Reg Whitaker Interpretation
The immediate interpretation in Canada of Norman’s death was that he was a Canadian martyr to an American Cold War anti-Communist witch hunt that most Canadians saw as excessive and illiberal. Repressed Canadian resentments at American domination were given voice by a genuine sense of outrage at the senseless death of a distinguished Canadian as an apparent result of baseless charges by reckless McCarthyite politicians. This sentiment seemed to be shared across the political spectrum.
Soon added to this view were suggestions that Norman himself was a sensitive, highly-strung individual who had been so overwhelmed with adversity that he was no longer able to cope. And as time went on, the admission that Norman had been at least close to the Communists in his university days served to sow seeds of doubt in some minds that Norman might after all have been to some degree disloyal, even if he did not deserve to be driven to take his own life.
The US reaction was mixed. Anti-Communist Americans saw the suicide as a vindication of the charges against Norman made by the Senate subcommittee. The Eisenhower administration, on the other hand, saw it as a diplomatic embarrassment, without, however, accepting any blame for the actions of the legislative branch of government.
Three decades later, the Norman suicide became subject to renewed controversy at a time when a ‘new Cold War’ had settled onto the international stage. Two books by Americans in 1986 reignited Canadian controversy. James Barros (No Sense of Evil) argued that Norman was a long-term Soviet mole who had taken his own life when his treason was exposed. Roger Bowen (Innocence is Not Enough) argued that Norman was an innocent victim whose death could be laid directly at the feet of his accusers.
More recent post-Cold War interpretations – Whitaker & Marcuse, Cold War Canada; the NFB film, The Man Who Might Have Been – have been much closer to Bowen than to Barros, whose interpretation was rejected at the time in a report by retired diplomat Peyton Lyon and commissioned by the Minister of External Affairs. Lyon concluded that Norman had always been a loyal Canadian public servant. Norman’s suicide as a sign of guilt is an interpretation that has very few supporters today. It is, of course, impossible to prove a negative, but there is no evidence to suggest that Norman ever spied or acted as a Soviet agent.
How can we fairly interpret an act of suicide, perhaps the most intimate decision any individual can make? No one can ever know what actually moves a person to take his or her own life. But Norman’s suicide as a purely personal act may be set aside: his suicide is clearly set in the context of the revived spying charges and the fierce anti-Communist climate of the time. Whatever personal reasons Norman may have had, it was the threatening context that triggered his act.
Norman was a philosophical Marxist who had been close to the Communist party at Cambridge in 1930s. The notorious ‘Cambridge ring’ of Soviet moles – Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt – came from the same university milieu as Norman. Norman fitted the profile of a spy who might have been. This kept him in the eye of the security services of Canada and the US.
Norman was a left-wing intellectual and scholar whose ideas were not easily reducible to safe bureaucratic thinking. His progressive views became suspect when major policy shifts like the emergence of the Cold War took place.
Norman had been put through a very trying process of investigation in 1950/52, and had seen his career go into hiatus. He came out of this, finding a new lease on his career in Egypt during the Suez crisis. Revival of the old charges in 1957 was perhaps too much to bear, with the crushing certainty that his ordeal would never end.
Perhaps there were more personal factors we will never know that interacted with the public factors, making for a fatal combination. But the private meanings went with Norman to his grave.
The public significance of Norman’s suicide is that a senior Canadian diplomat, an accomplished scholar, an extraordinary Canadian, had been tragically hounded to his death by American witch hunters. Canada was an ally of the US in the Cold War, but the Norman suicide marked a line of division between the two countries. Canada was an ally with a mind of its own, but Canadians could pay dearly for this margin of independence.
More recently, the Maher Arar affair has back brought eerie echoes of the Norman affair. The Cold War is over, replaced by a ‘War on Terrorism’ declared after September 11, 2001. ‘Islamic terrorists’ have replaced ‘Communists’ as the enemy within. Once again, false intelligence on a Canadian was passed by the RCMP to the Americans. And once again, the US acted with disregard for human rights. Maher Arar was kidnapped by the US and sent to be tortured for a year in Syria. Unlike Norman, Arar did not commit suicide to escape his ordeal; instead he returned to tell his tale. This time a commission of inquiry exonerated Arar of any links to terrorism; he was paid compensation; and the Commissioner of the RCMP was forced to resign. Yet once again, the US government remains unrepentant. And many Canadians remain skeptical of US leadership.