The Norman Case

As the late Herbert Norman’s superior in the Department of External Affairs, Pearson answered Maclean’s questions about the Norman case with frankness and undisguised feeling. This is what was said:

[Blair] FRASER: There’s a question affecting our relations with the United States, and that is our treatment of the security problem—of which we’ve had tragic experience lately. Like a number of other people who feel that you did the right thing in protecting and defending Herbert Norman, I feel that you didn’t do it in the right way. If the facts now before the public had been made known in 1951, it would have been easier to defend the attitude the government took. Some of the government’s defenders feel that they have been let down. They were trapped into defending an indefensible position because they assumed that the government statements, which read like denials at a quick reading, were in fact not denials.

PEARSON: I think most Canadians would expect the Canadian government to try to protect a Canadian from charges and insinuations leveled against him by a legislative committee of another country in a matter of security which should be handled as a security not a publicity matter. I think also all Canadians would agree that it is intolerable and indefensible for a legislative committee of another country to interfere in our affairs in this way, because it was interference in our affairs. I can imagine what would have happened if we had done the same thing up here in regard to an American in reverse circumstances. I don’t agree with you that when the matter came up in 1951 we should have told the whole story. I think you are wrong when you say that we gave the impression that all chargers were denied when, in fact, they weren’t denied. The charge was—and this is the only one that matters—not that this man had gone to some Communist study groups, not that he had been a Communist associated with Communists as a student; the charge was that he was a Communist and therefore disloyal when he was an official of the government of Canada. We denied that charge and said we had complete confidence in him, and that surely should have been the end of it; and if it had not come up six years afterward, that would have been the end of it. Now, if we had made public at that time all the evidence which bore on his earlier associations with communism, we would have been doing that man an injustice. Some of the mud would have stuck on him for years and made his position in the External Affairs Department as a foreign-service officer, very very difficult indeed. We wanted to protect him from that. Furthermore, it is our security practice in this government, based on British practices and traditions in the field, that we dismiss or reject charges against an official and we make public the decision when necessary, but that we do not make public the evidence on which the decision is based.

FRASER: I’m not suggesting that you should have made public the evidence, and I don’t know what the evidence was. I’m just suggesting that you should have made public as much as you have, in fact, made public. When you were replying to the charges that were made in the United States, your reply should have been more specific than, in fact, it was. It was very carefully phrased, and it was accepted by most Canadians as a blanket denial. Since then various reservations have been stated in this blanket denial.

PEARSON: No reservation of any kind has been stated by me. My blanket denial, as you call it, was a denial of the charge that he was disloyal, untrustworthy and a Communist in the service of the government of Canada. That is the only thing that I have ever denied. And why should we then have gone on and said, “but, of course, in his earlier days he associated with Communists as a student”—why should we do that?

FRASER: Because you were opposing one man’s word to another’s. It seems to me that when you invited people to choose, as implicitly you did, you may have invited trouble. Here was this man Wittfogel, who after all is a man of some standing in the academic circles in New York, testifying under oath. The first story to hit the newspapers was Wittfogel’s testimony that he remembered this attractive young man as having been a member of a study group which he conducted in 1938. Now, I entirely agree with you that there was nothing wrong with that, and that you were perfectly justified and perfectly right in saying, in effect, “This is not a charge at all.” But the rejoinder to this, even at that stage, gave Canadian readers the impression Wittfogel was a liar.

PEARSON: Well, let me put it this way. In the atmosphere of that time—and the time we’re talking about was the end of 1951—if we had said, “This official is loyal; we have confidence in him; but, nevertheless, Mr. Wittfogel is right: he was a member of a Communist study group; he was also interested in Marxism when he was at Harvard University,” a great many people would have said, “Oh, there you are. He was a communist a few years before and they’re keeping him in the Department of External Affairs!” Would that have been a happy position for a man who was going to be asked by us to take on responsible duties in the department and whom we hoped would occupy responsible positions in the years to come? In the atmosphere of 1951 he would have been tarred for a long time in the estimation of a lot of people. I think his position would have been very difficult in the department. Knowing Herbert Norman very well, as I did, I think he would have been even more sensitive about that than he became later, and he would have felt he had to leave the service. Would that have been fair or just?


FRASER: What are the security checks? What are they and what should they be as applied in Canada to decide who can be employed and who can’t, who is trustworthy and who isn’t? What sort of standards do we set up?

PEARSON: There is a complete security check. I am talking about my own department now. A complete security check is made by the RCMP on every person who joins the department. It’s really quite exhaustive, quite full. That is referred, if there is anything derogatory, to the undersecretary and then there is a security panel of high officials, deputy ministers, and they can go into it if there is any doubt as to what action should be taken. After all these stages are gone through, and they are gone through confidentially, if there is a decision to be made it has to be made by the responsible minister.

FRASER: By the minister or by the cabinet?

PEARSON: No, by the minister as an individual in charge of his department. But, as a minister, he binds the government if there is an issue to be made.


Source: No author, "Pearson on the Norman Case," Maclean's Magazine, July 6, 1957

Return to parent page