“Trial by Television”

During the debate about Herbert Norman’s loyalty, Canadians were often frustrated by their limited ability to influence events in the United States. Canadian diplomats quietly lobbied and Canadian media noisily protested. But the inquisition that Progressive Conservative Party leader John Diefenbaker called “trials by television” carried on in the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS).

Curiously, even Americans – right up to the level of the president – found themselves unable to temper the aggressive anti-communists in the SISS. The cause of this apparent contradiction lies in the nature of the political structure in each country.

In Canada, political struggle and sometimes-violent battles in the 19th century had cemented the connection between the executive (the prime minister and cabinet) and the legislature (members of parliament). Under this system of “responsible government,” political action by the legislature was increasingly controlled by the executive. There were committees in the House of Commons and Senate, but they were usually kept on a short leash by the prime minister and cabinet.

In the United States, the executive and legislative branches of the federal government retain their autonomy and their capacity to act alone. So committees of Congress (composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate) exercise considerable independence. In the volatile Cold War era, free-wheeling, ambitious members of Congress like Senator Joseph McCarthy made full use of congressional committees as platforms for personal and political crusades.

The SISS, which was Herbert Norman’s nemesis, was a relative latecomer to the game of seeking out communists. Created in 1950, the SISS specialized in addressing espionage as a threat to the internal security of the United States. Given that such threats could come from many countries, the subcommittee’s investigations were not confined to American citizens. In its first major inquiry, for example, the SISS investigated citizens of the United States, China, Japan, Britain, and Canada, among other countries.

From 1951 to 1957, the years when Norman’s name came before the SISS several times, there were three different chairmen, all of whom were staunch anti-communists. From 1952 to 1955, Republican Senator William Jenner chaired the subcommittee and used the opportunity to try to bring Igor Gouzenko to Washington to testify. In 1955, James O. Eastland of Mississippi became chairman, a position he held until the SISS was abolished in 1977. Over this long era, Eastland’s anti-communism was supplemented by his bitter opposition to African Americans’ campaign for racial equality. He saw communist subversion as the root of the Civil Rights movement, and he used all the clout he had to attack such trouble-makers.

In the United States, legislative committees function by summoning people to appear before them. Failing to appear, refusing to testify, or lying under oath can lead to jail terms for contempt of the committee or perjury. During the Cold War, simply being summoned before such a committee resulted in people being fired from their jobs and enduring public damnation, harassment, and assault. Facing the blinding light of early television cameras and newspaper photographers’ flashbulbs, witnesses at the committees were belittled and baited by politicians. Committee members were well aware that the spectacles were sensational media events. One Washington-based journalist recalled later that “McCarthy was a dream story. I wasn't off page one for four years.” The people about whom he was writing, however, often found being on the front page to be more of a nightmare than a dream.

In a country whose communist party had perhaps 75,000 members at its peak in the WW2 period but no more than a fifth of that number by the 1950s, how did these legislative committees find fresh fodder in the form of new witnesses to question and “traitors” to expose? The documents in this section of the site point to the key sources of the SISS’s supply of names. (You can find further evidence in the Aftermath section under the heading Immediate Reactions.) These sources kept the committee functioning and continuing to generate publicity for the politicians involved. In assessing these documents, ask yourself to what extent Norman’s death was a by-product of the political games being played in Washington, deadly games in which Canadians were only pawns.

Government Documents