Cold War launched

After the terror of World War Two, the world enjoyed a welcome period of grace. It lasted precisely three days. On September 5, 1945, an agitated man entered the editorial office of the Ottawa Journal. With his heavy Russian accent, no one could understand much of what he said. But one phrase was clear. “It’s war,” insisted Igor Gouzenko. It’s war.” War it was. Not the bloody combat that had just consumed half the world, but a Cold War that would embrace just about the entire planet.

To paraphrase a popular adage, if Gouzenko had not existed, Western anti-communists might have had to invent him. Gouzenko was the right man at the right time with the right message. He defected from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, where he was engaged in coding and decoding messages sent back and forth from Moscow. His duties required him to process reports from the spy system operated in Canada by Soviet military intelligence, the Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije or GRU. Learning in 1945 that he was to be recalled to the USSR, Gouzenko decided to defect. To increase his value and ensure a welcome by the Canadian political elite, before he left the Soviet embassy he stuffed inside his shirt 109 key documents pertaining to his country’s spy system. They proved, Gouzenko advised the Ottawa Journal editors, that the world was not entering a period of peace, but instead a new war.

Gouzenko’s message was music to the ears of some North Americans in 1945. But it was not the kind of tune most people wanted to hear. After a decade and a half of depression and war, the majority prayed for a return to normalcy. And the popular outlook on the Soviet Union was well summed up by Carl Marzani’s book: We Can Be Friends. For those who feared that the West would return to peacetime attitudes and peacetime military spending, however, Gouzenko was a saviour. Here was a Soviet spy who brought factual support to the notion that the Soviets could not be trusted. Gouzenko’s message, that war was imminent and the Soviets were to blame, soon became the Western party line. In March 1948, the stridently anti-communist U.S. News and World Report asked: “Is World War III at Hand?” As a reply, the newspaper offered: “It all depends on how far the Russians are ready to push.”

Because Gouzenko defected in Ottawa, the public hysteria about communist spies actually erupted sooner in Canada than in the United States. In February 1946 – four years before Senator Joseph McCarthy became a household name in the United States – Canadian Social Credit Party leader Solon Low was clamoring that the federal civil service was “shot through and through” with communists and blaming “gross negligence” on the part of the Liberal government. Despite this early inflammatory rhetoric, Canada’s political structures did not allow such politicians to mushroom into northern McCarthys. It was in the United States that red-baiting became a flood that swept the political landscape.

Just how widely the McCarthyist hunt for communists ranged over the United States was summed up by CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow in a March 9, 1954 broadcast of See It Now. Murrow charged that McCarthy had “accused civilian and military leaders of the past administration of a great conspiracy to turn the country over to Communism, investigated and substantially demoralized the present State Department, [and] made varying charges of espionage” against even the United States military. The villains in McCarthy’s crusade were members of the United States elite – especially those in the Democratic Party – who he claimed were guilty of “twenty years of treason,” causing the United States to be infiltrated by communists.

The most important forum for the witch hunt was public investigations launched by United States congressional committees and a number of equivalents at the state level. McCarthy himself headed just one, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), in 1953 and 1954. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was better known, in part because in 1947 it claimed that Hollywood actors, directors, and writers were communists or fellow travelers and began to summon the stars to testify. A third committee, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), was formed in 1950 and took particular aim at espionage within the United States. Ironically, McCarthy’s performance as chair of the PSI helped to destroy his career. In 1954, when he raised the cry of communist infiltration of the United States Army, he found himself condemned as “a major liability to the cause of anti-communism.” Later that year the United States Senate censured him. McCarthy himself was on the way to his grave; he died on May 2, 1957, just 28 days after Herbert Norman. But the witch hunts marched on. A host of witnesses continued to be summoned before investigative committees across the United States. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that the political phenomenon known as McCarthyism can truly be said to have run its course.

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