Herbert Norman: More than a victim of McCarthyism





Fifty years ago, the Canadian diplomat and noted Japan scholar, Herbert Norman, committed suicide, stepping off the roof of a nine-storey building in downtown Cairo. Canadian ambassador to Egypt at the time, Norman was 47 years old and his death on April 4, 1957 provoked a crisis in Canada-U.S. relations.

Norman’s last act came in the wake of accusations made in the U.S. Senate that he was disloyal, a possible communist spy. This was the third round of such charges. On each occasion, RCMP and foreign affairs officials had grilled and cleared Norman of any wrongdoing. Still, the costs were heavy. The first round had prompted his recall from Tokyo in 1950; the second had led to his effective demotion in 1953.

Norman’s appointment as ambassador to Egypt in 1956 was the beginning of his comeback and coincided with the outbreak of the Suez Crisis. Exhausted by his part in advocating for a U.N. peacekeeping mission (for which Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize), Norman was suddenly faced with renewed U.S. charges. He opted to end his life rather than face continued persecution.[1]

Born and raised in Japan, Norman studied classics at Trinity College in the U.K. before pursuing his doctorate in Japanese history at Harvard. At a time when Asian Canadians were excluded from government service in Canada, Norman’s exceptional knowledge of Japan and his language skills were rare commodities. Hired by External Affairs in 1939, Norman was posted to the Tokyo embassy in 1940. He returned to Canada in a prisoner swap after Canada declared war on Japan. At war’s end, Norman went back to Tokyo to serve on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff during the Occupation of Japan. The following year, 1946, he became head of Canada’s mission in Tokyo, a position he held until his recall in 1950.

No evidence has ever been found to justify charges of disloyalty.[2] Still, to the extent Norman is a part of public memory at all, it is usually as a suspected spy or victim of McCarthyism. This has tended to overshadow Norman’s actual activities both as a historian and a diplomat. Fortunately, new documents written by or about Norman continue to emerge from dusty archives from Ottawa to Tokyo. They not only provide a better sense of Norman, they also reveal much about the Occupation of Japan, and Canada-U.S. collaboration in the making of the American Empire in East Asia.

George Kennan comes to Ottawa

One of the most intriguing new documents is a short memorandum written by George Kennan in May of 1948, upon his return from a field trip to Occupied Japan. Kennan had become the main U.S. spear carrier in the emerging Cold War after writing in February 1946 what later became known as the “long” telegram in which he articulated the necessity of quarantining the Soviet Union, spurning the policy of co-existence that had mainly characterized the wartime and immediate postwar relationship. His views found favor in the highest echelons of the government and military and he was placed in charge of the Policy Planning Staff, a high-powered think tank within the State Department. In reviewing U.S. policy in Japan and the preparations for a peace treaty that were then underway, Kennan aggressively pushed his view that postwar reforms had gone too far, that a peace treaty was premature, and that the Occupation should continue so that Japan’s economy could rebuild. These views found their first official articulation in a memorandum to the Secretary of State in October 1947.[3] These preliminary observations prompted Kennan to visit Japan in March 1948.

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