The Canadian government's information booklets on surviving nuclear war do not mention death. While one does advise that the heat created by a one-megaton bomb blast can burn skin, it confidently goes on to say that “clothing will provide some protection.” In the event of war, says 11 Steps to Survival (published in 1981), citizens should head immediately to their basement bomb shelters or improvise one with mattresses, bookshelves and drawers full of dirt. After that, various pamphlets say, people should concentrate on keeping clean,
changing their underwear and following Canada’s food rules. “Many of those affected by a [nuclear] disaster will have personal problems,” one tract concedes.
But the books suggest ways to minimize those difficulties. They suggest taking along a first-aid kit, shaking off all radioactive dust before entering the fallout shelter, and making sure there is a pack of playing cards handy. Your Basement Fallout Shelter (1960) even depicts a happy ending: a wellgroomed man strides briskly to the door of his fallout shelter as the radio blares the news that the coast is clear. What it does not show is that
when he walks out that door he may well enter a world that bears little resemblance to the one he knew.
Among the surprises that might greet him would be the absence of electrical power, heat, tap water, food or medical facilities. Depending on how close his home was to the site of the blast, he might also surface from his shelter to discover his house flattened or gutted by fire, his neighborhood a smouldering ruin, and the burned corpses of his neighbors strewn on the streets. The barren, treeless ground might be covered with long-lasting radioactive dusts capable of mutating future offspring. If the Earth’s ozone layer is destroyed, as many scientists expect it would be in the case of largescale nuclear warfare, he might also find that the sun’s undiluted ultraviolet rays would grill his skin and blind him within a quarter of an hour.
Those are the grim but well-documented realities of a world after nuclear warfare, but planners in the United States and Canada have chosen to downplay them. In fact, recent moves by the Reagan administration to revitalize civil defence plans were accompanied by officials’ predictions that 80 per cent of the U.S. population could survive an all-out nuclear war. Thomas K. Jones, a Reagan appointee as a deputy undersecretary of defence, suggested to Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer that the United States
could recover fully from nuclear war in two to four years. Anyone could build his own fallout shelter, Jones explained, by digging a hole in the ground and piling dirt on top of a couple of doors. “If there are enough shovels to go around, everyone’s going to make it,” said Jones. “It’s the dirt that does it.” Such comments have led critics to charge that the U.S. government wants to replace old fears of nuclear devastation with a new sense that nuclear war can be waged and won. Its plans for revitalizing the civil defence program (including advice to pack credit cards, a will and some toilet paper among evacuation necessities) have been greeted with scorn by local governments and health officials.
In Canada, civil defence planning “was allowed to slide during the 1970s,” says William Snarr, head of Emergency Planning Canada. But “it has been subsequently recognized that things should be refurbished.” As in the United States, special provision was made years ago to whisk government leaders to the safety of underground bunkers during a nuclear attack. The biggest of those—the “Diefenbunker” at Carp, Ont., near Ottawa—is a five-storey, concrete-encased underground shelter for the prime minister, the governor general and some 530 others deemed essential for the continuity of government. (Snarr says he cannot recall if he is on the list, but thinks so.) Canada has no evacuation program for the public,
but officials have been inspecting existing buildings across the country for their potential as fallout shelters.
Meanwhile, U.S. civil defence strategists are busily solving problems that they foresee plaguing a postattack world: how to collect a paycheque, forward mail, arrive at a reasonable tax policy and carry out banking. But, according to Jonathan Schell, author of the antinuclear bestseller The Fate of the Earth, postattack civilians may have more basic problems. Anyone who survives the ravages of a nuclear war, says Schell, would be concerned not about banking but “about how to find non-radioactive berries in the woods or how to tell which trees had edible bark.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.