Book Reviews

Give Me Shelter Book Cover

Give Me Shelter Book Cover

Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence

by Andrew Burtch
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012.
xiii, 300 pages, $32.95
ISBN: 9780774822411

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Reviewed by: Michael J. Thompson

With the end of the Second World War and the dawn of the nuclear age, governments faced a new threat that posed new challenges—the possibility of total, national annihilation. In Canada, federal civil defence (CD) planners were responsible for developing strategies to protect citizens in the event of a nuclear war. Andrew Burtch’s Give Me Shelter traces the evolution of CD planning during the first half of the Cold War, and outlines the obstacles planners faced in preparing for the worst. Burtch is an historian at the Canadian War Museum specializing in the post-1945 period, and he is therefore well-suited for writing a book on this topic. Covering nearly 25 years of Cold War Canada, Burtch provides what is, for the most part, a chronological analysis of CD’s planning evolution.

The author argues that civil defence was a “failure,” but the criteria upon which he judges “success” is never made explicit. He explains failure in this way: “Civil Defence Canada…had sought to prepare the public for [a nuclear crisis]. Yet when it happened, people did not know how to protect themselves, nor were they equipped with the necessary resources to survive….”  It appears that success is defined by CD’s ability to provide the public with the means of survival (education, workable plans, and resources) which itself was dependent upon citizen contributions. His argues that CD planners needed to develop policies for survival, and success of these plans rested upon linking civic duty to the state, to the need for civilians to participate in fulfilling survival plans. However, he shows how Canadian citizens did not ‘buy into’ the concept that the costly and dangerous emergency responses necessary after an attack were responsibilities they, as citizens, were expected to bear.

The main emphasis of the book is upon planning and the difficulty involved in developing survival policies within the context of a rapidly changing political, strategic, and technological Cold War environment, and this is wherein the greatest success of the book lies. Burtch adeptly traces the history and development of the CD organization, and the major characteristics of the different strategies that were devised in response to an environment of change. The plans fell into three broad categories: The first was a strategy active from 1948 to 1954, and based upon firefighting and first aid. This was followed by one of urban evacuation from 1954 to 1959, and finally, strategies from 1959 emphasized shelter construction.

Using letters from citizens, CD meeting archives, and newspaper articles, the author posits how citizens never fully accepted the responsibility for nuclear civil defence or the concept of the obligation-based model of citizen as defender, willing to give their lives if necessary in helping cope with what was perceived as a ‘military’ problem. In addition to the practical reasons behind public rejection of CD plans (financial burden and physical risk) was a psychological issue. Canadians were constantly reminded of the dangers of nuclear weapons, but in being asked to prepare themselves for the worst, they were being asked to confront the possibility of Armageddon. This produced a huge amount of anxiety and apathy, which undermined CD efforts and formed a great obstacle to success.

However, Burtch does not expand upon how public policy success or failure should be assessed in such a context. Should CD have done more to change public psychological considerations? How does one define success in a situation where it can never be tested? What lessons are there for policy makers who have to prepare the country for threat or change? Burtch does not extend his thinking in these directions, and therefore leaves us with a book, the usefulness of which in terms of the practicality of policy is short-changed.

Ultimately, however, Burtch’s book is more than half-way successful. He shows that citizens did not accept the role CD had devised for them, evidenced by a lack of volunteers; the fact that people were reluctant to invest in the bomb shelters they were told were necessary; and that they did not accept survival training that was highly militarized. He also outlines failures on the part of CD itself—evolving policies often seemed contradictory, and CD reorganizations, uneven municipal programs, and poor communication limited CD usefulness during the ‘dress rehearsal’ known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Yet, Burtch’s arguments are not without issues. He fails from the outset to establish within his analytical framework a clear benchmark from which to measure success. It should also be noted that without a true test (detonation of an atomic bomb on Canadian soil), it is difficult to make judgements with respect to success or failure. One has to question if success was achievable at all, as the scale and scope of nuclear destruction was a threat to which no credible defence could be made, and this is a point Burtch himself acknowledges. Moreover, all the blame cannot fall on CD planning. Civilian apathy, government debates, and financial issues limited resources and capabilities, and general fear and panic were bound to inhibit rational thinking during a crisis. If the ambition of the CD planners was to prepare the public, and this is certainly a measure of success, then it is hard to point to the rejection of such preparation as a failure of CD.

Despite this, the book and its many themes do indeed hold many valuable insights for those studying Cold War Canada from a number of perspectives. Weaving together such a range of subjects—from politics, to psychology, to gender and sociology—is not an easy task, but Give Me Shelter is quite successful as a history. Burtch has produced a book on a subject of which little is written in the Canadian context, and he has managed to take a large amount of information and turn it into a highly readable and very efficient historical study. Give Me Shelter is well laid out, demonstrates an expert grasp of the subject  and of available sources, and is highly readable. Burtch has uncovered a truly fascinating, yet complex area of Cold War history that merits further study, and his book is recommended to anyone interested in Canada’s strategic, political, and social Cold War history.

Michael Thompson is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa, specializing in the history of defence & security policy in 20th Century Canada. Related areas of study include military procurement, foreign policy, and the history of Canadian science and technology policy.