The walk that changed the world

On the 19th of May, 1983, Eugene “Gene” Whelan was late to a party he himself was throwing. Because he was late, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War came to an end. Strange, how life takes a turn sometimes isn’t it?

Eugene Whelan playfully attacked by the Minister of Energy, Mines, and Resources Jean Chrétien
Eugene Whelan playfully attacked by the Minister of Energy, Mines, and Resources Jean Chrétien

Gene, as Minister of Agriculture in Canada, was quite the agriculturist. In his last term, he met another agriculturist: Aleksander Yakovlev, a Soviet politician! They became good friends and showed such fondness for each other that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau needed Whelan’s word that national secrets remained secret. They were indeed kept secret, and Whelan’s friendship with Yakovlev led to a diplomatic avenue for Canada and the USSR.

Yakovlev (left) with Gorbachev
Yakovlev (left) with Gorbachev

On one such diplomatic occasion in 1983, Yakovlev joined Gorbachev on a visit to Canada. Yakovlev immediately gave Gene a call and Gene arranged for a three week tour of Canada. Jean Chrétien (then Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources in Canada) was there to witness the tour and recalled Gorbachev’s delight in an interview:

The trip ended at Whelan’s house near Amherstburg, where Gorbachev experienced Canada up close.

“He came to Windsor and introduced him to the life of a Canadian,” Chretien said. “He was amazed at the food processing in Canada, to have all the food available so quickly. Later on, they were driving and he was marvelling to see two cars in front of every house.”

The group stopped in front of one blue-collar home.

“Gorbachev said, ‘Do you know them?’ And Gene said, ‘I don’t know them, but they know me,’”Chretien recalled. “So they knocked on the door and went into the house. Gorbachev was very impressed by that.”

At the end of the visit, Whelan and his family decided to throw a dinner party to see off the Soviet visitors. Gene, unfortunately, was late to the party he himself was throwing! While waiting for Gene to arrive, Gorbachev and Yakovlev took a walk in the Whelan garden. It was during this walk that Yakovlev opened up to Gorbachev about his concerns regarding the USSR. His concerns became 80% of the plans to restructure and reform the Communist party (now known as Perestroika), which ended the Cold War.

The cover of TIME magazine following Gorbachev taking office
The cover of TIME magazine following Gorbachev taking office

By being late, Gene had inadvertently caused the Cold War to come to a close. And thus, while Alexander Yakovlev is often known as the godfather of glasnost and perestroika, Eugene Whelan could be considered the forgetful uncle of perestroika.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *