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Prime minister Pierre Trudeau in Toronto on Dec. 13, 1983.GARY HERSHORN/Reuters

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Justin Trudeau's first foray to Washington – a brief, barely noticed appearance inside the Beltway – marked the modest return to international politics of perhaps the most famous name in modern Canadian politics.

Sitting with the son on a park bench opposite the White House rekindled memories for me of the father and a far different era.

Three decades earlier, along with a handful of other journalists I was on board a Canadian Air Force Boeing 707 carrying then prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau when it touched down on a foggy winter morning in East Berlin – the first NATO jet ever to land in the hard-line Communist capital. It was just one stop on a hectic contentious effort by the Canadian leader to broker peace between the superpowers.

The Trudeau name may boost or burden Justin's political fortunes at home. Abroad, it evokes an era when Canada was a major player – albeit not always a popular one in Washington where Pierre Elliott Trudeau was regarded as bold, unconventional and untamed. His supporters saw him as a statesman; his detractors dismissed him as a dangerous maverick. No one ignored him.

So the son's emergence as a Canadian political figure makes for a useful revisiting of an era when 'Trudeau' was a global household name in a world without Internet where totalitarian states could – and did – block all outside media and half the planet lived under ruthless dictatorships.

In 1983, the Cold War was frigid and the risk of nuclear Armageddon remained very real. Despite furious opposition, Mr. Trudeau had permitted the United States to test ground-hugging cruise missiles in the Mackenzie Valley so American doomsday planners would be certain they could deliver the nuclear warheads to the Kremlin if the big ballistic missiles failed. The Soviet Union had one million men pushed forward against the Iron Curtain in a divided Europe. In Washington, president Ronald Reagan unveiled "Star Wars' – a plan to orbit missile-killer missiles in space – that many feared would upset the delicate equilibrium of Mutually Assured Destruction that had averted nuclear war for decades. In August, Soviet warplanes shot down a Korean airliner, killing hundreds, including 10 Canadians. Mr. Trudeau called it a "mistake."

It was a strange and dangerous time. So dangerous, said Mr. Trudeau, that war and peace could not be left to the superpowers. He got only tepid support from a decidedly unimpressed Mr. Reagan. "I wish you Godspeed in your efforts to help build a durable peace," the old Cold Warrior told the Canadian prime minister 30 years ago next month at the White House. A senior official publicly wondered what Mr. Trudeau had been smoking.

Mr. Trudeau embarked on a hectic series of visits to Prague, East Berlin and Bucharest, all communist satellites of the Soviet Union. Romania's ruthless Nicolae Ceausescu wined and dined Mr. Trudeau while millions of Bucharestis froze in the dark during a massive power failure. There were other trips to western European and Asian capitals. Mr. Trudeau attempted to enlist the Pope, Indira Gandhi, and China's Deng Xiao Ping, with mixed success. The dying Soviet leader Yuri Andropov rebuffed Mr. Trudeau's desire to visit and the Canadian didn't get to Moscow until the funeral where he found the new Kremlin leader Konstantin Chernenko barely functional.

In retrospect, Mr. Trudeau's risky bet that he could broker peace seems a quaint, even quixotic, failure. Breaking bread with some of the foulest and most brutal Communist dictators produced no breakthroughs. But the effort was emblematic of the man.

Three years later, Mr. Reagan would challenge a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "Tear down this wall!" and by the end of the decade, enfeebled and outspent, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse as the Berlin Wall did fall and revolutions swept aside communism in Europe.

The notion that a Canadian prime minister would seek to galvanize global effort on vital issues in a daring and controversial personal crusade seems as remote as the Cold War.

That may be less a reflection on the personalities of the prime ministers since than the reality that Canada was uniquely positioned during the Cold War. Whether the next generation of Canadian leaders carves out an equally high-profile role remains to be seen.

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.