Historicist: Atomic Anxiety

Torontonians respond to the threat of nuclear bombs during the Cold War.


Regency Acres bomb shelter diagram, Toronto Star (January 17, 1959).

Responding to a recent Canadian Institute of Public Opinion poll that found 36 per cent of Canadians believed a Soviet attack was imminent—and that the majority population had little idea of what action to take in an atomic blast—Wallace Goforth and Sidney Katz sketched how such an attack might play out in Maclean’s (June 15, 1951).

In the first wave, a fleet of more than 50 Soviet bombers would, in a pre-dawn surprise attack, pepper major North America cities and targets—including nine Canadian targets identified as high-value. Then, parachuting in, a second wave of commandos would blow up bridges, mines, communications lines, and industrial works to sabotage Canada’s ability to respond. In outlining possible civil defence responses, the authors implored that civilian workers in industrial cities like Toronto remain at their machines even as bombs might fall. “Our cities must fight back; every factory, in effect, becomes a front-line position that must be held,” they argued. “Every day a worker is off the job is a day presented to the enemy.”

This article and similar contemporary accounts in other publications presumed that Toronto, as an important industrial centre, would be bombed. In October 1949, authorities estimated that an atomic detonation at Yonge and College would kill or injure 100,000. “Six such bombs, properly directed,” a municipal official told reporters at the time, “and pffft—no more Toronto.” Just over a decade later, a new estimate accounted for technological advances in weaponry. In April 1963, authorities believed a five-megaton bomb at Bay and Bloor would level everything between the lakeshore and the 401, instantly killing 410,000 and injuring another 106,000.

Responses to growing atomic anxiety in Toronto were varied. Efforts by some in local government to prepare the city and its citizens for possible nuclear holocaust were starved for lack of commitment and public funds. Federal efforts often amounted to little more than publicity campaigns, leaving it to citizens themselves to pursue do-it-yourself preparations like basement fallout shelters.


Cover story on Soviet bomb test in the Globe and Mail (September 24, 1949).

Toronto officials were among the first in Canada to recognize the need for local disaster planning to address the new threats of the atomic age. After forming a municipal Civil Defence Planning Committee in October 1948 at Ottawa’s suggestion, city council recruited a retired military officer to be the committee chair. Decorated for his part in the 1942 Dieppe raid, Major-General Churchill Mann also served in command of the 7th Infrantry Brigade and as Chief of Staff for General Harry Crerar. City officials found him raising cattle in York County, north of Toronto, where Mann had retired shortly after the end of the Second World War.

Tasked with developing a plan outlining a response to the possibility of atomic weapons being dropped on Toronto, Mann worked from Canadian and British wartime civil defence manuals and American resources, as Andrew Burtch explains in his just-published and invaluable history of Cold War Canada, Give Me Shelter (UBC Press, 2012). Mann’s draft blueprint, according to newspaper reports, addressed the issues which the federal government had identified as being municipal responsibilities: install a public warning system, implement mitigation strategies for transportation systems and food supplies, recruit and train civil defence volunteers who—in the chaos of the disaster itself—will work with the military to fight fires, rescue the injured, and maintain essential communication and sanitation services.

Seeking input and guidance from Canada’s civil defence co-ordinator, Major-General F.F. Worthington, Mann submitted a draft of his plan to the federal government on September 23, 1949. The very next day, President Harry S. Truman announced to the press and public news of the USSR’s successful test detonation of an atomic bomb.

Until that point, Burtch argues, federal authorities had demonstrated little leadership on Cold War civil defence. But now, fearing that other municipalities would follow Toronto’s lead and develop their own individual, independent atomic response plans, Worthington urged Mann to cease his efforts until a coordinated federal plan could be finalized. The reality was, Burtch writes, that although national defence was clearly a federal responsibility, effective civil defence required cooperation between all three levels of government, leading to ongoing bickering about which level ought to be footing the bill. An editorial in the Globe and Mail (October 19, 1950) complained about the lack of progress on Mann’s detailed plan due to city council apathy and unwillingness to spend the necessary funds.

“On Guard for Canada” exhibit, Globe and Mail (September 25, 1953).

Despite a lack of cohesive leadership from the various levels of government, the Canadian public was anxious for information about seemingly imminent Soviet attacks and how to respond. Newspaper and magazine articles on the subject were common, as were lectures like one entitled “Could Toronto Survive Atomic Attack?” given at the Canadian Club in March 1950 by John Caulfied Smith, an Oakville-based architect and correspondent for Chatelaine.

Worried that a lack of information would lead to greater public anxiety, the federal government implemented a series of public information campaigns. Beginning in 1950, Worthington’s team published a series of manuals on civil defence topics. Millions of copies of these and other information booklets were distributed across the country.

In an early attempt to raise public awareness, in March 1952 the federal government exhibited at the Canadian National Sportsmen’s Show in Toronto. In addition to a bomb shelter mock-up, the display included a panel, Burtch writes, “dedicated to a graphic treatment of an illuminated atomic bomb cloud flashing on and off over a city skyline,” and other panels emphasizing that civil defence volunteerism was the responsibility of all good citizens—a message echoed in the press of the day. Like many in the press, Goforth and Katz echoed this sentiment in Maclean’s: “The citizens of each community are responsible for their own civil-defense [sic] preparations….[I]n the last analysis your community will be as safe as you and your neighbors make it.”

There was controversy a year later when a major, federally-funded atomic weapons awareness campaign—so large that its transportation required seven tractor-trailers, two station wagons, and a three-ton truck—bypassed Toronto as a result of penny-pinching municipal officials. Mayor Allan Lamport, also chair of the city’s Executive Committee on civil defence, balked at the exhibit’s $1,000 price tag. “We just don’t have that kind of money lying around,” he told reporters, adding that, as a federal responsibility, that level of government ought to pay for it.

Photograph of air raid siren at Dundas Street West and Shaw Street by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.

The federal government delivered air-raid sirens to the city of Toronto in 1952 for use in alerting citizens to impending danger. But municipal officials balked at the installation costs, preferring instead to purchase uniforms, helmets, and other trinkets for the few Torontonians that had actually volunteered for civil defence efforts.

City officials felt, Leslie Scrivener explained in the Star (September 23, 2007), that all costs associated with the sirens should be borne by Ottawa or the province. By the time the sirens were finally installed in a series of locations around the city by the late 1950s, many didn’t even work. And even those that did weren’t very helpful. After an air-raid drill in 1961, many Torontonians complained that they couldn’t hear the warning tone. One of the few remaining sirens can be seen on the grounds of the Bellwoods Centre at Dundas Street West and Shaw Street.

Toronto Star (January 17, 1959).

The first generation of plans to respond to a nuclear attack called for the orderly evacuation of major centres—including Toronto—based on the assumption that any attack would come by manned bombers and be detected by early warning systems.

Calgary was evacuated in Operation Lifesaver in September 1955 to test the feasibility of such plans. After observing the live drill firsthand, Burtch notes, Toronto alderman Donald Summerville was unimpressed. Mass evacuation might work in a mid-sized city like Calgary, Summerville thought, but it would never work in the Metro Toronto region. Indeed, if Toronto’s more than 200,000 car owners tried to hurriedly evacuate the city and suburbs at once, they would succeed not only in clogging the highways but also in preventing emergency personnel from rapidly accessing the city.

Looking back at the age of 70, Toronto Telegram reporter Gordon Donaldson reflected on the naïvete of the era. “People were assured there was a superb evacuation plan in place,” he told Mitch Potter of the Star (August 29, 1999), “but basically, the plan was ‘Drive up Yonge St. till you hit the country and keep going.’”

In these early years of the atomic age, Anne Fisher argues in her masters thesis on Cold War civil defence in Canada, nuclear bombs had been discussed in terms of conventional weapons. An A-bomb being the equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT, for example. But this conveniently ignored that the former burned several million degrees centigrade hotter than the latter. The devastating impact of radioactive fallout was not yet well understood.

The continuous technological improvement in warfare also meant that the USSR could deliver nuclear payloads by intercontinental missile, virtually eliminating any opportunity for early warning detection. And the blast of the newest hydrogen bombs, according to one expert quoted by Burtch, would leave a 16-kilometre-wide crater at ground zero, flatten everything in all directions for eight to 16 kilometres, and scatter radioactive fallout further still, depending on weather patterns.

The more the public and officials learned about atomic weapons, the more they realized the impossibility of mass evacuation, particularly after the effects of radiation became better understood and after the introduction of the hydrogen bomb. Mass evacuation had been rendered moot, Minister of National Defence George Pearkes admitted to journalists by October 1959. As a new strategy, he suggested that Canadians—or at least those far enough from city centres to survive the initial blast—construct concrete-block shelters, outfitted with food and drink, sanitation equipment, bedding, and everything else to sustain themselves for an extended period.

Air raid shelter, Queen’s Park Crescent and College St., July 1960, Archives of Ontario (C 5-2-2-47-3).

Bomb shelters had long fascinated the public and public displays were common, even before the federal government officially encouraged private citizens to build their own basement and backyard shelters through the publication and distribution of millions of information booklets on the topic.

In August 1955, more than 60,000 visitors inspected a functional, above-ground bomb shelter erected outside Old City Hall by the Telegram. The display—with interior furnishing provided by Eaton’s—was so popular that it was relocated to the CNE so its exhibition could be extended.

Telegram reporter Donaldson resided in the shelter for 48 hours, along with his wife and two goldfish, and attested: “Things weren’t quite so bad as we had feared.” Similar publicity stunts recurred in the coming years. Toronto alderman Ross Parry and his wife spent seven days in a shelter north of Toronto. “Nothing we could do stopped our downward plunge into remorse and despondency,” Parry remarked to journalists.

The McCallum family was certainly more upbeat in September 1961 when they emerged from a fallout shelter outside the CBC headquarters after a week. Warmly greeted by Mayor Nathan Phillips (but jeered by anti-bomb protesters), John McCallum told Norman DePoe in an interview for the CBC news. “Not only did we survive, but if you look at the children I think you’d agree that we thrived,” said John McCallum. He added: “And now we are sort of connoisseurs of various brands of canned food.”

Many Torontonians constructed fallout shelters, including Lady Eaton and mayor Nathan Phillips—who also had access to an underground operations centre for Metro officials beneath an Aurora farmhouse. With prices ranging from $400 to $10,000, Maclean’s (December 2, 1961) reported, the majority of bomb shelters were built for upper-income professionals. Although sources suggest that more fallout shelters were built in Toronto than elsewhere in Canada, because many were built secretly, there was never an accurate count of the number of shelters in the city, as Potter noted decades later.

Crime writer Ted Wood was typical of the do-it-yourself bomb shelter enthusiasts in the Toronto suburbs. “I am convinced that a nuclear war will come within a year,” he told Maclean’s. “Toronto may not be a prime target but we will likely get our share. My house is about nine miles from the city centre, which will presumably be Ground Zero, and I think my shelter is strong enough to withstand the blast at that distance, even if the house collapses.”

Many homeowners kept their shelters secret for fear of ridicule from apathetic neighbours; or they built decoy entrances to thwart neighbours who might, in the event of a nuclear emergency, try to storm their enclosure. Woods, in contrast, practically boasted of his preparations:

My neighbors think I’m an idiot and I know I’m not heroic, but I’m prudent. I am an ex-policeman, which makes me a bit cynical about human conduct, and I don’t think there will be much nobility when the bomb drops. The scoffers will be the first to rush for my shelter, and that’s why I taught my wife to shoot—I may not be at home, and this is to protect my family.

Hearing such anecdotes prompted one Toronto rabbi to lament: “The man who would keep a weapon to fight off his neighbours isn’t the kind that should survive.”

Real estate developers soon seized upon atomic anxiety as part of their sales pitch. Regency Acres, a 700-unit housing development built in Aurora by the Consolidated Building Corporation, was specifically advertised to Torontonians in early 1959 as a safer alternative to downtown living. For just $1,500, Burtch reports, prospective owners could have an affordable, top-of-the-line basement shelter incorporated into the construction of their new home. Features of the shelter included 12-inch-thick, steel-lined concrete walls, bunk beds, and a hand-operated air filtration system, all kept behind the air-tight seal of a rolled, two-inch steel door.

Left: Advertisement for Regency Acres, Toronto Star (January 24, 1959).

A press and dignitary-filled opening ceremony was not without controversy when H.O. Waffle, the reeve of Etobicoke and then-chair of Metro’s civil defence committee, did not feel he’d been given a prominent enough role and angrily walked out halfway through the festivities.

Waffle was asked by a reporter what he thought of Regency Acres. “Humph,” was his taciturn reply to the Star (January 17, 1959). “Don’t ask me. Ask the mayor. It seems the chairman of the civil defence committee doesn’t count around here.”

As with the evacuation plan, the utility of fallout shelters was soon surpassed by the rational acknowledgement of the realities of the atomic age. Rather than being effective against radioactive fallout, Burtch notes, the likelihood was that shelters in or adjacent to major centres like Toronto would simply serve as tombs in the event of an attack.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut found another tack for criticizing the proliferation of shelters. “Our preoccupation with fallout and bomb shelters is fast becoming a national obsession,” he pontificated in a sabbath sermon at the Holy Blossom Temple (as reported in the Star [November 4, 1961]). “This is not planning for survival—this is planning for utter moral dissolution.” He added: “The only real deterrent which exists in the world today is not a refuge underground, but our conviction, our sacred holy determination that war can not and shall not be.”

Additional sources consulted: Andrew Burtch, “Armageddon on tour: The ‘On Guard, Canada!’ civil defence convoy and responsible citizenship in the early Cold War,” in International Journal 61.3 (Summer 2006); Anne Fisher, “Civil Defence in Canada, 1939-1965: Garnering Public Support For War and Nuclear Weapons Through the Myth of Protection,” M.A. Thesis (Lakehead University, 1999) [PDF]; and articles from the Globe and Mail (September 24, 1949; September 21, 1950; September 25, 1953; September 25, 1953; October 3, 1959); and the Toronto Star (September 19, 1953; January 16, 1959; January 17, 1959; January 17, 1989; August 29, 1999).

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