Herbert Norman was one of Canada’s most talented public servants. In 18 years with the Department of External Affairs, he was Canada’s representative in high-level positions in the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Lebanon and Egypt. But on a cloudless Cairo morning, April 4, 1957, Norman took the elevator to the top of a nine-storey building – the only place he knew of where he could take his life without endangering pedestrians – and stepped from the parapet. The reasons for his suicide are still shrouded in mystery. But one thing is clear: by jumping to his death, Herbert Norman became Canada’s most prominent and tragic victim of the Cold War.
Canadians like to pride themselves on having been immune to the “black madness of the witch hunt” – as Prime Minister Lester Pearson later described it. But the Cold War was a world phenomenon that did not spare Canada. Inevitably, proximity and political likeness north and south of the 49th parallel meant that Cold War outlooks and methods spilled over from the United States. There, the Cold War propelled an array of memorable characters onto the political stage. For instance, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s memory is still bathed in reverence for his decisive action in a Cold War confrontation. Senator Joseph McCarthy is widely condemned for brewing a toxic potion blended from America’s deepest fears.
Herbert Norman’s loyalty to Canada was indisputable to his colleagues. But national security agencies in Canada and its allied countries harbored a long-running suspicion of him. Cold Warriors in the United States openly cast doubt on his allegiance. By 1957, many people had concluded that “McCarthyism is McCarthywasm,” in the memorable words of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. McCarthy himself was on his death bed. But this “wasm” gave Herbert Norman no peace.
Norman’s dramatic death ended his personal torture, but it has given his legacy no rest. More than fifty years have passed, but mention of his name still fires up passionate debate. What led him to commit suicide? Had he indeed been a communist in his youth? And if so, what kind of communist? An intellectual Marxist or a dedicated Party stalwart? Was communism an incurable parasite that never left its host? And did being a communist automatically mean allegiance to the foremost communist country of the day, the Soviet Union? Did Norman kill himself to hide his service to the USSR? Did he jump because otherwise – as rumour went at the time – he would have been forced, under interrogation, to betray 60 to 70 Soviet agents? Or did Norman do himself in because during the Cold War – when public exposure as a communist led to people losing their careers, going to jail, being killed in jail – he believed he could never clear his name? The fact that these issues are still unresolved is one reason why the issue of Norman’s loyalty is so hotly contested today.
In this website, we invite you to immerse yourself in the Cold War as it occurred in Canada and beyond. It was a time when authorities in the United States and Canada were convinced that the “free world” was in danger of being overrun. It was a time not so different from our own. In 2002 the Canadian computer engineer Maher Arar learned that through painful experience. The Syrian-born Canadian citizen was seized in New York and secretly sent to Syria, where he was tortured for months on the basis of an assessment by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their national security counterparts in the USA that Arar was an Islamic terrorist. In 2003 Arar was released and returned to Canada, where in 2006 his name was cleared by a public inquiry. US authorities, however, keep him on a watch list of suspects.
Herbert Norman had no such public inquiry to assess his loyalty. That task is in your hands.