Air Force Museum of Alberta

What was the Cold War?

The Cold War was a conflict between the Soviet Union and Western democracies that lasted for forty years after the end of the Second World War. In the late 1940s it became apparent that the oppression of people in Soviet-occupied Europe under communism was incompatible with Canadian values.

Along with the United States, Great Britain, and the western European nations, Canada decided to stand up against the Soviet Communist system.

Why was the Cold War ‘cold’?

Unlike the Second World War and previous conflicts, the Cold War never became a “hot” war. The destructive power of nuclear weaponry had been proven to devastating effect after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. During the Cold War, the Western nations and the Soviet Union both held nuclear weapons and were prepared to fight if they had to. But open conflict was prevented by the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

This is based upon the belief that any aggressive acts would be met with either equivalent or greater firepower, assuring mutual destruction on both sides. This is why the Cold War remained a war of ideologies, not a “hot” war of armed conflict. MAD also led to the Arms Race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America as both powers built up their nuclear arsenals to deter the other from attacking.


In response to the threat the Soviet Union posed to Western Europe after the Second World War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949, of which Canada was a founding member. NATO emerged as a result of a combination of Soviet interference and threats of war against Western European countries.

NATO’s basis was enshrined in the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, which explicitly stated that an attack against one member of NATO was an attack against all members of NATO, thus inextricably linking Canada and Western Europe. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the NATO alliance remains the most important deterrent against Russian aggression into Western Europe.

Warsaw Pact

When West Germany was remilitarized on 9 May 1955 and accepted into NATO, the Soviet Union organized the Warsaw Pact, stating that a remilitarized West Germany was a threat to peace and safety. The Warsaw Pact was signed on 14 May 1955 as a collective defence treaty between Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. By unifying their militaries under one banner, the Soviet states would be on equal terms with NATO.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries


NATO Founding Members:

  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Denmark 
  • France
  • Iceland 
  • Italy 
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Warsaw Pact Countries:

  • Bulgaria
  • Czecholovakia
  • East Germany
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • Romania
  • Soviet Union


In 1957 the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) was established between Canada and the United States in response to the development of long-range Soviet bombers equipped with thermonuclear weapons. It was the prime air defence organization for Canada and the US. It also coordinated maritime forces, including Canadian patrol aircraft to counter Soviet submarines.

Radar lines provide early warning information to the NORAD Joint Command Centre in Colorado, which is a hardened facility designed to survive a direct attack. When the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile threat emerged and grew, NORAD expanded its detection capabilities.

This included the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) and the Missile Defence Alerting System, an American satellite constellation that could detect missile launches from space. Canada provided the deputy Commander-in-Chief of NORAD, who was the only non-American officer that could release American nuclear weapons in an emergency.

The city of North Bay, Ontario was home to the famous Underground Complex (UGC) at 22 Wing/Canadian Forces Base North Bay. Built 60 storeys beneath the surface and containing a three-story building of more than 142,000 square feet, the UGC was responsible for ensuring that all aircraft in Canadian airspace were properly identified and not a threat. The UGC opened in 1963 and ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until its closure in 2006.

Cold War Escalation

During the Cold War, several crises developed between the Soviet Union, its allies, and the Western powers. In these periods, Canada had to increase its readiness in case of an attack. The best-known is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On April 17, 1961, the American government attempted to overthrow the Communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, by invading the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was unsuccessful and only increased tension between American and Cuba.

On October 14, 1962, Castro, wary of America and the last invasion, made a deal with the Soviet Union to build nuclear launch facilities on Cuban soil. This frightened America, whose territories were within easy striking distance of the nuclear weapons.

After thirteen days of tension, the Soviet Union and America came to an accord – the Soviets would withdraw all nuclear weapons from Cuba, in return for America doing the same with their weapons in Turkey. This incident, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, was dangerously close to turning the Cold War into a hot one.

Canada’s Nuclear Role

Soviet military forces were vast compared to NATO forces in the 1950s and 1960s. NATO countries adopted nuclear weapons to ensure deterrence. Changes in restrictive American laws meant that American nuclear weapons could be deployed to non-American forces, like Canada. As a result, select pilots of 1 Air Division were chosen for conversion from the conventional role of the Sabre fighter to the nuclear role of the CF-104 Starfighter.

Arctic Operations: DEW Line

In the early 1950s, when the threat of a Soviet attack by long-range bombers loomed over the North Pole, the United States and Canada agreed that a new radar network would provide early warning of such an attack. This network of radar stations, called the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, was developed in the far north along the shores of the Arctic ocean. It included 42 radar sites in the Canadian Arctic divided into western and eastern sectors.

Construction of the DEW line was a logistical challenge requiring thousands of transport flights to airlift supplies to these remote locations in the far north. Flying was often hazardous due to marginal weather conditions, poorly marked landing strips and mechanical failures. Pilot error also contributed to a higher than normal accident rate. More than 60 aircraft and 26 lives were lost during the two and a half of years it took to build the DEW Line.

By the mid-1980's, after thirty years of service, the DEW Line had become largely obsolete and was eventually replaced by the North Warning System, a joint U.S. and Canadian early warning radar system. Clean-up of the abandoned DEW Line sites was undertaken and completed in 2014 at a cost of over $550 million.

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DEW Line Base, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT 1982

Arctic Intelligence Gathering

Canada was instrumental in gathering intelligence against the Soviet Union, particularly when collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT). Radio signals were monitored closely, watching for indications of Soviet attack. Northern Canada’s proximity to the Soviet Union was ideal for SIGINT collection.

By the 1960s, the Supplementary Radio System (SRS) had operating locations at Massett, British Columbia; Aklavik, Northwest Territories; and Gander, Newfoundland. But the most ideal location was Alert in the Northwest Territories. Sitting on the northern tip of the Canadian Archipelago, Alert is the most northern permanently inhabited settlement in the world.

Additional Reading

A Letter from the Prime Minister

A letter from Brian Mulroney, then Prime Minister of Canada, to Maj.Gen. D.P Wightman, Commander, Canadian Forces Europe, on the retirement of the CF-104 after 25 years of service in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Cold War Fighter Pilots

A brief history of the Cold War Fighter Pilots who served for the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Cold War. By Colonel W. Neil Russell, CF Ret.

The Cold War Was Real

A summary of the 46 year long Cold War from 1947 - 1993, written by David Jurkowski, Brigadier-General (Retd), CMM, CD. The article is in pdf format and will open in a separate page.



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