In pursuit of Norman

For many historians, spying is at the heart of Cold War studies. Fear of spies was already strong in the years before the Second World War. But since the 1940s, it has become a staple of films, novels, and scholarly writing. Recently, this fixation has been stimulated by the release of new information by the U.S. National Security Agency information that shows conclusively that the Soviet Union was spying on the West, beginning as early as the 1930s. Don’t forget, however, that all this proof of Soviet conspiracy only came about because the United States and its allies were also engaged in spying on the USSR. Before and during the Second World War, for example, Western countries intercepted and recorded hundreds of thousands of messages sent back and forth from Moscow to Soviet diplomats, trade representatives, and spies.

Aside from deciphering these messages which was proceeding well by the late 1940s the West also got information from Soviet defectors such as Igor Gouzenko, a cipher expert who worked in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa until September 1945. Documents provided by Gouzenko disclosed the important espionage role played by communist parties in the West. National security agencies like Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the American Federal Bureau of Investigation had kept the communist parties under scrutiny from the early 1920s. They viewed these parties primarily as revolutionary threats to the capitalist system. But Gouzenko pointed out that the Communist Party of Canada was active in another way as a recruitment agency for Canadians willing to give information to the Soviets.

This disclosure opened up an entirely new realm of national security investigation in the Cold War. The RCMP and FBI already had lengthy lists of people they regarded as communists. Gouzenko brought new names still. These suspects and their associates had to be investigated, and the two directories then cross-checked. Although the Mounties and FBI agents involved would have described their activities in less festive terms, they soon became like Santa Claus making lists and checking them twice (or more), intent on finding out who was naughty and who was nice. By 1950, Herbert Norman’s name was on several lists. And national security agencies thought it was time to decide into which category he fit.