Thursday, July 19, 2007

A trip in space becomes a trip in time. Molly can remember the Cold War years when she grew up, though the specifically "politically connected" memories are far outnumbered by memories of other matters. As a child of socialists growing up in the middle of nowhere in rural Saskatchewan the "A-Bomb fears" were hardly as vivid as I suspect they were for people living in urban areas or for those more inclined to trust government propaganda. No bomb shelters out where I grew up. Nothing to bomb. It was decades later that I learned that Silton where I grew up was used by air force pilots for navigation- mainly because it was the only recognizable sight in large expanses of nothing in that part of the province. I guess that we could always have used the pits under the outhouses for shelter.
Anyways, while in Ottawa we had the occasion to visit the 'Diefenbunker'. This little relic lays a little distance to the west of the capital. When I asked the guide on the phone how long it takes to get there from downtown Ottawa she said about 45 minutes. When I told her I had no clue about where I was going she said, "give yourself an hour". Molly's lead foot got us there in 30 minutes. Cars travel faster today then they did way back then.
The 'Diefenbunker' was built from 1959 to 1961 when John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister (he was in power from 1957 to 1963). Hence the name of the facilities. Going down this little rabbit hole is a time warp that takes you into an Alice in Wonderland world that seems just as strange as the novels of Lewis Carroll when seen from the perspective of today. It was built to house a shift of about 40 or 50 soldiers (one wonders what the shift "off duty" at the time of an attack were expected to do) and about 500 "essential" (from a statist point of view) other personnel- including the politicians of course. One assumes that the "saved" would include the truck drivers who would deliver the Bank of Canada's gold bullion to the vault provided for it. More on this vault later. Or maybe not. Perhaps they expected the drivers to quietly exit after making their delivery.
The whole place is a standing monument to an overweaning optimism that passes well into the territory of insanity. The command and control centre shows every indication that there would be 1) some sort of surviving and functioning military and governmental structure all across the country that would provide reports to this centre and 2) some surviving way of actually communicating with whatever other deeply buried rabbits might have survived the notoriously bad Russian aim. The unreality of this in an age when the height of telecommunications was phone lines and when a "bunker" is supposedly designed to withstand a nearby hit but no notice is taken of the fact that radio communication presupposes standing transmission towers and antennae-exposed by their very nature- can only be explained by the fact that the whole affair was designed by government. Government, of course, can never imagine its abscense. To the statist mind government is as natural as ground and sky, and they can never inagine a situation where they are totally helpless and irrelevant. The best they can imagine is being defeated by another government which will do what they do, just with different people and policy. Mutual anniliation is beyond their intellectual horizons.
Perhaps even more bizarrely the military planners envisioned that the radioactivity outside would have dissipated enough so that they could be puttering around outside and "reconstructing" in about 30 days. Yeah, I'm sure. All the facts about the half lives of radioisotopes were quite available at the time. The equipment may have been primitive by the standards of our day, but the basic facts were known. If the reader is interested I refer them to for a rundown on the half lives of some common consituents of atomic fallout. Iodine-131 does indeed have a half life of only 8 days, and I guess this is the only thing they based their plans upon. Staging up we have cesium-137 (behaves chemically like potassium) with 30 years, strontium-90 (analogous to calcium) with 28 years and, of course, plutonium with a half life of 24,000 years. Go to the source above for more numbers.
Meanwhile, according to this fantasy the population outside listens to the CBC broadcasts of patriotic tunes, Glenn Gould, Don Messer and reassuring statements from the rabbit government miraculously broadcast across the country from the equally miraculously surviving transmission tower atop the bunny warren. Down the hole the emergency government and its minions are kept "psychologically stable" (as if they were in the first place) by the latest in psychiatric technology ie painting the walls and floors in nice pastel colours. The problem was that the colour they chose was the "hospital green" that proved capable of reminding even the least imaginative people in hospitals across the world of "pus and puke". The colour scheme never was changed through in all the years of the Diefenbunker's existence (it was decommisioned in 1994). More on this psychological stability later.
Not that the bunker was ever a popular item amongst the more intelligent politicians of the day. The plan included up to 500 politicians and their minions to be evacuated there, but their families were excluded. When then Prime Minister John Difenbaker learned of this and told it to his wife Olive she was less than pleased- to say the least. John responded with a public vow to "never set foot in the bunker", either in a crisis or in normal times. He never did. Once more a very strange time. Those who have grown up with the conservatives of recent decades would probably have a hard time imagining a time when the first Bill of Rights (1960) was introduced by a Conservative rather than a Liberal government, when the Conservative Party stood for increasing social programs, when the Conservatives stood for increased independence from the USA and led the fight within the Commonwealth to exclude the apartheid regime of South Africa.They would also have a hard time imagining a time when "Bay Street" plotted against a conservative government because it was "anti-business". The height of the Diefenbaker years may have been one of two decisions. One was to refuse to immediately go to 'DefCon-3' during the Cuban missile crisis (though this hesitation was undercut by the treachery of then Defense Minister Douglas Harkness and some military officials who would have been convicted of mutiny in saner times). The second was to refuse the installation of nuclear warheads on the Bomarc missiles and Voodoo aircraft, a move that was demanded by the American government. This issue led to the resignation of Harkness (good riddance-Molly) and the defeat of Diefenbaker's government on a non-confidence motion. The warheads were eventually installed by the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson that came to power in 1963. A Molly Prize to the astute reader who can guess which leader, Diefenbaker or Pearson, eventually won a 'Nobel Peace Prize'. That decision was right down there with giving one to Henry Kissinger.
In his later years Diefenbaker became increasingly cranky, spending his energies in trying to keep the Red Ensign as the flags and railing against the removal of the coat of arms from mailboxes. When he died in 1979, however, tens of thousands of the 'little people' who he defended during his life lined the railway tracks to pay their respects as his body was transported back to Saskatchewan. If you want to read more about Diefenbaker there is a Wikipedia article on him as well as the Diefenbaker Web.
But back to the Diefenbunker. You thought I'd wandered totally off topic didn't you ? The sort of "psychological stability" that the planners hoped to preserve (with the aid of an internal brig that could contain 12 people max- ah that optimism) became quite public in 1984 when Corporal Denis Lortie was the one soldier in charge of the armoury at the bunker during his shift. When Lortie was granted leave on May 7th with the excuse of settling a divorce from his wife and goodly amount of pilfered weaponry and ammunition left with him. The next day it showed up again when Lortie entered the National Assembly in Quebec City toting two submachine guns. He killed three people and wounded 13 others. He was eventually persuaded to release his hostages and surrender to military police by the Sergeant at Arms Rene Jalbert. Most of the story is told in a Wikipedia article on the event minus the fact that he was employed at the Diefenbunker and the sequel back there. Lortie was originally sentenced for first degree murder, but in a new trial in 1987 he agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder. He was parolled in December of 1995 without any indication that he wasn't still crazy. Well behaved perhaps, but he was also well behaved when he was a soldier.
Meanwhile back at the Diefenbunker things were rather freaky. The military geniuses that presumed that they could plan to rule a country after an atomic war woke up to the fact that it might just possibly be a tiny, little, itsy-bitsy sort of a good idea to have two guards on the armoury rather than one. Well yeah ! Ah, but here Molly comes to the end of her story. Back to the vault where the gold bullion was supposed to be stored during the nuclear war. A rather impressive structure, much more sturdy than the rest of the bunker that housed mere people and useful machinery. The original plan was that it would take a minimum of four people to open the vault. It would take six if the powers that be were particularily nervous. Read this last paragraph again slllloooowlly. Four to six to guard the gold, with mirrors arranged so that the guards could see around corners. One man to guard the weapons tucked away in an obscure corner.
The military and politican mind works in strange ways, and it's argueable that the whole scheme behind the Diefenbunker was just as crazy or even more so than Denis Lortie. Perhaps he fit right in. Anyways it was back down the 417 and back to Ottawa, even speedier than getting there, after Molly's little visit to this rather stange reminder of the not so distant past. I'm sure that people 45 years in the future will find that the acts of our present rulers are just as strange to them as the Cold War is to us today.
Honest John has the final word here. Look at the pictures above and say that it doesn't seem that Dief the Chief is mooning the Bunker named after him that he vowed never to set foot in.


Larry Gambone said...

My first interest in politics began with Dief. I was 12 at the time and with a child's intution found him honest and what he said implied that he was for the people. With the failure of the Diefenbaker Conservatives, I then moved on the the NDP, the fate of a lot of Dief supporters, I believe.From the NDP I went to the NEW Left and from there to anarchism. I should point out that my essential values have remained the same in those 50 years.

mollymew said...

One thing that I didn't include in the above was that Diefenbaker was, according to many sources, one of the few MPs opposed to the internment of Japanese Canadians during WW2. Dief was the leader of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party from 1936 to 1940 and was elected as the MP for the riding of Lake Centre in 1940. This riding was abolished in 1953 at which time he became MP for Prince Albert from 1953 to 1979 when he died.
Not that Molly didn't try to dig up the matter of his opposition, but she decided to not include it because she couldn't verify the "when" and "how much" when she wrote the above post. War on Japan was declared in 1941 when Diefenbaker was in the House of Commons, but the internet is a crude tool for verification unless you search long enough for original sources.
What is NOT in doubt is that Diefenbaker opposed the internment long before it became a "politically correct" cause. Aside from Douglas and Woodsworth, especially the latter, Diefenbaker may be viewed as a fossil of the times when politicians actually had the thing called "principles". The paraphased quote from him that I often use is "dogs know best what to do with poles" shows just how far he is from the politicians of today who change their convictions with a 5% move of public opinion polls. His government fell on the nuclear weapons issue. Even though he was betrayed by some in his own party and the military Dief stuck to his guns.
Politicians today actually rarely have the "luxury" of real opinions. They are more obviously professional liars then they were back in "the old days". MANY people in the Saskatchewan that I grew up in would vote NDP in provincial elections and Conservative in federal elections because there was actually a melding of policy amongst the two parties. Nowadays parties rarely have anything resembling "policy" that a person could make a choice from. This includes the "goddamn NDP" of which I used to be a member.