John Price Interpretation: Learning from Herbert Norman, Historian of Japan, Canadian Diplomat
John Price, Associate Professor of History, University of Victoria, and director of the E. H. Norman Digital Archive Project
August 28, 2007
Herbert Norman has been all but forgotten in Canadian history. To the extent he is remembered at all it is usually as a possible spy. Controversy regarding Norman arose when Roger Bowen wrote a sympathetic account of his life in the 1980s (Innocence is Not Enough) that was then contested by James Barros in No Sense of Evil. The controversy appeared to end after the government-commissioned Peyton Lyon report exonerated Norman of any wrongdoing in 1991. This prompted the sympathetic look at Norman in the NFB film The Man Who Might Have Been. Since then, there has been little focus on Norman—it seems the fact that Norman was not a spy has taken the excitement from the story. The unfortunate consequence of the treatment of Norman, both sympathetic and otherwise, has been that Norman’s scholarship and diplomacy have been overshadowed, first by controversy and then through neglect.
Canadians are all the poorer for such an approach. Not only has a new generation been denied the fruits of Norman’s labour, the lessons from Norman’s persecution also went by the wayside. Much of Norman’s specific trouble arose because of false information secretly compiled by the RCMP that was then forwarded to the FBI in 1950. The dispatch of this misleading report, with the knowledge of A.D.P. Heeney, the deputy minister of External Affairs, took place without Norman being allowed to even know or refute the allegations being made in secret against him. External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson, by this time aware of the dangers emanating out of Washington, tried to stop the information from being forwarded but was too late.
As it turns out, the original RCMP report was filled with inaccuracies and innuendo and Norman became grist for the mills of anti-communism in the United States. They pursued him into his grave. Norman’s case might have served as an object lesson in the need for close civilian oversight of the RCMP, but such a conclusion was never reached. Instead the Mounties continued to spy on Canadians, trying to find a ‘red’ under every bed. Another diplomat who suffered at the hands of the RCMP was Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union, John Watkins. He died in 1964 while being forcibly interrogated by the RCMP in Montreal based on suspicion he was a homosexual who had been blackmailed into spying for the Soviets. More recently, Maher Arar fell victim after RCMP reports falsely linking Arar to terrorism led to his detention in the US after 9/11. US officials then forcibly transported him to Syria where he was detained for over a year and suffered torture and deprivation.
Part of the reason that Norman in particular was pursued, and ironically why he has since been ignored, was because of his work in Asia. A specialist in Japanese history, Norman was a key official during the early occupation of Japan. On numerous occasions he took issue with the direction of US policies in East Asia. For this he gained the unwarranted attention of Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s head of intelligence who actively assisted in the persecution of Norman, along with Eugene Dooman, another US cold warrior.
Nor was Norman the only Canadian diplomat to fall victim to US intrigue in East Asia. The Canadian diplomat and former head of the YMCA in Toronto, George Patterson, also fell afoul of US military intelligence. Acting as the Canadian representative on the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea in 1947-1948, Patterson worked to avoid the division of Korea into north and south. This contradicted US plans to establish a pro-US regime in the south and Patterson was accused by General John Hodge, head of US operations in Korea, of being a communist or fellow traveler.
Chester Ronning, born in China and fluent in Chinese, went on to become an important Canadian diplomat in China during the war. A former leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Alberta, Ronning supported many aspects of the communist program in China, and lobbied hard for recognition of the Chinese communist government established in 1949. He too was considered persona non grata by many in Washington. In fact, US military intelligence was convinced that there existed a “Canadian spy ring” active in East Asia after the war.
Such outlandish claims arose because the US government was determined to establish its influence in Asia. It was to their advantage that US officials perceived those who disagreed with their policies as being adversaries, on the opposite side of the “them and us” fence. This polarization and simplification of complex problems has been a hallmark of authoritarian and populist regimes. Anti-communism was an effective weapon in this game and many suffered because of it.
The persecution of Norman and his subsequent suicide provoked a storm of protest in Canada at the time. Lester Pearson was also critical of the US actions in the case of Norman but he attributed the storm that arose mainly to latent ‘anti-Americanism’ in Canada. He tried to calm the storm rather than use it to reinforce Canadian independence. In the end Pearson relied on the US and could never accept the fact that the United States could actually be an imperial power. Fifty years after Norman’s death, the world continues to bear the consequences as US allies bolster its actions by forming "coalitions of the willing".