Was Herbert Norman a Spy?
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 38

Was Herbert Norman a Spy?

Author: Jan Maynard Nicol

Editor: Ilan Danjoux, Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14 to 16

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Herbert Norman began his diplomatic career in 1935. Over the years, Norman served Canada in diplomatic positions around the world. His colleagues believed that his loyalty to Canada was unquestionable. Yet eleven years after his first diplomatic posting, while serving as the Canadian Ambassador to Egypt, a U.S. Senate internal security subcommittee changed everything for Norman. The committee released information that Norman had been, or was still, a communist. Several years earlier, the RCMP had cleared Norman of similar accusations. In 1957, shortly after the American senate allegations, Herbert Norman wrote a note reaffirming his innocence and stepped backwards off the roof of a seven story building in Cairo.

Had he indeed been a communist? And if so, what kind of communist? Was it an intellectual idea or was he dedicated to the cause? Did being a communist mean that he would sell out his country? While may never know the true answer, we can formulate our own conclusions about the likelihood that Norman was spying for the USSR.

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In this MysteryQuest, you are asked determine how likely it is that Herbert Norman was actually involved in spying. To answer this question, you will need to learn more about the man and the political climate during the Cold War. Next, you will look for relevant statements in various primary and secondary sources that provide information about Norman's beliefs, character and actions. You will consider how each of these statements may support or counter the suggestion that Norman was a spy. After evaluating the assembled evidence you will indicate and defend your conclusion.

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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 background sheet, Herbert Norman and the Cold War. As you read, make mental notes of the statements or claims that suggest possible evidence for suspecting that Norman may or may not have been a spy.

STEP 2: Gather evidence

In the section Evidence in the Case you will find eight documents that contain information about various investigations of Norman, several articles, as well as personal letters from Norman including the note he wrote at the time of his suicide. As you read these primary and secondary sources look for statements about three dimensions of Norman's life as they may relate to possible spying:

  • his beliefs including his feelings for Canada and communism
  • his character including his personality and personal integrity
  • his actions including suggestions contacts with communists and Soviet agents.

You are to record the information you find in these document on copies the chart Possible Evidence For and Against. Make three copies of both pages in this chart - one for each of the three dimensions. To begin, focus exclusively on "Statements in the documents" (the first column on the sheet). Record relevant claims or statements from the documents on the appropriate sheet (or sheets if the same statement is relevant to more than one dimension).

To help you decide what information might be relevant for each dimension, let's consider an example. In a letter written to his brother in 1937, Norman describes how much he misses a communist friend who had died recently. He mentions that this friend had been a great influence in his life and, because of this, Norman had joined the communist party. He closes the letter by saying that communism is the leader when it comes to supporting a person's right to develop freely.

There are several statements that you might draw from this document and record on the various sheets:

  • his beliefs he believes that communism is the leader when it comes to freedom
  • his character he seems very loyal and attached to a mentor who was a communist
  • his actions he joined the communist party in 1937.

Try to locate ten statements for each of the three dimensions in the eight documents.

STEP 3: Analyze the implications of the information

You have now recorded a number of claims about Herbert Norman's belief, character and actions. In the next three columns on the charts, you are to record your thoughts about the implications of each statement regarding the theory that Norman may have been a spy. For each statement ask yourself three questions:

  • How might this statement be interpreted in a way that supports the idea that Norman was a spy?
  • How might this same statement be interpreted to suggest that Norman was NOT a spy?
  • What questions or concerns about the evidence might influence how I should interpret this statement? (Is the evidence straightforward? Is the interpretation consistent with other pieces of evidence? Does common sense suggest the evidence is impossible or unreasonable?)

Think of possible explanations for each statement to help you identify how it may support or counter the accusation that Norman was a spy. Take, for example, the statment that he joined the communist party in 1937. You might indicate in the "support" column that this is evidence of Norman's commitment to communism. But you might indicate in the "not support" column that being a communist as a youth does not mean he was still a communist in 1950 and 1957 when he was supposedly spying. Also in the "question" column you might wonder why Norman would admit his involvement with the communist party. Does this suggest that he didn't act as though he had anything to hide?

STEP 4: Reach a conclusion

Based on your analaysis of all the evidence, decide how likely it is that Herbert Norman was involved in spying for the communists. Use the chart Defending my Conclusion to indicate your conclusion on the scale from "-2" (Definitely a spy) to "+2" (Definitely NOT a spy). After circling the number that best represents your conclusion, identify the four most important reasons why you decided on this conclusion. Provide evidence from the documents to support each reason. In addition, indicate the two strongest reasons against the conclusion you have reached and explain why you are not convinced by these reasons.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to locate relevant statements in the documents and explain how they may be interpreted to both support and not support the spy theory.

The evaluation rubric Assessing the Conclusion and Justification may be used to assess a plausible conclusion about the likelihood that Norman was a spy, and explain and support the main reason that justify and challenge your conclusion.

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Background: Herbert Norman and the Cold War

Activity Sheet: Possible Evidence For and Against

Activity Sheet: Defending my Conclusion

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Carry out additional research
There are many more documents in the Death of a Diplomat site that shed light on Herbert Norman's beliefs, character and actions. Look for additional evidence that may cause you to alter your conclusion about the likelihood that Norman was a spy.

Write an editorial
Complete an outline for a three-paragraph editorial that clearly states your position on Norman's guilt. Remember that an effective editorial conveys a clear conclusion and presents convincing arguments and evidence to support them. Use your outline to write an editorial that might appear in a newspaper or newsmagazine.

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

  • MysteryQuest 37 invites you to rate the factors that most influenced Norman's decision to take his own life.
  • MysteryQuest 39 invites you to modify Cold War political cartoons to represent key perspectives on issues at the time.

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Secondary Sources

Background to the case: The 1930s

Background to the case: Cold War launched

Magazine article: The Man With a Notebook [Blair Fraser], "Why Did They Spy?," Maclean's Magazine, September 1, 1946

Government document: Carl Betke and S.W. Horall, Canada's Security Service: An Historical Outline, 1864-1966, 1978

Primary Sources

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

Government document: Royal Canadian Mounted Police, RCMP First Report on Norman, October 17, 1950

Government document: Unknown, RCMP Report on Norman, November 27, 1950

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