I grew up in a society that prepared for a war that never happened. That is something we can all be thankful for.
The Cold War was the longest major conflict of the 20th century, and arguably the one with the fewest casualties – and that’s even when you take into account the battles that were fought as sub-wars: Vietnam, Korea, and the Bay of Pigs. The battlefield was more economic and ideological, with the actual shooting being relatively rare.
Still, both sides prepared for all-out nuclear war. In Ottawa that led to the establishment of a semi-secret military installation: Canadian Forces Base Carp. Its construction was secret, though the press figured it out at the time. Its purpose was to house the Canadian government should there be a nuclear attack on our capital, Ottawa.
Today CFB Carp is usually referred to as the Diefenbunker, named after the Honourable George Diefenbaker, who was Prime Minister when the facility was constructed. It was here that he, the cabinet, and a select few civil servants were to head when the sirens sounded.
The 100,000 square foot underground facility was in operation from 1961 to 1994 and is now a museum highlighting the history of the Cold War. It is a place captured in time.
Life was so much simpler then. The idea that an entire government department could be transferred to one room with a couple of desks seems laughable today when departments are spread out over several buildings and can have thousands of employees. Mind you, after a nuclear war there might not be as much to administer.
In addition to the rooms recreated as they were from the 1960s to 1980s, there are various exhibits relating to the cold war period. I’m an information junkie: I could gladly have spent the entire day adding to my store of knowledge. I was however outvoted by those with me who felt the hour-long guided tour was enough.
This was my second time visiting the Diefenbunker, and the guided tour covered some areas I don’t remember seeing on my first visit, seven years ago. And this time around we missed some things, like the CBC studio and the civil defence section. I had forgotten about those until I stumbled across them when I made a short side excursion.
It is, of course, far better to prepare for a war that never comes than to be caught unawares. Or so the conventional thinking goes. Theoretically the deterrent factor kept the Americans and the Soviets from open conflict. There were no leaders on either side willing to take the chance of starting a war they weren’t sure they could win. I leave it to someone else to analyze the trillions of dollars spent on armaments that could have been allocated elsewhere in society to determine if the Cold War was really worth the cost.
The Diefenbunker wasn’t the only government shelter constructed during the Cold War, just the largest and best known. There were another 34 similar structures scattered across the country. Most were filled with concrete when they were decommissioned. It seems a waste to have done that, but it keeps the curious out and avoids accidents.
As a tourist destination the Diefenbunker probably suffers a little from its location, a 45 minute drive from downtown. Can’t build a nuclear war shelter in the blast zone after all. I imagine though that a lot of people don’t leave the city core when they visit, and therefore miss out on this site.
I was the only one of the Ottawans in our tour group who had ever been to the site before. It is one of those places that everyone wants to see, and then never gets around to. Which is too bad, because the place documents an important part of our history.