Editor's note: Seventy years ago this month, in the waning stages of the Second World War, the U.S. dropped the world's first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, instantly killing an estimated 100,000 people, and leaving the two cities poisoned by radiation and in ruins. Later, tens of thousands more died from cancer and other illnesses. The bombings also triggered the nuclear arms race, which brought the world to the brink of annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The Observer commemorates the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by republishing articles, photos and illustrations from the 1940s, plus this story from September 1997.
Everything is in black and white, except the yellow airplane. My sister, my friend from up the street and I are in my backyard treehouse. Below, my father assembles a swing-set. It is a sparkling summer day.
In the distance, an airplane drones. I scan the clear sky but see nothing. Gradually, the drone changes pitch, and the airplane comes into view as a tiny speck high up and far away.
The speck grows and the drone deepens. The airplane is diving, fast; I can make out its wings and tail, pointing like crosshairs at my treehouse. The others stop what they’re doing and fasten their gaze on the sky. As the plane approaches, I notice that it is yellow.
We four stand frozen as it skims overhead into the trees behind us. There is a silent, brilliant flash and for an instant what was white becomes black, what was black becomes white. My legs won’t move and I can’t breathe. I scream but nothing comes out. Blackness rushes forward and I am suddenly alone in the middle of it.
Such is my nuclear nightmare — a recurring companion during my early years and something that pursued me into adulthood. It never became a reality but came close 35 years ago this fall.
My eighth birthday fell on Oct. 20, 1962 — a cool, damp Saturday that ushered in a cold front that would bring the season’s first snow to Galt (now Cambridge), Ont. We threw a party in the living room of my house on a tree-lined street in the city’s east end. My younger brother and sister were there as well as my best friend from up the street, his younger brother and likely a couple of kids from Miss Norman’s Grade 2 class at Central Public School.
I got a blue-and-white Daisy air-gun from my parents, which you pumped like Chuck Connors on Rifleman and which belched a wisp of oily smoke when you fired it.
We didn’t know it, but storm clouds were gathering fast over our happy group. Six days earlier, American reconnaissance flights had confirmed reports trickling in since mid-summer that the Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba able to propel nuclear warheads to targets in the U.S.
Then U.S. President John Kennedy was preparing to announce a naval blockade: Soviet ships carrying military equipment to Cuba would be prevented by force from crossing a quarantine line 500 miles out in the Atlantic. It was an enormous risk with the potential to plunge the world into war on an unimaginable scale.
But the crisis threatening the planet was escalating in secret, and Galt, Ont., went about business as usual. The Evening Reporter gave no hint of what was unfolding in Washington DC, Moscow and Havana. On Oct. 20, it described the successful test of a U.S. hydrogen bomb high above the South Pacific. Nothing unusual there; in the early ‘60s, stories about nuclear tests — nuclear anything — were fixtures on the front page. The day before, the Reporter noted that an American moon shot had failed, “possibly because of damage from recent high-altitude nuclear blasts.”
Two days earlier, there had been a story about how a record amount of radioactive fallout was raining down on Canadian farms, and how the federal government was considering an emergency shelter program for dairy cows and an emergency powered-milk program for humans.
My mother made one of her elaborately sculptured birthday cakes. We barely had time to finish the leftovers before Kennedy was on TV, informing the world it was on the edge of the abyss.
When I was eight, the world was small and unblemished. I had my family, my friends, my backyard. It was a white-picket-fence time, happy and secure. During that week in October 35 years ago, I learned that the world was big and full of danger, that my little part of it — birthdays, tree-houses, cowboy shows — could vanish forever on 15 minutes’ notice.
It all seems distant and surreal now. The gnawing fear that took hold in October 1962 has given way to a kind of numbness. I guess I just learned to stop being afraid and live with the Bomb, like everyone else. I have two children of my own now (the oldest recently turned 8), and they know nothing about the Cuban Missile Crisis or nuclear weapons, and I’m not inclined to tell them.
But the nuclear shadow never went away, it just faded from view. As it begins to darken again, I wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off staying afraid.
'Overall, adults tended to have abstract impressions of nuclear war. They could conceive of widespread material ruin — levelled cities, lifeless landscapes — much easier than they could tangible effects such as burns, mutilation and violent illness.'
In the mid-‘80s, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were locked in a
fiendish nuclear-arms buildup, the Institute of Medicine, part of the
U.S. National Academy of Sciences, sponsored a major symposium on “The
Medical Implications of Nuclear War.” Some of the papers dealt with the
psychological fallout of the nuclear threat. Researchers cited various
surveys that suggested most adults believed nuclear war wasn’t likely to
happen. Asked to rate the odds of nuclear war occurring in their
lifetimes, the typical answer was about one-in-three. There was not as
much optimism about the chance of surviving if one did occur; a 1983
Gallup pool showed 70 percent believed they would perish.
adults tended to have abstract impressions of nuclear war. They could
conceive of widespread material ruin — levelled cities, lifeless
landscapes — much easier than they could tangible effects such as burns,
mutilation and violent illness. By contrast, studies on adolescents
showed young people were vastly more concerned about the nuclear threat.
Surveys in the ‘70s and ‘80s indicated a majority believed nuclear war
would break out in their lifetime. In a 1984 survey of 1,000 high-school
students in Toronto, 51 percent listed war as one of their three major
worries, the highest rating of any category. Like counterparts
elsewhere, the study showed that Canadian young people did much of their
worrying alone — nuclear war wasn’t something their parents relished
The apparent discrepancy between adults and young
people intrigued Dr. Shlomo Breznitz, an Israeli authority on stress
denial. “Something happens between adolescence and adulthood that makes
people less worried,” he observed. He suggested it was a process of
denial, alluding to medical evidence showing “people in great trouble
sometimes have a better chance of survival if they deny the enormity of
what is happening to them.” Nuclear denial, played out collectively but
nurtured individually, starts in the same place as its civilian cousin;
it’s “a vital psychological sign (suggesting) a person is putting up a
defence, trying to protect him or herself from something terrible.”
argued we retreat into denial not because we lack information about
nuclear horrors, but because we know the nuclear threat all too well.
It’s so big we are unable to conceive of its effects concretely. We
don’t talk about it much or act to alleviate it because we’re loath to
be reminded of it.
My parents both grew up in the Depression,
and will forever be Depression babies. The generation born after the
Second World War labels itself variously as Baby Boomers, the TV
Generation, the Rock n’ Roll Generation, the Me Generation, but never
the Atomic Generation. But of all the factors that shaped the postwar
generation, surely none was as profound and pervasive as the nuclear
threat. TV may have helped us tune out, rock ‘n roll may have driven us
into a blissful frenzy, and maxed-out credit cards may have bought
fleeting material comfort. But none of these threatened to annihilate
humanity and render the planet forever toxic. Maybe we’ve been labelling
the symptoms of our denial but refusing to recognize the one thing that
actually identities us.
Once, war was something you left Galt,
Ont., for and — you hoped — came back from alive. In the atomic ‘60s,
war would come to Galt — an errant missile aimed at nearby Toronto,
Hamilton or targets in the northeastern U.S. or fallout drifting
earthward from poisoned skies. Hard-working, upright Galt — where Gordie
Howe played junior hockey and the biggest peril had always been an
invasion of starlings each summer — was as vulnerable as Omaha or
On Saturday mornings, we’d be reminded of it when
TV cartoons were interrupted by tests of the Emergency Broadcast System —
a shrill wail followed by the not-very-comforting disclaimer: “This is
only a test. Had there been an actual emergency . . . . “ Government
booklets arrived describing what families should do to survive a nuclear
attack (as if starting a war was the responsibility of generals in a
bunker somewhere while surviving it was up to us). When they tested the
air-raid siren beside Central Public School, we’d stop dead in our
tracks, wondering. There was such a steady diet of newspaper stories
about A-blasts, H-bombs, A-secrets and N-scientists that even the
alphabet took on a slightly sinister quality.
In 1961, my family
became the first on our block to own a bomb shelter. At that time, the
Diefenbaker government estimated there were up to 4,000-5,000 private
shelters in Canada, and the question of whether the government should
start a public shelter program and encourage more citizens to build
their own was high on the political agenda.
The Cold War grew
particular hot in 1961. In August, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall and
a month later cancelled a three-year moratorium on atmospheric nuclear
tests, exploding nearly 50 devices before the year was out; the
Americans quickly followed suit. As it happened, we were building a new
wing on our house that year, and after reading that plans for basement
shelters were available, my anxious parents decided to construct one.
was a room about 13 feet long, eight feet wide and six-and-a-half feet
high, windowless and built of thick reinforced concrete. We stocked it
with canned food, bottled water and other survival needs as well as
fold-up cots and blankets. My mother taught me how to use a can-opener,
how to prepare formula for my baby sister and how to count off 14 days —
the fallout danger zone — on a calendar without actually telling me why
she was doing so. I had my suspicions.
For my parents, the
shelter became a public expression of their “stark, wrenching fear for
the safety of our children,” as my mother later wrote. Some of the
neighbours made fun of us (even though a more elaborate shelter was
being built by another family a few blocks away). Others, only
half-joking, requested a reserved spot. My parents also feared, though,
what many other people believed — that no one could win or even survive
any nuclear war and even our shelter would only forestall the
The missile crisis proved a vindication for my
parents they would gladly have done without. I don’t recall having it
all spelled out for me, but I do recall worry settling heavily on our
house, the grave appearance of the people on TV and the big,
ominous-looking headlines in the newspaper. It seemed all along we’d
been getting ready for the worst thing in the world, and now it was
about to happen.
“May Clash By Tonight” warned a front-page
headline in the Evening Reporter on Oct. 23. “Potential Cuban Threat
could reach Most Canadian Cities,” cautioned another. A map showed that
most of the country east of Regina was within range of the missiles in
On the morning of Oct. 24, my mother bundled me up against
the early-season cold and drew me aside before I left for school. I
didn’t know it, but Soviet and American ships were expected to come
nose-to-nose sometime during the day. I’ll never forget my mother’s
words as she knelt down to speak to me. “The sirens may go off today and
they may tell you to stay in the school. I don’t want you to. I want
you to come home so we can all be together.” I knew exactly what she
That evening after supper, my father went back to the
office to work on the next year’s budget with his employer. He returned a
short while later. They had barely started when his employer stopped
and said, “Why are we bothering with this?”
At school that week,
our teachers tried hard — too hard, it seemed — not to alarm us. The
Galt Board of Education issued each school a transistor radio and a set
of guidelines. “In the event of a nuclear attack, schoolchildren will be
sent home with their families. If there is insufficient time, pupils
will be marshalled into the best-protected area of the school by
At Central School, that meant the basement. We
practised herding downstairs when the fire alarm sounded. Huddled
together on the cold cement floor, we were shown how to clasp our hands
behind our head and curl up into a sitting fetal position. In another
drill, we stayed in the classroom and crawled under our desks.
evening during the crisis, the school held a civil-defence session for
parents. They were advised to stockpile food, water and first-aid
supplies, and shown a film about surviving a nuclear attack. My best
friend’s mother, now in her late-70s, remembers walking home from the
session and gazing at the lights of Hamilton, off to the east. “I
remember thinking, ‘That’s where the flash will be.’”
Emergency Measures Organization planned a mock evacuation, reconnoitring
an escape route from Galt to the Georgian Bay city of Owen Sound, Ont.
Without a trace of irony, the Reporter noted the exercise had to be
abandoned due to bad weather and poor road conditions.
morning of the 24th, 16 Soviet ships steaming for Cuba changed course as
they approached the U.S. blockade line. Later, other Soviet vessels
escorted by submarines stopped dead in the water only a few miles from
the line. The crisis was by no means over, but the development signalled
hope for a negotiated settlement.
By Oct. 27, a deal was in the
works. It included guarantees that the Soviets would withdraw their
missiles from Cuba and that the Americans would end the blockade and not
attack Cuba, as the Cubans feared they would. There was also a less
formal understanding that the American would begin to remove missiles
they had earlier placed in Italy and Turkey’s frontier with the Soviet
Union; those missiles had rankled Moscow enough to risk the Cuba
Tensions over Cuba remained extremely high into
mid-November, until the Soviets withdrew their missiles and the U.S.
formally ended the blockade, downgraded its military alert levels and
began to dismantle a 100,000-strong invasion force it had assembled.
Galt, Ont., the crisis seemed to blow over as fast as it blew up.
“Anxious World Breathes Easier,” proclaimed the Reporter on Oct. 29.
Seemingly anxious to put the whole thing to rest, a front-page editorial
asked, “Was Cuban Crisis Real?” In an invitation to join hands in
denial, the writer concluded: “The best advice one can give is for the
average reader to settle down and not spend much time worrying about a
situation he cannot do much about anyway.”
We now know average
readers, if anything, should have spent more time worrying. Declassified
U.S. and Russian documents reveal just how close the two countries came
to blows. The Americans were prepared to invade Cuba if the Soviets
didn’t remove their missiles, and Moscow was prepared to use tactical
nuclear weapons to repel them. Both sides had raised their levels of
nuclear preparedness to hair-trigger high. And at the height of the
crisis, there were chilling instances of human miscalculation: CIA teams
positioned in Cuba before the crisis continued to carry out acts of
sabotage; a spy in Moscow mistakenly sent Washington the code for
imminent war; a U.S. spy plane from Alaska strayed into Soviet airspace
on the same day the trigger-happy Soviet gunners shot down another spy
plane over Cuba.
The weather improved enough by the end of the
crisis week that we were able to go outside and play again. That was
infinitely more important than any geopolitical manoeuvres in the
Washington and Moscow. They still tested the big air raid siren beside
Central School, and we headed inside when we heard it. Later, we grew
sufficiently used to it to keep on playing.
But the ghastly howl
never failed to send a shiver through me, even years later when it was
just a signal to a volunteer fire department. It still does.
The Atomic Age was only three years old
when the United Church’s new Committee on the Church and International
Affairs warned the 1948 General Council in Vancouver: “A serious factor
(in dealing with the nuclear threat) is the common man’s fear of war
with atomic weapons . . . and his feelings of helplessness and
frustration, which produce in turn a tendency to panic or fatalistic
The committee, including one former moderator, two
future moderators and the secretary of the General Council, seemed to
understand even then that two of the Bomb’s most deadly components are
fear and resignation. Convinced that “a mighty faith in the good purpose
of God and the spiritual worth and destiny of man” could tame the atom,
the committee worked for the next decade to make opposing the Bomb a
matter of Christian conscience.
In 1950, it declared that the use
of the hydrogen bomb was “mass murder.” In 1954, it endorsed a complete
end to nuclear testing and the view that nuclear weapons were
“intrinsically evil beyond all imagining.” By 1956, it was scolding “Man
(who) in his arrogance imagines he is most like God . . .” By the end
of the decade, it was questioning the wisdom and morality of Canada’s
role in a nuclear world.
Clergy, laypeople and decision-makers
embraced the committee’s pacifism, often under the banner of the
Canadian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1961, the Executive of
General Council called for a halt to all nuclear weapons testing and an
end to “the present suicidal arms race.”
But there were many
others who argued there was no place for neutralist thinking or pacifist
theology in a polarized world. Obviously, pacifism was not a unanimous
choice. At the 1962 General Council, two months before the missile
crisis, it acknowledged its own members were now divided on the nuclear
From the missile crisis on, public pronouncements by the
church on nuclear weapons were fewer and father between. Then in the
mid-‘80s, as the U.S. and Soviet Union faced off in an all-out arms
contest, the nuclear issue moved once more to centre stage. Groups, such
as Project Ploughshares, Operation Dismantle, Christian Movement for
Peace and Voice of Women forged a huge network of grassroots support for
campaigns against U.S. cruise-missile testing in Alberta, for creation
of a peace tax and for declaring Canada a nuclear-free zone. People,
such as Very Rev. Clarke MacDonald, moderator from 1984 to 1986, gave
the United Church high visibility with fiery letters to politicians and a
rock-solid conviction that promoting peace in warlike times was the
duty of all Christians.
As the arms race waned in the late ‘80s,
however, so did the visibility of the nuclear-weapons issue in the
United Church. The church is still concerned about the worldwide
proliferation of weapons, but today the flow of conventional weapons and
light arms from North to South has the spotlight.
conscience still exist. Project Ploughshares now 27 years old, is
working to get Canadian church leaders to draft a statement this fall
calling for a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons. In its ecumenical work,
the United Church draws attention to destabilization in the former
Soviet bloc and the danger it presents to human rights and peace.
Douglas and her husband, Jim, helped lead a 15-year fight on the West
Coast against the U.S. Trident submarine-based missile system. Today,
they are now part of a Birmingham, Alabama, Christian community tied to
the Catholic Workers Movement. Shelley, a one-time candidate for United
Church ministry, is well aware the nuclear issue does not have the
profile it once had. But that doesn’t mean it’s less of an issue or
demands less of a Christian response. “We’re doing the best we can,” she
says, “to keep hope alive.”
' . . . The nuclear genie, once out of the bottle, is never to be trusted. We learned to control it during the years of mutual assured destruction . . . But now that everything has changed, we may be too indifferent to face up to a new risk posted by the same weapons.'
For 12 minutes in early 1995,
the world teetered again on the brink of nuclear war. Russian radar
picked up a missile-sized object streaking in from the Norwegian Sea,
apparently headed for Moscow. Trained to recognize a U.S.
submarine-launched surprise attack, officers relayed a warning to the
Russian strategic missile command. Russian’s policy is to fire
retaliatory missiles first and ask questions later if an attack is
The warning also went to President Boris Yeltsin and
his military aides. On an electronic map inside a special briefcase, a
bright dot moved over the Norwegian Sea. Beneath the map, a row of
buttons gave Yeltsin an array of attack options. The president —
presumably perplexed because relations with the U.S. had rarely been
better — waited for confirmation an attack was under way.
12 minutes after the dot had first shown up on radar, analysts concluded
the object was heading away from Russian territory, and the alert was
cancelled. It later was identified as a Norwegian scientific rocket
launched to study the Northern Lights. The Russian Embassy in Oslo had
been informed of the launch but had neglected to inform the military.
world has changed improbably from what it was in 1962. The Cold War is
over. Russia and the U.S. are now friends who agreed a couple of years
to stop aiming their missiles at each other. Senior military officials
from both sides routinely visit each other’s command centres. On
Saturday mornings, kids are spared the nuisance of the Emergency
But the close call in 1995 was a chilling
reminder that the nuclear genie, once out of the bottle, is never to be
trusted. We learned to control it during the years of mutual assured
destruction, to put it out of sight and out of mind. But now that
everything has changed, we may be too indifferent to face up to a new
risk posted by the same weapons.
Since 1990, worldwide strategic
forces have been cut by close to half. Yet some 30,000 warheads still
remain stockpiled, about 6,000 of them in the new and economically
crippled Russia. They are at the tip of an increasingly frayed chain of
command. The Russian defence minister recently complained that the
country’s nuclear force is only getting about 10 percent of the funds
needed to maintain the electronic systems at the arsenal’s heart. Yet
it’s more central than ever to Russia’s military because the country’s
conventional forces are in tatters. And since the Kremlin lost many of
its early-earning radar sites when the Soviet Union broke apart, the
missiles are on a shortened fuse. It all adds up to vastly increased
risk of accidents.
The people who make up the force are fraying,
too. Paid a pittance, if at all, they are increasingly dispirited and
restive. In July, workers at a Siberian nuclear-submarine facility
threatened sabotage if the government didn’t ante up nine months in back
pay. In February, unpaid scientists and engineers at the country’s main
command-and-control plant in St. Petersburg went on strike. A recent
CIA study foresees the day when hard-up nuclear officers may try to sell
weapon materials or even warheads, themselves.
disarmament agreements with the U.S., Russia is dismantling about 2,000
warheads a year, creating a huge stockpile plutonium suitable for
building new nuclear weapons somewhere else. The prospect of
weapons-grade material being stolen and smuggled out of the country by
some of Russia’s estimated 5,500 organized crime gangs is no longer a
paperback-thriller fantasy. Already, German police have carried out
hundreds of “sting” operations against would-be nuclear smugglers. In
July, American agents posing as Colombian drug mercenaries nabbed two
men who said they had tactical nuclear weapons to sell. Police forces in
Europe have made numerous arrests of gang-linked smugglers actually
carrying small amounts of enriched uranium or plutonium.
need about eight kg of plutonium and a lot of money to make a small
nuclear weapon. Who would want to? The U.S., Russia, China, Britain and
France already have the Bomb, and most likely India, Pakistan and Israel
do as well. South Africa, Argentina and Brazil could go nuclear if they
wanted to but have renounced nuclear weapons. Iran, Libya, Iraq and
North Korea are seen as the most likely customers for contraband
plutonium; they make no secret of their nuclear ambitions but lack the
technology to produce bomb-grade material. Terrorist groups and even
drug lords are also feared to be shopping for nuclear weapons although
they may be priced beyond their means.
The Canberra Commission,
an international body set up by the Australian government, is calling
for the strictest possible safeguards on the proliferation of nuclear
materials and know-how. But as yet, no formal standards are in place.
And even if they were, it may be too late: there is strong evidence that
the governments of some Soviet successor states do not know how much
weapons-grade material they inherited, and therefore have no idea how
much they might be missing. In Russia, too, the system for tracking
nuclear material inventories is criticized as haphazard and prone to
The U.S. now partly justifies its 7,000 warheads, its
continuing round-the-clock nuclear alert and the $5 billion it’s
spending on missile upgrades as a deterrent against so-called rogue
regimes who might go nuclear or build other weapons of mass destruction.
Ernie Regehr, director of policy and public affairs for Project
Ploughshares, derides the “faulty pop psychology” of claims like that.
“It’s counter-intuitive to argue that you need 7,000 weapons to counter
Iraq with one.”
Earlier this year, the United Church’s Saint John
Presbytery endorsed an international campaign, called Abolition 2000,
which wants a global convention in place by century’s end to eliminate
nuclear weapons. “We are convinced of its technological feasibility,”
the network says. “Lack of political will . . . is the only true
Still, many doubt that the genie can ever be bottled
again, that the best we can hope for is to replace the balance of fear
with the balance of reason. Arms-cuts advocates, such as atomic bomb
co-inventor Hans Bethe, suggest reducing nuclear stockpiles to a couple
of hundred warheads worldwide, plus iron-clad controls on nuclear
material and technology. In the absence of a non-nuclear world, we’ll
have to settle for a less-nuclear one. Or so the logic goes.
The worst of the Cuban Missile Crisis
lasted two weeks. Three and a half decades later, I worry more about
making it home on time for my eight year old’s little league game than I
do about being caught in ta nuclear showdown or held hostage by some
group that’s planted a bomb in a bus-station locker. It hardly seems
really any more.
Recently, I went back to visit the shelter we
built in our house in Galt, Ont. I hadn’t been there since 1963. I had
trouble remembering the house — I couldn’t even recall where my own
bedroom was. But I knew the way downstairs and remembered the shelter
exactly as it had been, although it’s now used by someone else as a
I remembered the damp smell of concrete, the total
absence of daylight, the hardness of the place. I thought about my own
kids and remembered what my mother had concluded in hindsight: “The only
difference between us and our neighbours is that we knew where we were
going to be buried.”
It’s still real.