Living and loving the Cold War: The wild ride of a Canadian diplomat and spy

Diplomacy is not designed to be a wild ride, but Bill Warden's lasted three decades. He died in 2011, before his vivid journals were collected and published this fall by his daughter, Lisa, under the title, Diplomat, Dissident, Spook.

From spying for the CIA and dodging the KGB, to rallying Afghan warlords, Bill Warden's life was an adventure

Former Canadian high commissioner Bill Warden, centre, stands with his daughter, Lisa, in an arms bazaar in Darra, Pakistan, 1982. (Submitted by Lisa Warden)

They don't make careers like this anymore.

Dodging the secret police in Cold War Berlin. Cranking up the music to deafen the KGB bugs in Moscow. Spying for the CIA in Havana. Rallying Afghan warlords to thrash the Russians. Wrangling former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's meditation session with Indira Gandhi. Faking documents to spirit a hostage out of Tehran.

Diplomacy is not designed to be a wild ride, but Bill Warden's lasted three decades. He died in 2011, before his vivid journals were collected and published this fall by his daughter, Lisa, under the title, Diplomat, Dissident, Spook.

A sometime spy and eventual peacenik, Warden is little known to Canadians but well known to the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, who writes a glowing forward to the book.

Roaming, off the radar, from Havana to Hong Kong, Warden relished the halcyon days of diplomacy when real spies wore fedoras and before, he says, ambassadors became trade commissioners. He watched the "Great Game" of the superpowers from the front row and didn't mind jumping into the ring.

The story of former diplomat Bill Warden, who died in 2011, is told in Diplomat, Dissident, Spook: A Canadian Diplomat's Chronicles through the Cold War and Beyond.

To all appearances, the polite Niagara Falls, Ont., kid was a dutiful member of the striped-pants set, patiently enduring the rants of Iranian mullahs or Fidel Castro.

But behind the scenes, his life was intrigue and adventure.

A typical chapter begins like this:

"Berlin, 1961. As I rounded the corner onto Unter den Linden and headed for the café, the black Wartburg sedan slid to a halt and four men in the black uniforms of the East German Security Service emerged looking as if they meant business. My back was drenched in instant perspiration."

That's where Bill Warden got his start, as a student in the world's spy capital — ambling with fake nonchalance from the West to the​ Communist East, before the Berlin Wall was built. He rebuffed the CIA's bid to recruit him and soon, RCMP officers back in Niagara Falls came to grill his father about why young Bill was spending so much time in the East.

Cockroaches and the KGB

His interest in fighting the Cold War was the reason — and he got his wish in his first foreign service posting: Moscow, in the tense aftermath of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Warden was constantly tailed by KGB goons, partly because he spoke Russian — so there was a danger he might learn something.

But it wasn't all spy-versus-spy.

The first battle was at the grim apartment assigned to his young family — with cockroaches the size of mice. He also had to wrangle visiting Canadians, like the foreign minister, Arthur Lang, and his parliamentary secretary, John Turner:

"Arthur Lang was a kindly old gentleman who believed in the innate goodness of mankind and who could not conceive of the Soviets doing such things as putting a microphone in his room or a young maiden in his bed. Our security briefing was entirely lost on him. Fortunately, John Turner was the exact opposite, hardheaded, articulate and not about to be taken in by the various tricks in the Soviet bag."

Bill Warden takes a shot in a Canadian Embassy hockey game, in Moscow in the 1960s. (Submitted by Lisa Warden)

Warden got some surprises, though — as when a burst of Russian humanity shone through after the assassination of U.S. President John Kennedy in 1963.

"People wept — in spite of a near Third World War as a result of the Kennedy-Khrushchev face-off over Cuba. Even the militiaman on the embassy gate that night expressed his sympathy, as if Kennedy were Canada's president, too. The Kennedy family and Camelot had caught the imagination of average Russians."

Still, he left Moscow in 1966 "a more committed cold warrior than ever."​ The feeling was mutual. Back in Ottawa, Canadian spies watched Soviet spies watching Warden as he crossed Sussex Drive. They knew his next assignment was Havana.

Our spook in Havana

That was where Warden began working discreetly for the CIA, sneaking out to photograph Soviet military activities. The job arose from a secret agreement between Kennedy and former prime minister Lester Pearson — so secret that it was not even discussed with Warden's boss, the ambassador.

Warden was secretly a CIA spy during his time as a diplomat in Cuba in the 1960s. (Submitted by Lisa Warden)

But there was no ambassador in the fall of 1970, when Canada was consumed by the October Crisis in Quebec. Would Cuba agree to take the FLQ kidnappers as part of a deal to end the crisis? It fell to Warden to make it happen. Castro agreed. And, by the time Warden left Havana in 1972, he was beginning to have doubts about the Cold War.

"Conditioned as we were by the Cold War mentality, we had little sympathy for the [Cuban] regime ... (But) we were highly critical of what we saw as U.S. complicity by playing, with its sanctions and embargoes, into the hands of the Castro government. The main victims were the Cuban people themselves."

Later, when Warden became head of Canada's mission in Hong Kong in the late '70s, these misgivings had grown into a conviction that the Western powers did not, after all, know best.

"The firm conviction of most Westerners was that the future of China lay in becoming like us. Personally I was not so sure. This ancient civilization, home to one-fifth of the world's population, seemed to me more likely to chart its own path."

But Hong Kong was all about commerce; his first love was politics. He jumped at a posting that took him back to the Cold War — to Pakistan as high commissioner, where Canada supported the ​warlords of neighbouring Afghanistan in their struggle against the invading Russians.

Whipping up the warlords

Thirty-five years later, it's bizarre to contemplate the spectacle: the Canadian high commissioner, marching up the Khyber Pass to rally the fighters who would soon turn their fury on the West:

​"I as the sole pale face, with uncalloused hands, in this sea of tribesmen and warriors, would make an impromptu speech praising the Afghans for their resilience and ferocious resistance to the Soviet occupiers, and encouraging them to even greater efforts."

​Then, the tribesmen would rise and answer.

​"​The gist of their message always tended to be the same, that is, 'Don't send us food! Don't give us sympathy! Don't bother about medicine! Send us guns, guns and more guns!'"

​Warden left with no illusions about such allies.

"In later years, when the debate raged over whether persons detained by Canadian forces and turned over to the Afghan security authorities were being tortured, I could only shake my head in wonderment at the naiveté of anyone who would doubt it for a moment."

Even so, the Pakistan posting rewarded Warden's love of intrigue. In 1982, he was sent to clean up the mess next door — the aftermath of the 1980 "Canadian Caper" in Iran, when the Canadians smuggled six Americans out following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy.

Warden did not revive relations, although he did pull off a modest reprise — by faking a fancy-looking exit permit for a young Canadian captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

He also had the security code to enter the abandoned embassy premises, where cocktail invitations still awaited a reply, two years after ambassador Ken Taylor had ambled out, never to return.

Pierre Trudeau's mind-meld with Indira Gandhi

Warden's next posting, as high commissioner to India, began well. Pierre Trudeau soon came for a Commonwealth summit and was mobbed by a star-struck welcoming committee of "gorgeous, sari-clad young women," who were promptly fired by the Indian government for a lack of decorum. Trudeau, who'd loved every minute of it, insisted that his high commissioner get them re-hired.

The Cold War veteran went to work, banging the table and threatening that Trudeau would take it up with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi if the young ladies were not re-hired. They were. Crisis averted.

Warden, who was high commissioner, greets then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi in 1983. (Submitted by Lisa Warden)

Even so, Warden expresses high regard for the elder Trudeau as a statesman — despite a somewhat weird feature of Trudeau's meetings with Mrs. Gandhi, in which the two kicked out their aides so they could silently meditate.

"Trudeau and Gandhi were on some kind of psychic wavelength and seemed to have the ability to communicate without speaking. There was one interlude of approximately three to four minutes in which not a single word was uttered. I later heard that the record for silence between the two in a single meeting was 18 minutes!"

Summoned again. And again

Even so, the high commissioner's life in New Delhi was blighted. Arriving in the fall of '83, much of his time was spent being berated by the Indian government for Canada's nonchalant attitude to the ​activities of Sikh extremists in Canada. Indian consulates were invaded and the acting Indian high commissioner was attacked with sticks. Why did Canada allow this to go unpunished?

Warden recounts that he agreed entirely with the Indians, not with his own government's claims that everything was under control. He reports that Mrs. Gandhi's last letter to a Canadian official was to then-prime minister John Turner, complaining "in explicit terms" that Sikhs in Canada were financing violence against India while receiving "multiculturalism" funds from Ottawa.

He adds, "at virtually the same time that I was providing, on instruction from Ottawa, assurances to the [Indian] foreign secretary with regard to the upgraded security being provided at Indian missions in Canada, an armed gunman walked into the consulate general in Toronto, fired some shots, and then slipped away unimpeded. Through the late spring and summer of that year, I was summoned to the foreign ministry to receive strong protests on some 18 occasions."

But things certainly weren't under control in India itself. In October of '84, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, setting off hellish riots in Delhi. The government and security forces stood by as thousands of Sikhs were massacred. Order was scarcely restored when Warden found himself standing in a jam-packed official bus, heading for Mrs. Gandhi's funeral.

"I found myself with the Japanese prime minister on one side, and a tiny lady on the other who couldn't reach a strap to hold onto, and so relied on me to keep her on her feet. It was Mother Teresa."

Warden talks with Mother Teresa in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, in the mid-1980s. (Submitte by Lisa Warden)

Still, Warden's warnings about Sikh extremism went unheeded in Ottawa. On June 23, 1985, Air India's flight from Toronto to London was blown up, with the loss of 329 lives.

He recalls his testimony to the Air India inquiry in 2007:

"[The] tragedy had been fully preventable. Warnings of potential disaster had been delivered in spades. The failure of the Canadian authorities to act was, consequently, one of the root causes."

​After India, Bill Warden lost his taste for diplomacy. ​He quit at the age of 52, taught at the University of Calgary, served as an election observer around the world and, when the Soviet Union collapsed, returned to Russia often to work with Mikhail Gorbachev's foundation. In his newspaper columns, Warden damned what he saw as unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cold warrior had turned peacenik.

And it's a good thing he kept a journal — because this kind of ride won't come again.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.