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  • Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence by Andrew Burtch
  • Peter H. Denton
Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence. Andrew Burtch. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. Pp. 277, $32.95

The value of an academic book may be measured by its longevity on one’s office shelf. New interpretations tend to wax and wane, but the best books are kept close at hand because they contain material that, regardless of the author’s spin, is of ongoing value. Andrew Burtch’s Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence will be around for a while. His narrative of civil defence activities in Canada in the postwar period is as useful for reference as it is amusing to read, even if some of the interpretation may be challenged.

In his role as historian for the post-1945 period at the Canadian War Museum, Burtch has done precisely what his job requires. He has distilled into publishable form, not only a narrative of events, but an inventory of sources upon which others may draw for further scholarship and for teaching. It is helpful to have evidence and documents gathered in one place to support an aspect of Canadian military history – and Canadian history in general – that in textbooks is too often mentioned only in passing. As a chronological narrative of efforts to develop and promote civil defence in Canada, Give Me Shelter is thus an excellent resource.

The narrative begins with a brief description of what preceded Cold War civil defence. In effect, civil defence was understood in reference to the possibilities of aerial assault feared in the 1930s, and then by what was experienced on all sides in the Second World War. The [End Page 627] problem that civil defence needed to solve was how to manage civilian populations made targets of enemy activity in the midst of what became known as total war. The time frames Burtch selects for his chapters reflect the global dynamics of the development, testing, and use – potential or actual – of nuclear weapons, as well as crucial junctures in world events such as the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Once the Russians had the atomic bomb and then the hydrogen bomb, everything changed. Civil defence was construed – had to be – within a framework of response to nuclear attack. Burtch’s narrative is thus punctuated by specific events and issues outside the control of those trying to plan and develop civil defence in Canada.

He sets up two parallel tracks that overlap chronologically. The first looks at how the consequences of nuclear war were gradually understood and communicated to the public, leading, for instance, to responses that considered the need for evacuations of cities likely to be targeted. The second looks at the development and promotion of fallout shelter programs, particularly those focused on shelters to be built by individuals. The government had some apparent expectations of what a “good citizen” should do, yet Burtch describes the result of their efforts as a failure. In Burtch’s narrative, “good citizens” of Canada were expected to do their part in preparations for Armageddon, but – on the whole – they did not, either individually or collectively. This is where his interpretation falters.

The book’s title is more than a misnomer: it is the essence of the problem. The story is really not about the failure of Canada’s Cold War civil defence efforts, but their futility. It is impossible to judge the success or failure of something that, in fairness, never existed outside of theory. The ideas of what constituted civil defence in Canada were derivative and fragmentary, just as borrowed as the retouched American displays that toured the country, and efforts to promote it were not just doomed to failure, but futile from the start. This futility had two facets. One was the public realization that atomic (then nuclear) war changed everything. Canadians were not unaware or unafraid of the nuclear threat, but there was no consensus about the responsibilities of citizenship or what “good citizens” should do in the postwar world awaiting Armageddon. Nuclear war was part of the...


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pp. 627-629
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