Digging in at the Diefenbunker:
The Canadian Cold War Museum
By Ken Aiken
Photos by the author
When the wail of the air raid sirens sounded we cowered beneath our desks. We knew the routine. We knew who the enemy was. We never questioned whether or not we were safe in our very narrow valley far from any conceivable military target. This was the Cold War and we lived under threat from The Bomb.
While we were hiding beneath our school desks, the Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, had secretly—well, almost secretly—been constructing over 50 underground bunkers across the country. The largest of these, designed to shelter the working government of Canada, was constructed just 20 minutes outside of Ottawa in the village of Carp. When a reporter exposed the expensive secret project, the Liberal opposition party nicknamed it the “Diefenbunker.”
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but, of course, that was the whole point. A nondescript, corrugated sheet metal shed with one small loading dock, a garage door, and a standard set of double entry doors is the only visible entrance. Another set of standard double doors opens to reveal a 115-meter (377 ft.)-long tunnel that slopes down into the bowels of the Earth. Pairs of vault-like blast doors are the first suggestion that something of importance is buried here. Today this is the Canadian Cold War Museum, but from 1962 until 1994 it was the nation’s strategic command center.
At 100,000 square feet and four stories deep, the Diefenbunker was the largest of Canada’s military fallout shelters. Pass through those massive blast doors and it’s like you’ve stepped back in time to the late 1960s or into a Sci-Fi-Spy thriller.
The heavily reinforced concrete bunker is like a giant cube divided into four levels with a square central corridor on each floor. Within lies everything needed to sustain up to 600 people while keeping the government in operation and communicating with the armed forces in the event of a nuclear attack.
The security post lies just behind the blast doors, but these days it supports the museum store where you can pick up bottled water and MREs (Meals Ready-To Eat) just in case. The decontamination showers are immediately to the left, followed by the hospital and recovery room. Proceeding down the narrow corridor you’ll pass by doors, many of which are ominously locked and barred. Yet many do open to show exhibits that explain different aspects of the Cold War.
On September 5, 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a Russian cypher clerk working in the Russian embassy in Ottawa, stole 109 secret documents and defected to Canada. These documents not only proved that the Soviets were spying on Canada, they led to the arrest of agents highly placed within the government and radically changed the country’s views on communism.
The first atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945. The Soviets developed the R-7, the first ballistic missile, in 1957. The first use of this rocket was to place a satellite, Sputnik, in orbit on 4 October of that year, thereby initiating the Space Race — or depending upon your perspective, the Nuclear Arms Race. By 1960 both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had intercontinental ballistic missiles deployed and aimed. Although the Canadian government declined to produce nuclear weapons, it was considered a target nevertheless. Then, in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis poised the world at the very edge of Armageddon.
With an abundance of artifacts in these exhibits, the reality of this recent period in our history becomes tangible. How recently this era ended becomes surprisingly evident while looking through one of the last Civil Defense publications to be printed in any quantity: a 1988 Home Fallout Protection booklet. It focuses on several different designs and building plans for constructing bomb shelters in residential homes; very practical for DIY handymen.
Another room illustrates how radium and radioactivity were very exciting concepts for the public in the decades prior to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were all sorts of health benefits attributed to radium, and the name was widely used in commercial products and advertising. Uranium-colored “Vaseline” glassware, clocks with radium dials, minerals, early x-ray plates, consumer products like Radium-brand creamery butter, Radium cream metal polish, X-ray stove polish, and Stone sparkplugs with plutonium electrodes were popular products during the 1930s. There’s even a radioactive ore specimen kit from Ken Research on display—an essential tool for mineral collectors and uranium prospectors.
While the excellent interpretive displays and research library are located on this top floor, Level A-400, it’s the next level down that’s the heart of the museum. Level A-300 is pretty much what a high-security visitor would have seen during the 1970s. This was where serious business was taken care of. The War Cabinet Room; Emergency Government Situation Center; Main Conference Room; CBC Radio studio; computer center; communications centers; teletype machines; the Prime Minister’s office and quarters; and dozens of other rooms used for offices, equipment repair, and even the strictly segregated women’s quarters were located on this level.
The massive processing units and tape drives in the computer room are a shocking reality check, so too for the tube-and-transistor radio equipment. This was state-of-the-art military equipment in the 1970s. Technology has advanced at such an exponential rate during the last four decades that the smart phone in my pocket has greater capacity and capabilities than all of this equipment combined!
The A-200 level to the kitchen and food storage isn’t accessible, but A-100 provides entrance into the mess hall and recreation rooms. Another long concrete corridor with bare walls leads to a room protected by a stunning stainless-steel vault door. Even the reinforced steel-mesh inner door has four combination locks to secure it. This was to be the repository of Canada’s gold reserves if a nuclear attack became imminent.
As you wind your way back to level A-400, exiting through the blast doors, and walking up the access tunnel, a pause is required. In one corner of this small, corrugated metal shack sits an atomic bomb—a MK-4—like a long-forgotten project left in a garage to gather dust. Positioned behind trash bins and a bucket of road salt its effect on the world seems minimized, like just another piece of junk waiting to be recycled. If it only could be so — but the genie can never be put back in the bottle and, as recent world events demonstrate, the threat of The Bomb remains with us.
IF YOU GO:
Diefenbunker, 3911 rue Carp Road, Carp, Ontario K0A 1L0 (800) 409-1965 www.diefenbunker.ca
Admission: $14 adult; $13 seniors; $10 students; $8 youth; under 5 free; Family $40
Follow Trans-Canadian Route 417 west from Ottawa and take Exit 144 onto Carp Road. Continue north until reaching the quaint village of Carp, crossing the railroad tracks and at the top of the hill turn left onto the access road and into the parking area. There are numerous signs to guide you.