As many North Americans see it, the Soviet Union is a grim garrison state bent on world domination, a land of one party and no freedom, of oppressive gulags and an omnipresent KGB. At least that is the popular Western stereotype, perfected in the cold-warring climate of the 1950s and resurgent in the “evil empire” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. But, according to The Maclean's/Decima Poll, many Canadians perceive an even more fearsome presence on the world scene. Asked to make the hypothetical choice between being conquered by the Soviets or having a nuclear war, 50 per cent of respondents said that they would rather live under Soviet rule, while 42 per cent said that they would rather risk nuclear war and seven per cent had no opinion. Declared respondent Loretta Bartlett, 46, who runs a small grocery store in Corner Brook, Nfld.: “Anything is better than nuclear war.”
Polls over the past several years have shown steady increases in Canadians’ fear of total war and their concern about international tensions in general. In The Maclean’s/Decima Poll two years ago, 45 per cent of respondents said that they felt that a nuclear war was very or somewhat likely in their lifetime. The October summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland raised hopes for dramatic reductions in nuclear arms. The results of the latest Mac¿ecm’s/Decima Poll, taken just after the Reykjavik summit, reflect Canadians’ uncertainty about what the summit’s outcome meant. The poll also shows a marked fear of another international menace: terrorism.
But nowhere was public alarm more apparent than in the hypothetical choice between the risk of nuclear war and domination by the Soviet Union. “The chances for survival of a nuclear war are practically nil,” said respondent Christopher Bolland, a 21-yearold student at McGill University in Montreal. “So as much as I’m in favor of our political system, I’d rather live under the Soviets in the hope that something could be changed.”
Respondents who were more likely to choose Soviet rule over nuclear war included British Columbians—68 per cent compared to a national average of 50 per cent—Quebecers (58 per cent) and New Democrats (59 per cent). Among those more likely to risk nuclear war were Ontarians (50 per cent, compared to an average 42 per cent) and Progressive Conservatives (52 per cent). According to Bruce Anderson, Decima’s vice-president of public affairs research, the narrowness of the split over the basic options suggested that, not surprisingly, people polled were unhappy with either option.
Interestingly, when The Canadian Gallup Poll Ltd. asked a similar question in a 1962 survey, fully 65 per cent of respondents said that they would choose to fight a nuclear war, while only 11 per cent said that they would opt to live under communism, and 24 per cent were undecided. Since then, awareness of the nuclear threat has been enlarged by public debate and such television dramatizations of nuclear destruction as the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After. And beyond mere perceptions, said Daniel Madar, associate professor of politics at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., “both sides have more accurate weapons now. And as long as it’s theoretically possible that they are so accurate, that brings a new note of uncertainty that didn’t exist in the late 1960s or early 1970s.” As a result, experts say, the choice between Soviet domination and nuclear war is increasingly viewed as one between Red or dead.
In that light, the Red option may have seemed somewhat more palatable, particularly at a time when Gorbachev is projecting a more open, liberal image for his country. “I don’t think Soviet rule is all that bad,” said respondent Alexander Herr, 24, an unemployed former military policeman. “Everyone is treated the same, and you still get to live. There just isn’t as much capitalism and freedom.” Added Eldon Perrault, a Calgary auto mechanic: “It’s probably the same as it is here, when you get right down to it— to a guy bringing home bread to his family.” But, said Steven Traynor, a 27-year-old actor and bartender in Montreal: “I’ve spoken to people who have been there, and it doesn’t seem to be a very healthy place to live.”
Clearly, most Canadians believe that the world would be a healthier place to live if the superpowers reduced tensions—and weapons. That suddenly seemed possible at the Iceland summit on Oct. 11 and 12, when Gorbachev proposed a deal that would have radically cut both sides’ nuclear arms, a deal based in part on Reagan abandoning for a 10-year period the testing of his Strategic Defence Initiative (SDl), or Star Wars. Reagan refused. In The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll, 55 per cent of the national sample said that the President was right not to give up Star Wars, compared to 60 per cent among Ontarians, 63 per cent among Progressive Conservatives and 64 per cent among male respondents. On the other hand, 40 per cent of respondents said that Reagan should have given up SDl, with 47 per cent in Quebec expressing that opinion, 53 per cent among New Democrats and 47 per cent of women. Donald Munton, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, said: “If there’s an issue that sounds like it’s weapons versus peace, there will always be a gender gap. And men get more enamored with gadgetry, with technology.”
Gauging the outlook for an armscontrol agreement after the U.S.Soviet summit in October:
Should President Reagan have given up his Star Wars project to get an arms-control pact?
What if the choice came down to being governed by the Soviet Union or risking a nuclear war?
Respondents split evenly over how the summit would affect the chances for an arms control agreement. About seven per cent said that an agreement was now much more likely, 42 per cent said that it was a little more likely, 35 per cent said that it was a little less likely and 12 per cent said that it was much less likely. The respondents who said that Reagan should not have traded away Star Wars were also more likely to be optimistic about the outcome of the summit, while those who disagreed with Reagan’s decision were more pessimistic. Madar noted that summits often take on an emblematic value, providing a dramatic single event from which people can generalize. “If it is a good summit,” he said, “people think this will be a new era of harmony. But if it is a bad outcome, people think, ‘Now we’re really in for it.’ ” The Iceland summit, however, was inconclusive—and so was the public reaction to it.
The Canadians polled were also divided in their attitudes toward terrorism, which has caused a decline in Canadian tourist travel to Europe over the past year. Fully 51 per cent of respondents said that they would probably avoid travelling in Europe and other areas where terrorist incidents have occurred. Among those more likely to say so were women (59 per cent), people from the Atlantic provinces (61 per cent) and those from lower-income groups and rural parts of the country (57 per cent). “It’s probably because we’re from a smaller area,” said Newfoundland’s Bartlett, who decided against taking a European tour two years ago because of concern about terrorism. “We are not used to big cities and big airports, and we’re just scared.”
On the other hand, 48 per cent said that they would not let concerns about terrorism affect their travel plans. The most prominent in this category included men (56 per cent), single people (64 per cent) and those in higherincome groups. Bolland of McGill, who is single, said that although he has not yet been to Europe, “if the opportunity presented itself I would leap at it and be gone. Yesterday. I don’t think we should let the terrorists run our lives.”
Still, the poll clearly shows that many Canadians look upon the world at large with decided dread. And the potential for a nuclear war—even when viewed against the worst-case scenario of Soviet conquest—remains public enemy No. 1. Nothing that happened at the Iceland summit has changed that. Rather, it has only confused the issue, leaving Canadians unsure whether the world is now closer to harmony—or disaster.
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