A Mennonite and Canada’s Department of National Defence

Jacob J. Koop

Jacob J. Koop (1923-2009). GAMEO photo

One of the most interesting biographical entries recently added to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) is that of Jacob J. Koop, written by William Janzen, a longtime Mennonite Central Committee staff person in its Ottawa office.

Koop was a devoted, life-long Mennonite. Although born in Ukraine, he came with his family to Canada in 1924 when he was one year old. He grew up in southern Manitoba, and attended the Mennonite high school in Gretna.

He entered the military in 1943, but prayed that he would not have to kill anyone. He was persuaded of the legitimacy of self-defence because of the Mennonite experience in Ukraine after the Russian Revolution, and felt he could not shirk military service. Because he took training to become an officer, Koop was not deployed to Europe until 1945, and never faced actual combat.

On his return to Canada he continued academic studies, and ended up with the Ph.D. in Chemistry from McGill University. He then accepted a position at the Defence Research Board (DRB) in Ottawa, an agency of the Department of National Defence.

Koop worked for the DRB for 35 years. As described by Janzen in the GAMEO article, “he worked in the area of science and defence, contributing substantially to various arms limitation efforts.”  In the 1950s in an era of nuclear testing, Jake coordinated a program that monitored the atmosphere for nuclear debris. On this basis he contributed background papers to support the negotiations that led, in 1963, to the treaty banning all atmospheric nuclear testing.

Nuclear reactor at Dimona, 1968

Nuclear reactor near Dimona (israel) in 1968, by American reconnaissance satellite KH-4 CORONA (Uncropped version at GlobalSecurity.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1964 as a DRN intelligence analyst he wrote  a then secret paper arguing that Israel likely had a military nuclear capacity. He suggested that Israel had two distinct nuclear programs: a small civilian research unit, and a larger, secretive one that likely was a first step in developing weapons.  Koop predicted that Israel could conduct an initial nuclear test by 1966 and could develop a “limited nuclear weapons capability” of six to 10 low-yield bombs by the end of 1968. His forecast wasn’t far off. Israel built its first nuclear devices shortly before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Despite his decades of work for the Defence Department, Koop was a charter member of the Ottawa Mennonite Church when it formally organized in 1963. He served as a deacon, congregational chair, and even occasionally preached. Jake saw himself as strongly pro-peace but on the basis of “just war” principles. He regretted that the Mennonite stance on peace seemed not to acknowledge the work that he and his colleagues did from inside the defence department.

At his funeral in 2009 Jake Koop was described as a “gentle soldier.”

Who are other Mennonite “gentle soldiers” you have known?

Two other published articles on Jake Koop are:

Tu Thanh Ha, “How Canada exposed Israel’s secret nukes with help from a Mennonite.” Globe & Mail (12 July 2013). Web. 2 January 2016  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/canadian-mennonite-played-key-role-in-discovering-israels-nuclear-program/article13193235/

Bill Janzen. “A Mennonite in Canada’s defence department.” Canadian Mennonite (5 October 2009): 26. Web. 17 December 2015. http://legacy.canadianmennonite.org/vol13-2009/13-19/13-19small_115_2009-10-05.pdf

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