Conference (P)review #2: The Diefenbunker

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Editor’s note: In preparation for the upcoming NCPH conference in Ottawa, The Public Historian has commissioned a series of Ottawa site reviews, as it does annually for sites in our conference city.  These “(p)reviews,” as we’re dubbing them, will inaugurate what we hope will be a growing partnership between The Public Historian and the Public History Commons.  Further online post-conference reviews will follow later this spring;  we invite readers to comment on these posts as they appear.

The Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum. HENRIETTE RIEGEL, Executive Director.

There is an aura of kitsch about the Diefenbunker, from the cutesy pun of its name, to the ubiquitous sea foam green shade of its unmistakably 1960s décor. As your tour guide will tell you, the brief warning period ushered in by the advent of ground-based nuclear missiles meant that the bunker was somewhat obsolete by the time construction finished, lending a contrasting absurdity to the awe of its labyrinthine massiveness. Nevertheless, the space evokes some of the most deeply-felt realities of the Cold War, and the sheer terror of nuclear conflict. Located at the edge of Carp, a reasonable drive from downtown Ottawa—although probably not reasonable enough to outpace the aforementioned missiles—Canada’s Cold War Museum opened to the public in 1998. Initially a solely volunteer operation, the site now has full-time staff members and follows a mandate to “increase throughout Canada and the world, interest in and a critical understanding of the Cold War.”[1] 

I first remember reading about the Diefenbunker in high school—during one of those final history classes, into which the whole of the latter half of the twentieth century gets shuffled as an afterthought. I cannot exactly recall the gist of the textbook’s account, but it conjured an image for me of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker using taxpayer money to secretly and obsessively stockpile canned peas for his personal survival, and I knew then that I wanted to see this place for myself. When I came to Ottawa last fall, the difficulty of actually reaching the site without a car indefinitely delayed my pilgrimage. I finally made the trek last month [March 2013], when I happened to have guests with a vehicle. We opted to take the guided tour with a large crowd of March Break visitors, taking turns filing through to squeeze into some of the bunker’s smaller rooms.

The Diefenbunker began its life as a Canadian Forces base, which was to serve as the emergency destination for certain members of the federal cabinet, top-ranking bureaucrats and military personnel in case of nuclear attack. The grand idea was to ensure consistent governance. Construction may have begun in 1958 under Diefenbaker—who never actually visited his namesake bunker—but the base remained staffed until 1994.[2]

The space had the capacity to support up to 500 unfortunate souls for thirty days. Our tour guide, a knowledgeable former federal employee now volunteering, made it very clear that there were no plans to accommodate the spouses or children of any of the potential occupants. The bunkers’ rooms were designed for post-nuclear government business, including offices, a mess hall, an infirmary, and the quarters intended for the Prime Minister. In one of the meeting rooms our guide asked two of the youngest members of our group to take their places at the conference table as PM and Governor General, and I could not help but be reminded of Dr. Strangelove’s war room. The Diefenbunker has plenty of big boards and maps, and dated office furnishings—it looks exactly as I imagine such a place should look. The curators have successfully captured both the distant datedness of light blue technical equipment, and simultaneously the feeling that these rooms might be inhabited by government employees at any moment (the ash trays in offices are a nice touch).[3]

To explore the massive multi-floor bunker is to experience a series of jarring tonal shifts. The atmosphere is inherently bleak and claustrophobic, accompanied by the apparent hubris of a ruling body’s attempt to take charge of an apocalypse. There is also, however, the inescapable mundaneness of a workplace designed with absolute utilitarian practicality. Perhaps no spot encapsulates this clash better than the lower-level freezer containing both artificial frozen foods, and the morbid spectre of a sheathed human dummy, demonstrating that the freezer space was intended to double as the bunker’s morgue. I found the scene simultaneously surprising, disturbing, and macabrely funny, but most of all, admirably pragmatic. And I am fairly certain that this was the kind of reaction the curatorial staff were going for when they decided to represent that bit of trivia so viscerally. Ultimately, the period-furnished portions of the bunker evoke the desperate determination of its original purpose, and the bizarre disappointments of a building that was never used to its full potential when that utilization would have required a devastating catastrophe.

Other rooms in the Diefenbunker now contain special exhibits on the bunker and broader Cold War topics, from East Berlin to the Gouzenko incident.[4]
The length and thoroughness of the guided tour left me less time to observe and reflect upon the organized exhibits, but these displays bring home the greater international context of the bunker’s existence, and Canada’s specific place within that global crisis. One of the most effective spaces is a photograph gallery that depicts the indescribable, brutal reality that lies behind seemingly abstract nuclear panic, with a series of images of the horrific aftermath following the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I was born in 1989, and I consequently cannot prevent myself from interpreting the Diefenbunker through generational ideas of the campy ‘duck and cover’ futility of Cold War preparations against nuclear annihilation. Contemplating the Diefenbunker from within its current context, however, it is hard to deny that this was much more than just a secret stash of canned peas for the country’s elite. The unused utilitarianism of the space and the artifacts left behind (or recovered)—the carefully considered function of every room, the pristinely untouched equipment, an empty vault—imbues its spaces and things with a sad longing to fulfil a duty that never materialized. Just as pervasive is the coexisting prospect of what a miserable place it would have been if that day had ever arrived—as the freezer morgue, and a room reserved for cabin fever victims attests. At the intersection of both of these concepts is the apparent absurdity of governing a country from a bunker, and preparing for that eventuality so methodically. We can only judge the Diefenbunker’s necessity with the benefit of hindsight, but in the present, the museum offers a place to reflect upon all of these paradoxes, and the greater national and international implications. The professional and volunteer staff have created a Cold War Museum that links the immediate and intimate with the international, and the what-happened to the what-if. The Diefenbunker allows those removed from the panic of the Cold War, including those two children delighted to briefly play-act as the Prime Minister and Governor General, to learn not only a little bit about its stark realities, but to critically ponder how much of the Cold War experience was necessarily imagined, and how significant—or ridiculous—the distinction between the two really was.

~FIONA SINEAD COX , Carleton University

[1] “About Us,” 2013, Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum, Accessed March 30.

[2] Mark Bourrie, Special to the Star, 1995, “Diefenbunker goes way of dinosaur Built for Cold War, bomb shelter closed by budget cuts: [Final Edition],” Toronto Star, October 13, sec. NEWS, Accessed March 30.

[3]Our tour guide also mentioned that the ash trays are inaccurate to the bunker’s later history: because of air quality concerns, the Diefenbunker was apparently one of the civil service’s earliest smoke-free workplaces.

[4]Igor Gouzenko helped to kickstart the Cold War while he was a clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. He defected to Canada in 1945 with stolen evidence and revealed the presence of an active Soviet espionage network. The Diefenbunker displays a version of the iconic white hood Gouzenko wore to protect his anonymity.

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