Remembering Herbert Norman – A 50th Anniversary Commemorative Essay
Department of History,
University of Victoria
Director, E. H. Norman Digital Archive
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 Norman’s 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.
Fifty years later, not one shred of evidence has been found to justify charges of disloyalty. Still, to the extent Norman is a part of Canadian public memory at all, it is as a possible spy or victim of McCarthyism. Neither image does justice to a man who did so much to build bridges between Canada and Japan, and whose scholarship and diplomacy was so significant then, and now.
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 knowledge of Japan and his language skills were a rare commodity. 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 he became head of Canada’s mission in Tokyo until he was recalled in 1950.
Fortunately, new documents written by or about Norman continue to emerge from dusty archives from Ottawa to Tokyo. They not only give us a better sense of Norman, they tell us much about Japan, Canada, and the making of the American Empire.
The Diplomat and the General
Douglas MacArthur had great respect for Norman. The general, known as a teetotaler and recluse, even attended a Canada Day celebration at the Tokyo embassy in 1947 where he smoked and drank publicly in Norman’s company.
A recently recovered 23-page analysis penned by Norman in 1951 provides a better sense of Norman’s assessment of MacArthur and the Occupation. In it, Norman analyzes MacArthur’s famous April 19, 1951 speech (“Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away”) before both houses of the American Congress.
Norman took issue with the General’s contention that in the U.S. Congress were “centered the hopes and aspirations and faith of the entire human race.” Norman observed that this might be somewhat “overpowering for those who do not believe that the United States Constitution represents the final consummation of all human wisdom,”
Norman also challenged MacArthur’s assertion that Japan had undergone “the greatest reformation recorded in modern history.” While not denying that reforms had occurred during the Occupation, he pointed out that “reforms imposed by a foreign authority, however, are less than a reformation. Japan accepted a benevolent, democratic dictatorship quietly.”
Norman disparaged MacArthur’s racializing view that “Oriental peoples are characterized by a respect bordering on awe for military power.” This stereotypical view, Norman noted, may have led MacArthur to mistakenly dismiss the likelihood of China’s involvement in the Korean War.
The General, concluded Norman, would project greater appeal if “on a suitable occasion, he admitted to human fallibility.” Highly praised and widely circulated in External Affairs, Norman’s analysis was hardly the type of report one might expect from a spy running for cover, or from a victim cowed by false accusations.
This was classic Norman, ready to indict the powerful and mighty when they abused their position or trifled with history. Nor was this the first time Norman had crossed swords with MacArthur.
Norman in Japan
While serving on MacArthur’s staff in the fall of 1945, Norman found out that MacArthur had permitted Konoe Fumimaro, a former prime minister to begin working on a new constitution for Japan. Konoe was in charge during the 1937 invasion of China and also led Japan into an alliance with fascist Germany and Italy. He had resigned just before Pearl Harbor and some considered him a liberal, a member of the so-called ‘peace’ faction.
As a historian Norman knew that nothing was further from the truth.
In a scathing analysis of Konoe’s role in the war, Norman bemoaned the fact that such men were being courted, while those who had fought the militarist regime were either still in prisons or denied access to the corridors of power.
Norman’s report went to both MacArthur and the U.S. State Department and Konoe was subsequently indicted as a possible war criminal. Konoe killed himself rather than face the charges.
Norman also differed with MacArthur over how to deal with Japan’s Emperor. While opposing foreign intervention to depose Hirohito or abolish the monarchy, Norman echoed his Japanese colleagues’ views that there should a “rational, scientific history of the Institution.”
MacArthur, however, arbitrarily short-circuited any investigation of the monarchy and instead facilitated Hirohito’s retention of power. This was done at the same time Norman was emphasizing that “The Emperor is the fulcrum of the whole system [of militarism] and it would be an error to regard him as a mere puppet, no matter how weak the personality of the incumbent might be.”
Norman later served on the Far Eastern Commission where he again clashed with MacArthur in the spring of 1946. The Commission had been charged with proposing a process for Japan to adopt a new constitution and Norman had lobbied hard for public participation. This was pre-empted by MacArthur who issued a draft constitution of his own.
Softly chastised by Norman and the Far Eastern Commission, MacArthur unleashed a tirade, accusing the Commission of trying to undermine U.S. authority over Japan: “If we lose control of this sphere of influence under this policy of aggressive action, we will not only jeopardize the occupation but hazard the future safety of the United States.”
Faced with this imperial wrath, the Canadian government declined to further challenge the rising American hegemon. As the war on communism gained steam, the Liberal regime in Ottawa aligned itself closely with Washington, subordinating international obligations to continental ties.
Norman never openly challenged this official policy but in Tokyo his critical views were well known. Another recently discovered document suggests that by the spring of 1948, Norman had become a flash point for George Kennan and other cold-warriors in Washington.
George Kennan comes to Ottawa
George Kennan, one of the main U.S. architects of the war on communism, visited Japan in March 1948 to confirm his view that there should not be an early peace treaty with Japan. Instead, he hoped to keep Japan under U.S. control, end democratization and demilitarization reforms, and reconstruct Japan as its strategic ally in Asia.
While in Japan, Kennan met twice with Norman. After these meetings and upon his return to Washington, Kennan wrote to Secretary of State George Marshall: “We believe that there is at present a serious divergence of view between the Canadians and ourselves on the subject, which should be corrected as soon as possible.”
This recently recovered memo in the U.S. archives reveals that Kennan requested permission to secretly travel to Ottawa to bring External Affairs into line. He did so in late May. The formerly secret 50,000 series of External Affairs documents are now open and allow researchers access to transcripts of the talks with Kennan. Despite misgivings on the part of his officials and on the part of the British government, Lester Pearson again aligned the government with U.S. policy in Asia.
Further research is necessary but Kennan’s reports on Norman may have sparked the investigations that led to Norman’s persecution. American diplomatic sources reveal that precisely at the same time Kennan was reporting on Norman, the U.S. general in charge of south Korea was accusing the Canadian representative in Korea, George Patterson of being a “fellow traveler” and part of a Canadian “spy ring”.
In fact what American cold warriors in East Asia had come across was not a spy ring but rather the presence of some special ‘mish’ kids–diplomats from missionary families such as Norman, George Patterson or Chester Ronning. These were men with long experience in Asia, who saw positive things in socialism, and refused to become spear carriers for the American Empire.
Norman and Japanese History
Faced with the changes taking place around him in Tokyo, Norman again turned to Japanese history for inspiration. With the help of many Japanese friends and colleagues he began a study of an anti-authoritarian country doctor in 18th century Japan, Ando Shoeki, published in 1949.
Norman undertook the study to counter the idea among "Westerners, especially those lightly tinctured with a knowledge of Japanese culture and history that Japan never produced an original thinker.”
This study built on Norman’s earlier works, the most notable of which was Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. Published in 1940 it became an instant classic for its critical, comparative analysis of modernity in Japan and the popular rights movement against the state in the 19th century.
At a time when many Japanese scholars had lost confidence in their country and its history, Norman’s scholarship inspired and endeared him to many. The famous political scientist Masao Maruyama recounted that in Japan Norman was admired because he had an affinity for the “lesser names” in history.
Norman was assisted in his research by Okubo Genji, who so admired Norman that he later worked assiduously to publish Norman’s works in Japanese, a four-volume set so popular that a revised and paperback edition were also published. Since then Kato Shuichi and Nakano Toshiko have published a special commemorative study of Norman as well as Japanese translations of his diplomatic correspondence. Their work has made Norman better known in Japan than he is in Canada.
Norman’s writings on Japan also inspired a generation of progressive scholarly writing in the United States. In the Vietnam War era, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Dower (Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II) paid tribute to Norman’s writings for their critical perspectives that inspired him and many others to develop a counter-history to orthodox US writing on Asia.
As we in Canada grapple with our role in the world, Norman’s life can teach us much about what it means to be human. His death should serve as a reminder of the costs of catering to Empires.
John Price is associate professor of Japanese history at the University of Victoria and director of the E. H. Norman Digital Archive project (web.uvic.ca/ehnorman). His most recent study on Norman, "Rethinking the Occupation: E. H. Norman, Canada and the American Empire in Asia" will appear in Greg Donaghy and Pat Roy, eds., North Pacific Neighbours: Canada and Japan in the 20th Century (UBC Press) later this year.
Note: Japanese names conform to Japanese usage, last name first.