It is either a coincidence or a quirk of the zeitgeist that two of the best recent books of popular history deal with issues of diplomacy between the West and the communist world in the Cold War era of the early 1970s.
One of these is Margaret MacMillan’s latest blockbuster, Nixon in China, and the other is Three Nights in Havana, academic Robert Wright’s illuminating chronicle of the relationship between Pierre Trudeau and Fidel Castro. Both books build interest by focusing on the personalities of the players involved, and both enjoyably include kooky, unpredictable political wives disdained in their own countries.
Wright’s book opens with an account of Trudeau’s funeral in 2000, notably attended by both Castro and Jimmy Carter. It outlines Castro’s rise to power, as well as his first and only official visit to Canada, in 1959. The rest of the book examines the evolution of Castro and Trudeau’s remarkable relationship as it arose out of the event that is the book’s centrepiece: Trudeau’s historic three-day 1976 visit to Cuba that notoriously culminated with his rallying cry of “Viva el primer ministro Fidel Castro!”
Wright also details the troubled history of U.S. relations with Cuba. Dovetailing with MacMillan, he notes the irony of Nixon’s attempt to move toward détente with old enemies such as the U.S.S.R. and China while simultaneously shunning and isolating the tiny island. It’s a policy that, as any Canadian worth his weight in beach sand knows, continues to this day.
While Wright is clearly an admirer of Trudeau, he is by no means an apologist, demonstrating an even hand in both praise and criticism. According to Wright, the surprising fondness Trudeau and Castro felt for one another was rooted in a shared temperament, intellectual prowess, and an ability to “agree to disagree.”
While it is unlikely that Wright’s book will get as much attention as MacMillan’s, it nevertheless fully deserves it. Three Nights is detailed but never dull, analytical but never pedantic. It is circumscribed, but never narrow or myopic. It also includes enough salacious detail (about Margaret Trudeau, of course) to offset the potentially numbing effect of foreign policy analysis.