The Loyalties of E. Herbert Norman

Peyton V. Lyon
Labour/Le Travail, 28 (Fall 1991), pp 219-21

A report prepared for External Affairs and International Trade Canada, March 18, 1990. The views expressed in this report are those of the author.


ON 14 DECEMBER 1989, I signed a sixty day contract with the Department of External Affairs to review all its files on Norman, and also all those containing memoranda, dispatches and telegrams authored by him. I undertook to follow “lines of pursuit which may help clarify Norman’s allegiance to Canada ... and any relationship he may have had with the Soviet Union.” The report, “suitable for public release,” was “ideally to be highly unequivocal in putting to rest once and for all allegations about Norman.” Apart from that, I was given no indication of External’s preferred outcome, if any. My conclusion would be “guilty,” “not guilty” or “not proven,” depending on the evidence.

Access to the relevant External files was total and straightforward, and I’m confident that I have seen everything in them that is at all likely to bear on my assignment. Access to the RCMP files (now with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service [CSIS]) proved complicated but was eventually authorized. A short parliamentary discussion between members of Parliament David Kilgour and Patrick Boyer may have facilitated this outcome. The Department of National Defence made available interesting documents related to Norman’s wartime intelligence activity. The Library of the University of British Columbia sent copes of 68 letters from Norman’s spirited and revealing correspondence with his family. I also received a copy of the FBI’s Norman file. Letters that I wrote to a dozen newspapers produced five responses—only one of them critical of Norman. I also received seven phone calls from four people. I strongly doubt that my central findings could be significantly altered by additional information. Any deficiencies in the report cannot be blamed on a shortage of either cooperation or sources. (More about sources in Appendix A.)


My most important conclusions are both confident and unequivocal.

  1. Was Herbert Norman a spy? No. Not one iota of evidence suggests that he was.
  2. Was Herbert Norman a Soviet “agent of influence”? Did he offer his own government, or any other, counsel calculated to promote actions favorable to any enemy, real or potential? Or supply misinformation that would have the same result? No. There is not the slightest evidence that he was an “agent of influence” and much to the contrary. After forty years of investigation there is no smoking gun.
  3. Was Norman a Marxist, a Communist, and a Soviet sympathiser? Yes. Openly and enthusiastically while a student at Cambridge, 1933-35; less openly but perhaps more dogmatically while in Toronto 1936-37, and Harvard 1936-38. His emancipation from communism was gradual and cannot be pinpointed. After joining the public service in 1939, he cut his Party associates but kept up several friendships among Marxists that he had formed during the 1930s.
  4. Was Norman a member of the Communist Party in Canada, Britain or the United States? No. He was certainly a fellow traveller, but he was never formally admitted and given a card. His known services to the Party were trivial.
  5. Did Norman lie about his Communist past? No and yes. it was not a lie to have denied being a Member of the Party. He understated, however, the degree of his commitment and also his knowledge of the views and activities of his left-wing friends. His failure to tell the whole truth damaged his minister’s credibility and contributed to his own demise.
  6. Why did Norman commit suicide? Probably for the reason he himself offered. Although fatigue was a factor, he would not have taken his life had he not had cause to dread a repetition of the ordeal of 1950-52 that had been created by the McCarthyite investigation conducted by the US Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). He did not appear to fear serious new revelations. He knew, however, that the subcommittee was determined to “get” Lester Pearson as well as himself, and its tactics were ruthless.
  7. Was there a coverup? Yes, but only in the obvious sense that all governments treat security cases as strictly confidential, and for understandable reasons. Sources, both domestic and foreign, must be protected; much of the security material on file is gossip, and even after forty years there are innocent individuals who could be hurt. In the Norman case, Pearson gave out more information than is conventional, and both he and Norman suffered because of it. Both External and CSIS have in fact released the large bulk of their Norman files under Canada’s Access to Information legislation; the deleted material, all of which I have seen, does not alter the picture. Those was certainly no coverup of evidence indicating that Norman was a Communist spy or an agent of influence. The files I have reviewed contained no evidence to support such an allegation.

Herbert Norman was loyal to the people of Japan, the land of his childhood. He was loyal to humanity, and to the pursuit of historical truth. He was loyal to himself; he never denounced the idealistic youth who misguidedly saw in Communism and the Soviet Union the only hope for civilised man. He was above all, loyal to his friends and to his country. [...]

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