WW2

The Last Good War, it’s been called. Can you think why? By what standard does the killing of an estimated 50 to 70 million people rate as a good war? Horrific as it was, World War Two is often considered a good war because it utterly destroyed fascist state power in Germany and Italy and an aggressive military regime in Japan. These states systematically persecuted their own citizens and openly strived to dominate, invade, and occupy their neighbors. So constructing a Grand Alliance to force these criminal states to surrender unconditionally was a notable achievement, even though the victory came at a frightful cost.

The process of creating that Grand Alliance uniting the West and the USSR, however, was as twisted as a swastika. In 1938 at Munich, Britain and France made a deal with Hitler, giving him part of Czechoslovakia and more or less inviting him to continue east against the USSR. Then, in 1939, the USSR cut a deal with Hitler, delaying Hitler’s anticipated attack. That gave Hitler an opening to blitz Poland and, in the spring of 1940, to drive west to the Atlantic Ocean. Having humbled all of Western Europe except a weakened Britain, Hitler seized the opportunity the next year to storm into the USSR. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 squared this improbable circle. Willy-nilly, the Axis countries had thrown together the accidental alliance that would crush them.

Although united with communists in the fight against fascism, the elite in North America did not find any new love for communism during World War Two. In fact, from the perspective of a communist, the war might have been the cruelest half decade of the 20th century. Yes, the Soviet Red Army was everyone’s favorite team as it broke the German Wehrmacht’s offensive at Stalingrad and each month tore a new century from Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. Yes, communists in Canada and the United States enjoyed unprecedented popular support. For the first time in 1943, an open communist, Fred Rose, was elected to Canada’s House of Commons, and he was re-elected in 1945. Still, communists remained outcasts, with senior officials in the national security forces warning of their continued threat.

The dramatic and rapid reversals in the alignment of world forces in those years led some Western communists and communist sympathizers to rethink the issue of loyalty. Western governments were allied to the Soviet Union, but what were they doing to help it? The Second Front they had promised to open in 1942 did not materialize until 1944. It didn’t take a political scientist to deduce that the West might be long on words but short on action. Some concluded that since Western governments were violating their agreement with the USSR, communists had a duty to take up the slack. Oaths of loyalty to their own countries be damned. Public servants who had information that could help beat the fascists, they decided, should pass it on to the USSR.

Few Canadian officials in World War Two were entrusted with more crucial military intelligence than Herbert Norman. He joined the Department of External Affairs just two months before the war began and rose quickly into positions that gave him access to important wartime secrets. From 1942 to 1945, he was an intelligence analyst for the Canadian government’s top-secret Examination Unit, a team of code-breakers who worked closely with American and British counterparts, gathering, deciphering, and making sense of information from both Axis and Allied countries. This international effort made possible major Allied military victories.

For national security agencies in the West, the moment was a perilous one. Months before they had been investigating and jailing communists. Suddenly the tables were turned enemies became allies. The hated Reds were taking up the fight against fascism by joining the military, the merchant marine, the public service. Enemies of the state had access to sensitive state secrets. Which of them were loyal to the USSR and which to their own country? Where did Herbert Norman’s loyalty lie?

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