebuild a shattered civilization.

Indeed, restarting the supply of food and the production of everything a population needed to survive would require the microfilming and safe storage of every handbook and manual and every piece of vital instruction and information in the files, to enable a small population with no capital and little technical knowledge to tackle the task of beginning the industrial revolution all over again.

But there were no personal computers in the 1950s. Photocopiers were crude and slow, and few businesses or industries had the manpower or the time. And who knew where to find safe storage against a hydrogen bomb?

In hindsight, I wish I had not been involved in emergency planning, or privy to any confidential information. I wish I could have ignored what I learned. I wish I could have been like other people, and simply lived with the prospect of nuclear winter hanging over my head instead of having it invade my mind as an ever-present daymare. But I must declare that my daymare was not fear filled. It was dominated by despair, despair for the future of our planet, just as it is once again, now that we are doing so little about global warming.

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