Was E. Herbert Norman Really a Spy?

On April 4th, 1957, E. H Norman, Canadian ambassador to Egypt, shocked the world by leaping off the Swedish embassy in Cairo. After 18 years of serving in Canada’s interests overseas, in the Department of External Affairs, his death horrified Canadians with the realization that they were not insusceptible to the socio-political tensions of the Cold War. Canadian media outlets blamed the U.S. and claimed that Norman was “murdered by slander just as surely as if someone had stuck a knife in his back”. Although Stevenson’s view was controversial it was shared with both high-profile, and average Canadians. It was only rightly so, as Norman’s distinguished career in Japan, New Zealand and his participation in the Suez crisis, alongside Pearson, granted him the respect of the international community. He also served as Head of the Canadian Liaison Mission to Occupied Japan, and Head of the American and Far Eastern Desk. However, throughout the later half of his career, between 1950 up until his death, he was subjected to wayward scrutiny both by the Canadian and American governments, which brought allegations of communist connections and of possible espionage against him. The U.S government went as far as to refer to hum as an “agent of influence” directly referring to his past communist ties and their possible bearing on his position in Western foreign affairs. Despite the overwhelming evidence behind Norman’s innocence, the McArthy-type driven mindset of the time ultimately led to his “assassination of character”. In essence, American foreign intelligence, and the RCMP had contributed, each to its own extent, to his death. Norman committed suicide, in 1957, because he likely did not wish to go through the ordeal of the years 1950-51 all over again. The fact that he was innocent, most likely escalated his personal desperation.

It is important to recognize the circumstances that led to the charges Norman faced with in 1950-51. This is key to assessing Norman’s innocence, which in turn explains why he chose to commit suicide. One thing remains clear, the authorities used his past communist ties to accuse him of Soviet agency. By analysing the extent of Norman’s sympathy for Socialism and its presence into the depth of his career, it is obvious that the U.S subcommittee, and RCMP had no concrete evidence to back up their controversial allegations.

In assessing the events and reasons behind Norman’s suicide, it is important to keep in mind one important fact, with a significant amount of irrefutable evidence. Although Norman was a Marxist sympathizer and great admirer of Marxian social theory in his formative years, there is no evidence to suggest that he continued his affiliation with the Communist party after joining External Affairs, in 1939.  In his years as a young man at Cambridge, in the mid 1930’s, he became heavily involved in the Socialist community and left wing student politics. There are numerous reports suggesting that he would spend his free time recruiting new students into the student socialist body. Many of his archived letters, from this time, suggest a particular affinity to Marxian intellectualism. He would describe the availability of social-economic evolution, but at times would also critique many communist ideas. Despite the fact that he was fiercely involved in the left-wing activism, it did not extend outside of his university years. This can be attributed not only to the demise to the Communist party in 1939, but is also reflected in his numerous publications regarding Japan. For instance, his thesis: “Japan’s emergence as a modern state” fits in the lines of western conservatism, rather than socialism. Peyton, a defender of Norman’s innocence, suggest that his illusions with communism was evident not only in his publications, but also in many of his letters and diplomatic telegrams, where he openly criticized Soviet internal affairs.

Catechetical Guild, 1947.
Catechetical Guild, 1947.

Since 1957, historians and scholars have written and debated the importance of Norman’s formative years at Cambridge. Most agree they played a significant role in his downfall. Throughout all the credible publications, two stand out as the most prominent and viable interpretations of his career and death. The first, Roger Bowen’s Innocence is Not Enough: The Life and Death of E.H. Norman, which focuses on the fact that Norman committed suicide as a result of insistent American McCarthyism, all the while he remained innocent. The second source is James Barros’ No Sense of Evil: Espionage: The Case of Herbert Norman. Barros argues against Norman, referring to him as a ‘soviet puppet; and goes as far to suggest that his suicide was the result of guilt. Although both authors have contrasting view points, they both provide detailed analysis on the ways became a Communist sympathizer, and the ideology behind many of his publications.

In Innocence Is Not Enough, Bowen suggests that Norman’s communist sympathy, in the 1930’s, was only the result of the hardships of the Great Depression. Norman only viewed socialism as a solution to the economic problems of the world. This is viable, as be 1939, Norman began to write numerous letters to his family critiquing the Soviet Show Trials, which involved Soviet officers who were unjustly executed for fabricated state crimes. The irony was that a decade later, Norman, although not as violent, would face similar ‘fabricated charges’. Moreover, as his career progressed, Norman was further disillusioned with the Soviet Union. On Feb 6th 1950, he wrote a long letter to Escott Reid of External Affairs, declining an offer for a posting at Moscow. The letter clearly states that he does not wish to work in Moscow, due to political tension that he foresaw. It is unclear what the real reasons were to Norman’s refusal to go to Moscow. However, it was most likely his own attempt to prevent unnecessary suspicions. His socialist fervour, in the mid 1930’s, was only a momentary lapse, almost in youthful rebellion. Peyton implies that much of his communist activism was a result of youthful disillusion and optimism. Interestingly this coincides with many of his letter to his family in Japan, which dealt with his newly found communist experiences. For instance, on October 21 1933, Norman sent out a letter with the introduction “I am actually experiencing that intellectual rebirth, referring to his new found understanding of Marx. However, many of his letters hold a ‘youthful flare’ and simple understanding of Marxism.

In E.H Norman: His Life and Scholarship, Bowen provides a deep analysis of the many publications by Norman, in correlation with official External Affair telegrams, around the same time frame. Based on many of Norman’s publications and telegrams, Bowen states that, ideologically, Norman was deviating away from Communism by the time he entered Harvard in 1938. The fact that Norman lost his appeal towards Communism by the time he joined External Affairs in 1939 is quite conclusive to the state of his ideological shift.

Although Norman’ ideology was altered by 1939-40, it was not enough to prove his innocence. It was, rather, the lack of proof for any actual connections with the Soviets that saved him. The simple fact remains that the committee, and RCMP, did not compile satisfactory evidence to provide any worth to their charges and allegations. Both institutions only used Norman’s communist past to support their own claims. This was the breaking point for the committee, and perhaps the reason the charges were dropped in 1952. Most of the evidence, to this day, points to Norman having no association with Soviet espionage.

It was, rather, the lack of proof for any actual connections with the Soviets that saved him.

Bowen defends Norman’s innocence readily and explains that there’s never been any evidence to suggest that he was truly involved in a Soviet spy circle. He implies, throughout his book, that the 1950 ‘inquisition’ on Norman, during his time as Head of the Canadian Liaison Mission in Japan, as only a extension of McCarthy’s witch hunts. He became the victim of the Red Scare, primarily because of his high diplomatic position. More specifically, because he was extremely close to General MacArthur, who was in charge of the reconstruction of Japan in the post-war era. One of the main reason, why Norman was suspected to be a Communist, was due to his position on the dissolution of the Japanese Communist Party. All the while MacArthur banned all other national parties in 1946. Yet, after he was cleared from all charges in 1953, he became High Commissioner of New Zealand, and later ambassador to Egypt. In 1957, the U.S Subcommittee of Internal Defence opened Norman’s field again to bring no charges against him. Bowen sees this as the breaking point for Norman, which most likely led to his suicide. In one account, Bowen suggests that Norman committed suicide because he was weary of another inquisitional attack, but also, he wished to defend his friends and colleagues at External Affairs from the same fate. He backs this up by using many of Norman’s telegrams and letters sent to officials and family members. This was highly possible, due to the fact that Norman’s loyalties were proven to be entirely to the Department of External Affairs. Therefore, with the amount of evidence pointing towards Norman’s innocence, Bowen find a concrete foundation for his argument that Norman committed suicide out of fear for humiliation for himself and the Department of External Affairs. For instance, in on of his suicide notes, left behind between April 3d and 4th, Norman states that he was tired of being prosecuted, while innocent, and made an effort to highlight the fact that he did not suffer from an “persecution complex”.

Throughout all the publications about Norman, only one book arises that holds the same viewpoints as the U.S Subcommittee did in the 1950’s/ In No Sense of Evil, Barros’ describes Norman as a weak individual and most definitely a Soviet spy. He puts a great deal of emphasis on Norman’s communist activities, during his time at Cambridge, but does so with the lack of contextual evidence. e predominantly relies on the words of others, which are not exactly the most reliable, to build his argument against Norman. The book, No Sense of Evil, is centred primarily on the argument that Norman was a Soviet spy, because of his Socialist ideology in his early years. Most of Barros’ sources derive from Norman’s letters to his brother, which describe his affiliations with numerous student communist bodies. The same mistake was made by the U.S Subcommittee, and the RCMP while they were accusing Norman for alleged crimes. Barros’ arguments seem to inquisitorial and biased, as they are formed on the lack of concrete evidence.

Welch-McCarthy Hearings
Welch-McCarthy Hearings

Barros’ arguments, while are mostly based off RCMP reports and oral accounts, fail to provide anything beyond mere speculation. The reason it is important to take his account into consideration therefore is that it can provide insight on the way the use of false information and exaggeration can bring about an “assassination of character”.

The analysis of these two author’s works point to the fact that Norman, most likely, did not have any connections to the Soviets, and had completely eliminated his communist associations by the end of his university years. His innocence, among the storm of accusations, is perhaps the spark that led him to commit suicide. He could not bear the knowledge, that while he did nothing wring, he was still considered a criminal. For example, in one of the two suicide notes he left at the Swedish embassy, on April 4th 1957, he wrote “I am completely innocent but a victim to forces bent on my destruction”. Once the US Subcommittee opened new charges against him in 1957, he was tipped over the edge.

After the news of Norman’s death reached Canada, it shocked all instances of Canadian society and plunged the nation into intensive debate. Newspapers hastily rose to defend Norman’s position, but more importantly attacked the Subcommittee. for their ruthless tactics of intimidation. The Toronto Daily Star published a controversial article, on April 4th, of that year, entitled “Saw No Ends To U.S> Attacks”. In this article Greer explained that “there would be no end to the smears against his reputation although there were disposed of an denied by the Canadian government in 1951. IT was immediately evident that Canadians were outraged by Norman’s tragic end, and sought yo blamed the U.S Subcommittee. The most noteworthy reaction was that of Lester B. Pearson, foreign minister at the time and a good friend of Norman’s. On April 8th he sent a lengthy telegram to the U.S government, which threatened that Canada would stop the flow of security information into the U.S.

Tensions between the U.S and Canadian media escalated when the U.S Subcommittee reacted harshly against the repeated attacks. Robert Morris, part of the counsel of senators on the committee, claimed that “The sub-committee will continue its investigation of Communism in the U.S “despite of Norman’s death”. As a result numerous articles attacked the Subcommittee were published, in dozens of national and provincial newspapers, in the months that followed.

The fact that Canadians were outraged to such a degree evidences that perhaps the lack of proof behind the charges was overwhelming…

The fact that Canadians were outraged to such a degree evidences that perhaps the lack of proof behind the charges was overwhelming, even in 1957. However, what likely caused the uproar was that Norman was simply Canadian. His death horrified his co-patriots, and the fact that the U.S witch hints extended over the border scared many people. It would have been interesting to see the general reaction to the knowledge that the RCMP was so heavily involved. However, that was not yet made public.

The U.S Subcommittee for Internal Defence, and RCMP slandered Norman and humiliated him in front of his colleagues, family, and the Canadian people. It was of no surprise that he chose such a dramatic “escape”. His character was questioned, subdued and some even said to have been “assassinated”. all the while he remained innocent. He was not afforded the proper means to defend himself in the early 1950’s, which did not change in 1957 as well. The practices of the senatorial committee resembled that of a secret police trying to maintain absolute control over all aspects of a person’s life. Norman’s tragic demise was the result of years of desperation, and isolation caused by an “assassination of his character”.


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