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Herbert Norman and the Cold War Essay

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Updated: May 13th, 2022

Herbert Norman’s suicide was as a result of witch-hunt and malice of the Cold War America. Norman was claimed to be spy for the communists and was seen as a sell out by the American intelligence forces. The causes of his death can be traced back to his days in the university through to his diplomatic work and associations. It is therefore apparent that, his suicide was prompted by stress and depression stirred by the claims of being a communist, soviet mole and being disloyal to the oath. This can be confirmed by the suicide notes that Norman left to his wife and the Swedish ambassador to Cairo1. In this essay, I will discuss the causes of Norman’s death. It is important to note that, Herbert Norman committed suicide because of a series of reasons which all amount to witch-hunt. Among these causes are: Norman’s quest to study communism, false information compiled by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), his work in the Middle East, and his position in solving the Suez crisis.

Herbert Norman’s quest to study communism at the university contributed to the cause of his suicide. During his life as a student in Toronto, Herbert was interested in studying political theories. He was specifically interested in studying theories of Marx, Lenin and Trusty. This he did, but was strictly confined to reading. He however became more practical when he entered Cambridge. While in Cambridge, he started attending socialist sponsored meetings though categorically asserting that his mind was open and therefore could not be influenced. Norman later returned to Toronto where he studied his post graduate degree on communism, here he was mainly concentrated on reading. During this time Norman had not known any communists nor left wingers. In 1937, Harvard was the next stop for Norman. While here he participated in study groups though very conscious. He says that he would not accept any theory without questioning it.

In 1937, the world was in the middle of the depression. Norman like everybody else was concerned about the collapse of the capitalist systems and was open to receive any theories that would offer a solution to the problem2. Herbert Norman asserted that through his studies on communism for over five years, he could not see a solution in it. He was equally skeptical of the socialist system and concluded that, the British form of democracy was far much superior to all the other forms. To sum up his life at Harvard, Norman strongly disputed the existence of groups such as the “Harvard communists” and the “Harvard progressive” groups. Herbert Norman’s quest to knowledge sparked interest from his follies and hence associations put to question. This is especially seen when Norman is put under investigation by the American Senate Sub-committee. This sub-committee accused him of having been part of the communist cell when he was a student at Cambridge. The sub committee further insinuated that, the Cambridge four had a conspiracy against the king and Canada as a country. The report also alleges that, Harman was a KGB Soviet recruit. Furthermore some of the people he associated with during his study time were also alleging that Norman was a communist. One of such was people was Halperin, who made Norman’s name appeared severally in his note book. It is important to note that, Halperin was a communist3. Norman’s appearance in his book only meant that, he was a communist too. Norman strongly refuted this claims and says that, he knew Halperin as a college mate and was not aware of his affiliations to communism. He further says that his discussions with Halperin were limited to student days. We see Harman as constantly defending himself. This he does not do for pleasure, but to clear himself from already souring allegations of him being a communist. As we can deduce, Herbert Norman wanted to study communism and only associated with people colored with red. His explanations are reasonable enough4.

It will be significant to say that Herbert Norman’s suicide was caused by the false information that was secretly compiled by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The inaccurate information was then handed over to the FBI in 1950. The information that was given to the FBI accused Norman of being a communist, a possible spy for the Soviet and not keeping his oath of loyalty. The release of this wrong and malicious information took place when Heeney was the Deputy Minister of external affairs in Canada. When this sensitive report was compiled and sent to the FBI, Herbert Norman remained unaware that he was being investigated. Moreover he was not given a platform or a chance to state his position about the accusations made against him. The report forwarded by the RCMP was later found out to have been short of insight about the issue5.

It is important at this point of the discussion to mention that, Canada became an ally of the United States of America in 1945. This then meant that, Canadians worked in close collaboration with the United States especially in matters pertaining to communism. In addition, Canadian affiliation to the United States meant that, their diplomats were left with no option but strike a balance of speaking for National interest and playing on the American team. Some of the Canadian diplomats walked through this road and were completely subdued to the American’s wishes. One such diplomat was Lester Pearson. He however did not earn more respect in Canada. On the other hand, those who tried to contradict the United States policies were treated unfairly and lived with frustrations. This was because they were often branded as communists. One such case was Herbert Norman. The big disadvantage that Canada faced for accepting an ally to America was that, it could not influence the events that were going on in Washington. A special case in time was when Norman’s case could not be addressed exclusively in Canada. It happened that, the then external affairs minister, Lester Pearson was aware of the implication of such a report when it reached Washington. He tried to stop it but it was too late. It later turned out that the inaccurate RCMP report sent to the FBI only aggravated Americans need to cub Herman because to them he was a communist6.

The third cause that can be attributed to Herbert Norman’s suicide is his role and work in Asia. Herbert Norman took an active role and participated in issues pertaining East Asia. It is eminent that, Norman was a specialist in Japanese history. He was one of the core officials when Japan was occupied. What prompted Norman to be pursued by the Americans was his constant contradiction of the policies issued by the United States to East Asia. Because of his stern positions, he got an uncalled for attention from Willoughby, who was McArthur’s head of intelligence. McArthur simply worked with him as a colleague because he wanted to use Norman’s knowledge of the country to his advantage7.

Notably, Norman was not the only one who was a victim of the United States intrigues in East Asia. Among the victims is George Patterson. He was a Canadian diplomat who formerly used to work for YMCA in Toronto. While in Korea, he worked as an acting Canadian representative to the United Nations in Korea. Patterson got American’s attention by working to avoid the division of Korea to North and South. On the other hand the United States had planned to establish a regime on the South. The two had a contradiction of interest. This scenario made Patterson fall victim of the United States witch hunt because he was branded a communist by John Hedge, the head of the United States operations in Korea. Another victim of the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950’s was Chester Ronning. He too was a Canadian diplomat. Chester served in China during the world war. He openly supported the many issues concerning the communist programs in China. In 1949, he lobbied for the Chinese communist government. He was immediately not allowed to visit Washington8.

To the United States, the above mentioned only confirmed an existence of a Canadian spy ring that was active in East Asia after the war. All the accusations leveled by the United States was purely because, the United States government wanted to have a direct influence on Asia. It therefore served their interests when the United States officials viewed those who were not reading from the same script with them in terms of policies as serving the interests of their enemies. In a matter of fact the United States officials were trying to simplify facts that that were of grave concern, a pure characteristic of authoritarian and populist regimes. In other words the United States used anti-communism as a tool to deal with the challenges posed to them9. Therefore, Herbert Norman, George Patterson and Chester Ronning are only but a few who fell to this trap. The continued suspicion and accusations leveled against Norman were building up and affecting him psychologically. When it came a time he could not bear them, he turned to suicide.

To Cairo, Egypt, Herbert Norman’s suicide was basically caused by the Middle East stalemate. Harman gave his support to the Egyptians during the July Suez Canal crisis. Furthermore, Norman condemned the 1956 tripartite aggression of the Suez Canal by the French the British and their Israeli ally. When the Suez Canal crisis occurred, Nasser was the then president of Egypt. Having the military experience, he forcefully and successfully drove away the British forces who had invaded the Suez zone. Nasser’s success antagonized the colonialists in the area, that is, Britain and France and their ally Israel10. This then led the three Nations to meet secretly to plot a way forward on the matter. This meeting saw Israel ambush a surprise attack on Egypt. Britain and France then pretended to come for rescue and ordered Egypt and Israel to vacate the area. Both parties obliged and what that meant was that the Britain and France invaded the zone.

The situation in the Suez Canal made the United States feel left out because they were not involved in the British French and Israeli’s cunning plot. The problem in the Suez Canal called for an immediate and lasting solution. This need prompted the Canadian minister for external affairs, Lester Pearson to step in. Pearson did not however work on this alone. He worked in collaboration with John Foster, the United States secretary of state. Pearson introduced and presented an emergency resolution at the United Nations general assembly. Pearson proposed the formation of the United Nations Emergency Force which was specifically intended to replace the occupying British and French forces in the Suez zone. Pearson’s resolutions were adopted.

The United Nations resolutions were well received in New York. But then the resolutions faced a major problem. President Nasser was very skeptical of the idea to allow the United Nation forces take charge of the Suez zone. To him he could not understand how replacing the British and the French forces with the United Nations contingent would bring the Suez Canal back to the Egyptians. Nasser’s arguments were based on the fact that, United Nations was also a western brain and will only serve the western interests. It then took the effort of one honorable man; Herbert Norman to convince President Nasser to accept the United Nation’s resolution. Norman had only stayed in Cairo for two months before the Suez crisis broke. Peyton, the man who was commissioned to investigate Norman’s case described him as a man who won President Nasser’s confidence and properly used it in helping in the establishment of the United Nations emergency force11. This marked the first United Nations peace keeping operation. His endeavors to work with the Egyptian Government won him more follies from Britain, France and Israel. What this translates to is that, Norman in addition to being branded a communist and a soviet spy, was now adding to his frustrations and stress new follies who worked together to destroy him.

When Norman committed suicide, the cordial relationship that existed between Canada and the United states deteriorated. In Canada the people viewed his death as having been prompted by the United States Senate Sub-committee on internal Security. Canadians were furious and described the activities by this committee as “Trial by Suspicion” and “Murder by Slander”12.

To sum it up, spying was at the heart of all major Cold War studies. This was eminent especially between the two forces, that is, the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union. The Cold War era also led to malice and witch hunts especially from the United States as a communism crusader. Herbert Norman was one of the victims to this witch hunt. He fell prey after he constantly contradicted the United States policies while in Asia. He was branded a communist by the United States military deployed in Japan. At that time, Tokyo played an important role in the anti-communist Asians and Americans. Therefore, any attempts to scuttle United States bid to have a stake in Asia was treated with mischief and witch hunt. Herbert Norman’s death was therefore caused by stress and frustrations he faced from the United States military and intelligence. The contributors of his depression date back to his quest to study communism, an incorrect report compiled by the RCMP which was then forwarded to the FBI, his work in Asia and his involvement in the Suez crisis.


  1. E. Herbert Norman Suicide Notes, April, 1957.
  2. Unknown, “RCMP Report on Norman,” (: November 27, 1950.
  3. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Access to Information Act Request, 117-89-109
  4. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Access to Information Act Request, 117-89-109
  5. John Price, “Learning from Herbert Norman, Historian of Japan, Canadian Diplomat” August 28, 2007.
  6. John Price, “Learning from Herbert Norman, Historian of Japan, Canadian Diplomat” August 28, 2007.
  7. Lester Pearson, MacArthur’s Cold War Plan for Japan, Mike: The Memory of the Right Honorable Lester B Pearson Volume 2, 1948-1954
  8. John Price, “Learning from Herbert Norman, Historian of Japan, Canadian Diplomat” August 28, 2007.
  9. John Price, “Learning from Herbert Norman, Historian of Japan, Canadian Diplomat” August 28, 2007.
  10. E. Herbert Norman on British and French in Suez Crisis, January 3, 1957.
  11. Jack Brayley, Norman Swayed Nasser’s Decision, Montreal Gazette, April 29, 1957.
  12. William Stevenson, Norma seen Victim of U.S. Witch Hunters, Toronto Daily Star, April 4, 1957
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