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

In response to the growing threat of nuclear war, the Canadian government needed to prepare for a Soviet attack. Although the government already had a paper detailing the strategy for the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, it required a blueprint for operations after this initial phase.

The Joint Planning Committee (JPC), a subcommittee of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CSC), wrote a persuasive paper addressing this concern, initially titled the “Concept of Operations Following the Initial Phase of Hostilities.” The paper (referred to in this briefing book as the “Concept document”) outlined the main threats faced by Canada in case of nuclear war and the roles each branch of the military would play should a nuclear war take place.

As the CSC considered and edited the paper, content was added, documents were merged, and contentious debates took place. One of these earlier debates concerned the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). While earlier drafts of the Concept document stated that ICBMs would “not be in use operationally by either side,” this position was reversed after additional information was passed along by the Defence Research Board (DRB) and further discussions took place on the topic within the CSC.

Over two years after the first draft of the Concept document, the JPC set up a Working Group to revise the paper. The JPC and the working group resolved to rewrite the former paper as a CSC Directive, including new content such as “Emergency Defence and Survival.” Like its predecessor, the lengthy document raised issues for debate within the government. The working group and the JPC disagreed about the predictability of nuclear war—the JPC argued that predictions could be made about the nature of nuclear war, while the working group did not. This culminated in the group at one point ignoring JPC’s direction to revise a section on the unpredictability of war. Eventually, this tension was resolved and a final draft was reached after another round of edits.

The Concept document offers interesting insight into Canadian plans in the case of “unlimited nuclear war,” and the urgency with which Canadian officials grappled with this concept is shown in these documents. To prepare for the “panic, looting, rioting, apathy, and even anarchy” that would ensue in a nuclear war, officials wanted the Concept document to be completed in short order and kept up to date as the nuclear threat evolved.