Although John Lennon and Yoko Ono were undoubtedly two of the very most famous and talked about people of 1969, Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan was no slouch in the worldwide fame department himself. And so it was an inspired pairing indeed, organized by the Canadian Broadcast Company, when the peace-promoting Beatle and his avant-garde artist wife met up with the celebrated intellectual and author of The Medium is the Massage and Understanding Media on December 19th.
Lennon and Ono were in snowy Toronto doing press to bring attention to their “War is Over” billboard and poster campaign. Huge posters and billboards had been posted in twelve countries proclaiming “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” The campaign was launched in the major cities of New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki. There were over 30 roadside billboards put up in Toronto alone and a large billboard hung next to the US Armed Forces recruitment office located on New York’s Times Square.
McLUHAN: “Can you tell me? I just sort of wonder how the ‘War Is Over,’ the wording… the whole thinking. What happened?”
JOHN: “I think the basic idea of the poster event was Yoko’s. She used to do things like that in the avant garde circle, you know. Poster was a sort of medium, media, whatever.”
JOHN: “And then we had one idea for Christmas, which was a bit too vast, you know.”
YOKO: “We wanted to do it.”
JOHN: “We wanted to do it, but we couldn’t get it together in time.”
YOKO: “Maybe next year.”
JOHN: “And to do something specifically at Christmas. And then it got down to, well, if we can’t do that event…”
YOKO: “We did this.”
JOHN: “...what we’ll do is a poster event. And then how do you get posters stuck all around the world, you know. It’s easier said than done. So we just started ringing up and find it out. And at first we’re gonna have… we had some other wording, didn’t we, like, ‘Peace Declared.’ And it started up, there’s a place in New York, where you can have your own newspaper headline, you know. There’s a little shop somewhere in Times Square. And we were wondering how to, sort of like, get it in the newspapers as if it had happened, you know. And it developed from that. Well, we couldn’t get the front page of each newspaper to say war was over, peace declared or whatever.”
The following Tuesday reporters in Ottawa were astonished to find out that the Lennons had met, in private with then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the country’s current PM Justin Trudeau. Confronted afterwards by a crush of reporters, microphones and TV cameras, Lennon was asked “Did you find him to be a beautiful person?”
“I think he is,” the Beatle replied:
“If there were more leaders like Mr. Trudeau, the world would have peace.”
High praise indeed coming from John Lennon. He later told friends that Prime Minister Trudeau had said how important it was for him to understand what young people wanted, and that he’d hoped to meet up with them again in more casual circumstances. After meeting with Trudeau, the Lennons had an appointment with Canada’s Health Minister about softening the penalties for cannabis possession.
Whereas the Trudeau meeting was off limits to the media save for one photographer, John and Yoko’s fascinating discussion with Marshall McLuhan was captured on film for posterity.