What Caused Herbert Norman to Take his Life?
Ages 16-18

MysteryQuest 37

What Caused Herbert Norman to Take his Life?

Author: Jan Maynard Nicol

Editor: Ilan Danjoux, Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16 to 18

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For many people it is hard to imagine the deep psychological and physical harm that resulted from the Cold War. Just as the idea of terrorism generates public fear in a post-9/11 world, the idea of communism after World War II had a similar terrifying effect. This widespread nervousness created a climate were almost anyone - from ordinary citizen to high-placed public figure - might be suspected of aiding the enemy. The simple accusation of sympathy for communism could ruin personal lives and careers. This is evident in the case of Herbert Norman, a distinguished Canadian diplomat serving as the Canadian Ambassador in Egypt in 1957. After writing a note reaffirming his innocence of wrongdoing, Norman committed suicide by stepping backwards off the roof of a seven story building in Cairo.

For years Norman had served Canada in high-level diplomatic positions around the world, and his colleagues believed that his loyalty to Canada was indisputable. Yet, a U.S. Senate committee released information that Norman had been, or was still, a communist even though the RCMP had cleared Norman of similar allegations years earlier. Some of his critics maintained that Norman's suicide was an indication of his guilt. Many of his supporters believed that Norman was convinced that the allegations would never stop and that ending his life was his only option. Others believed that by ending his life, Norman would not have to reveal the names of political figures who happen to be Communist sympathizers. What part, if any, did these reasons play in Norman's decision to step off that roof in Cairo?

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In this MysteryQuest, you will consider three possible factors in Norman's decision to end his life: personal guilt for wrongdoing, despair over a destroyed reputation, and a desire to protect others from exposure and harm. Before determining the relative importance of each factor, you will need to find out more about Norman's career and the political atmosphere at the time. After clarifying your understanding of these theories, you will examine various documents. Your task is to identify relevant statements from the documents and indicate how these may support or challenge one or more of the three theories. Finally, you will summarize the main pieces of evidence for each theory and decide which is the most plausible theory and which is the least plausible theory.

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STEP 1: Learn about the incident

The Cold War was largely about the global struggle between capitalism and communism. But sometimes it was also about personal jealousy and ambition. It was in this highly politicized atmosphere that Norman first became identified as a security threat. He served in high-level positions as one of Canada's most talented representatives in the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Lebanon and Egypt. But nevertheless he was not above suspicion. To learn more about the roots of Norman's problems and the circumstances leading to his death, read the following documents:

As you read these secondary accounts prepared by historians make a mental note of the statements or claims that suggest possible reasons for Norman's decision to commit suicide.

STEP 2: Think about the possible theories

No doubt you are beginning to understand that Norman lived in turbulent times and in a world of intrigue and suspicion - a world where people, including Norman, had their own agenda. But what factors were most responsible for his death? The three most widely suggested theories are:

  • personal guilt for wrong doing
  • despair over a destroyed reputation
  • a desire to protect others from harm and public exposure

Make three copies of both pages - six sheets in all - of Assembling Evidence for Each Theory. At the top of each pair of sheets check off the box for a different theory. Based on what you have read thus far, explain in your own words what each theory means and, given the conditions at the time, why each factor may have been a concern for Norman. Record this in box at the top of each of the three sheets.

STEP 3: Examine the evidence

It is time now to examine additional documents related to the life and death of Herbert Norman. In the Evidence in the Case you will find ten documents, including government documents, his suicide notes and other letters, and various newspaper articles. These materials provide information about Norman's motives, the allegations against him and reactions to these allegations. For each theory, look for ten statements in the documents that might support or challenge it as a reason for Norman's decision to commit suicide. While reading the documents, record relevant statements or facts on one or more of the three charts, and indicate the implications of the statement for the relevant theory. Remember that, in many instances, you will have to make inferences based on what is stated in the document before deciding whether it supports or challenges a particular theory. For example, the fact that Norman was a very private man may suggest that he had something to hide. This might be seen as evidence that he had done something to cause him to feel guilty. Alternatively, it may suggest that he was naturally shy and would likely be distressed to have his reputation ruined in such a public manner.

STEP 4: Summarize the most important evidence

After you have identified ten pieces of evidence for each theory, and explained the implications of each of these statements, you must now consider which theory is most plausible and which theory is least plausible. The first step is to summarize in point form the best reasons supporting each theory. Record your key pieces of evidence in the left-hand column on the chart Summary of the Evidence. In deciding on the strongest pieces of evidence consider two criteria:

  • Is directly and clearly connected to the theory. For example, evidence that he had been seen handing over documents to a Soviet agent would be strong evidence for the theory that he was guilty of wrongdoing.
  • comes from a credible or believable source. For example, if evidence that he had been seen handing over documents to a Soviet agent was offered by someone who knew and respected Norman it would be credible evidence that he had done this deed. It would be less believable if the person reporting the incident was envious of Norman, and therefore might want to cause him harm.

STEP 5: Rank order the reasons

After you have summarized the strongest pieces of evidence supporting each theory, you should now rank each theory in order of plausibility. Check the "1st" box for the most plausible theory, check the "3rd" box for the least plausible and check the "2nd" box for the remaining theory. Be sure to explain your rankings. In determining the relative plausibility of the theories, consider which body of evidence offers the most consistent picture of the events with the fewest unanswered questions. In other words, which theory seems to explain more of the events and leave fewer unexplained conclusions. For example, if Norman was guity of spying why did the RCMP clear his name? On the other hand, if Norman was innocent of spying, why did the U.S. committee find him guilty? You must decide which body of evidence provides the best explanation for these conflicting questions.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing the Assembled Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant statements from the historical documents and explain how they support or challenge one or more of the theories.

The evaluation rubric Assessing the Conclusion may be used to assess how well you were able to summarize the key evidence and explain your reasons for the assigned rankings of the theories.

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Background: Herbert Norman and the Cold War

Activity Sheet: Assembling Evidence for Each Theory

Activity Sheet: Summary of the Evidence

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Compose a letter
Many people questioned the actions of the U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1957. Write a letter to the Canadian Department of External Affairs outlining how you think they should have reacted to the actions of this committee and whether or not you believe the Canadian government's response at the time had an impact on Norman's decision to end his life.

Write an editorial
If necessary, carry out additional research on both the fear of communism during the Cold War and the War on Terrorism since 9/11. Write an editorial comparing and contrasting the reactions of the Canadian government to both situations.

Explore other challenges
Extend your knowledge by exploring other issues associated with the Herbert Norman case:

  • MysteryQuest 38 invites you to decide whether Norman was truly an innocent victim or might he have been guilty of spying.
  • MysteryQuest 39 invites you to modify Cold War political cartoons to represent key perspectives on issues at the time.

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Background to the case

Murder by slander?

The 1930s

Primary sources

Government documents

Unknown, RCMP Report on Norman, November 27, 1950

Supt. Geo. B. McClellan; Insp. T.M. Guernsey; E.H. Norman; G. de T. Glasebrook, RCMP Interrogation of Norman 1952, January 26, 1952

J.G. Diefenbaker, L.B. Pearson, House of Commons Exchange About US Charges Against Norman, March 15, 1957


E. Herbert Norman, Norman Writes About Joining the Communist Party, March 3, 1937

E. Herbert Norman, Norman's Suicide Notes, April 4, 1957

Newspaper articles

Greer, Harold, Saw No End to U.S. Attacks - Norman Aide, Toronto Daily Star, April 4, 1957

Warren Unna, Ex-Red Courier Says He Originated Charges Against Norman In 1940, The Washington Post and Times Herald, April 19, 1957

Joseph Fromm, Norman the Diplomat-- A Newsman's Size-Up, U.S. News & World Report, April 26, 1957

No author, The Pearson Case, Time Magazine, April 29, 1957

Greer, Harold., Smearing of Canadians Former Red Linked To M'Arthur Vendetta, Toronto Star, August 10, 1951