Concept of Operations in the Event of Unlimited Nuclear War, 1957–1963

By Andrew Zhao, University of Toronto |

This blog post accompanies the release of a digital briefing book, created in May 2018 by a team of University of Toronto undergraduate students participating in the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Scholars-in-Residence research program. Part of an ongoing series, Canada Declassified‘s digital briefing books include key documents from recently declassified government files released by Library and Archives Canada via the Access to Information Act. This project was supported, in part, by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, “Canada in the Atomic Age: Unlocking the Nuclear Vault,” 430-2018-00291.

In preparation for a potential war with the Soviet Union, the Canadian government required a plan of action for the period following a potential nuclear strike. As a result, the government sought to draft a Concept of Operations to address this need.

The ensuing drafting process gives insight into how the Canadian government grappled with the relatively new concept of nuclear war. Internal debate within the government led to shifts in thinking and planning. For example, an early 1957 draft of the Concept document stated that “the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) will not be in use operationally by either side” in the event of a hot war. Almost a year later, the consensus within the government had changed, thanks in part of the Soviet launch of Sputnik. With new information from the Defence Research Board (DRB), officials concluded that they had underestimated the timeline for Soviet ICBM development. As a result, a newer version read that the ICBM “will be in use operationally by both sides,” though officials note that the accuracy of the ICBMs may not be up to par.

Disagreement also arose over the predictability of nuclear war. While the Working Group tasked with the revision of the paper believed that nuclear war was inherently unpredictable, the Joint Planning Committee (JPC) argued that it was possible to make some predictions about nuclear war. This culminated in the Working Group at one point ignoring the JPC’s direction to revise a section on the unpredictability of war.

This documents in this briefing book (as well as the organization of the book itself) was based on the drafting process, which consisted of amendments and revisions. We chose to highlight points of tension in the drafting process.

Like other files from the late 1950s and early 1960s, the novelty of the idea of nuclear war is apparent in these documents. The writers of the Concept document go to great lengths to detail the aftermath of nuclear strikes on Canada, describing what many people today would take for granted as obvious consequences. Included in an early draft is an appendix entitled “Conditions in Canada During the First Phase,” which predicts a “breakdown of normal distribution channels for the supply of fuel, food and materiel,” “abandonment of large areas,” and “fear, confusion, panic, apathy, and even anarchy in the population.”

One thought on “Concept of Operations in the Event of Unlimited Nuclear War, 1957–1963

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 21, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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