Spying and all that, Neville Bennett

Seeing Red — undercover in 1950s New Zealand
George Fraser
Dunmore Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864692552

From 1953 to 1956 the Canadian authorities posted E H Norman as their high commissioner in Wellington. They were “hiding” him in an unimportant post from the American authorities. Earlier, in some of the worst excesses of the cold war, some American senators had demanded that Norman be obliged to give testimony, for they thought he was a spy and also a writer of corrupting histories. After a self-effacing tour in Wellington in 1956 Norman was transferred to the backwater of Egypt. Unfortunately, the Suez Crisis thrust him into international prominence ss Canada mediated between Egypt and the Israeli-Anglo-French Coalition. When the Americans again bayed for Norman’s blood, he committed suicide by jumping off his apartment roof — or was he pushed?

So Norman’s career raises interesting topics. Obviously it will be pertinent to look at New Zealand in the cold war, perhaps with special reference to espionage and counter-espionage. Norman invites some comparisons with other brilliant intellectuals who were suspected by the authorities of being rather more than merely pro-Soviet. One thinks of Ian Milner and Bill Sutch. Moreover Norman went to Cambridge in the 1930s and joined the Communist Party.

Also to be considered is Norman’s parallel career as a historian. Norman wrote brilliant literate history but suffered the mortification of his works being blacked in the United States. To this day his name is routinely excluded from bibliographies. If Norman was killed by the CIA, as some people allege, assassination seems to be a petty affront compared to the insult of having one’s books banned.

Norman was an historian of Japan. His work was demanding, for he used a series of conceptual tools and splattered his texts with Greek, Latin and French words. Not for him the attitude that history is like sex, “the enjoyment of which seems to need very little in the way of preliminary qualification”. (I cannot remember who first said that.) His attitude was mildly progressive, as he wished to encourage the emergence of Japanese common people from the thraldom of authoritarianism and war. “Progress” was denounced in the postwar world, especially in Britain. However, the rebels made it clear why. J H Plumb said historians hated both “progress” and the welfare state. The horsefly A J P Taylor agreed: all the talk about the decline of civilisation, he said, “means that university professors used to have domestic servants and now do their own washing-up”.

Norman wrote Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State in 1940. His book immediately transformed a historiography which had stressed Japan’s quaintness and uniqueness. His social science orientation placed Japan firmly within the universal development of the nation-state. His work exhibited a marvellous grasp of Japanese language material (he was born in Japan of Canadian missionary parents). It developed theses that explained Japan’s lurch to the right and militarism. But despite his stress upon the immiseration of the Japanese people he did so with considerable understanding. He explained the authoritarian nature of the state as being influenced by western threat to Japan. Japan’s leaders modernised with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other, an experience which naturally enhanced distortions and archaisms. Norman wrote more books and an impressive array of articles (enough for degrees in “Norman studies” in Japan) in an attempt to explain the past and build a democratic future.

Norman was recruited as a Canadian diplomat which led to a head-on clash with the American authorities. His travail began in 1945 when he was posted to Tokyo and liaised with Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. MacArthur planned to impose change and democracy from above, Norman to induce grassroots change from below.

By 1950 there was open conflict. The United States hysterically decided it had “lost” China to communism and, because of the cold war, had to put its reform programme into a “reverse course”. During the Korean war it encouraged the remilitarisation of Japan.

Norman was horrified when MacArthur planned in the war to advance to the Chinese border rather than halt at the previous frontier. Norman said China would intervene. MacArthur replied that his air force would cut the Chinese to pieces and perhaps he would bomb Mukden, Shanghai and Peking to rubble. Shortly afterwards Norman was recalled. He surfaced only to sign the peace treaty with Japan in 1951. Otherwise, secretly, he was being grilled for six months by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Canadian authorities stood by Norman. Lester Pearson symbolically gave Norman his fountain-pen at the Japanese peace ceremony. He was employed in Wellington and Cairo, where he must have seen sensitive material.

Moreover, he was not obliged to go to Washington. By 1951 the United States were looking for reds under every bed. Norman was cited as being a Communist courier while writing his PhD at Harvard. Moreover, he had in 1945 gone to a Tokyo prison to release two communist scholars. A Canadian who had spied for Russia also fingered Norman.

More important, his histories were excoriated in a purge of the American Asianists. Forty-six members of the (formerly respected) Institute of Pacific Relations were denounced as communists and many lost academic tenure. The institute had published excellent journals: the Far East Survey (now Journal of Asian Studies) and Pacific Affairs and had held regular conferences. New Zealand prime ministers sent salutions and delegates including Dr J B Condliffe.

Some of the accused intellectuals proved their loyalty to the United States by vicious attacks on former colleagues. The redoubtable Karl Wittfogel attacked Owen Lattimore (who was forced to seek refuge in England) and Herbert Norman. Both of the accused had used terms like “feudal remnants” which were “key formulas of Stalinism”. Thereafter Norman’s wonderfully literate and humanistic books were banned in American universities.

The manner in which the United States government tried to harness academic writing to win the cold war was brilliantly divulged by John Dower in a preface to a re-issue of Norman’s Emergence in 1975. Briefly, the establishment developed a Weberian concept of “modernisation” to suggest a convergence of Japanese and American interests. Americans became very concerned to present Japan as an alternative model to China for other developing nations. Japan made triumphant progress towards the glories of American-style society. Historians helped by emphasising the positive (rosy) aspects and ignoring “gloomy” subjects such as oppression, poverty and imperialism. American academic policy, conferences and funding sought an anti-marxist ideology. Money and prestige was available for safe research projects but topics dear to Norman’s heart were totally ignored. Thus there were no studies of Japanese peasant revolts in the period 1938-1975 although there were 8000 revolts from 1600-1850. Moreover, I supervised the first study of Japan’s occupation of Korea 1910-1945 and the hatred which it engendered.

Not only was Norman ignored in the United States (though not in Britain or Japan), but the reissue of his major book in 1975 brought fresh vilification of his memory. Two very important Japan experts published in The Journal of Asian Studies a series of devastating cristicisms. George Akita of Hawaii especially denounced Norman as a value-orientated intellectual whose work was based on narrow sources. Indeed his Japanese sources were used only for cosmetic effect. Key concepts such as peasant immiseration were the result of distorted, hasty writing.

Akita added a final bizarre assassin’s touch. Norman did not have a PhD. Akita had checked with Columbia University. (Actually Harvard awarded Norman’s PhD in 1940.) By 1975 the Vietnam war had radicalised a rising generation of young American scholars, so Akita and other members of the establishment were excoriated in the journals and Norman’s scholarship honoured.

The reds-under-beds syndrome was not unknown in New Zealand. Some interesting colour is provided in George Fraser’s Seeing Red. George was a religious young man in Wellington who one day received a communist tirade from a drunken pommie trade unionist. Impetuously he phoned the Special Branch and was enrolled as an agent, with a mission to penetrate the Communist Party. After meetings George had a shower and lost himself in patriotic music — a little of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstances” seemed appropriate.

There is much farce in the book. Special Branch did not have a tape recorder (in the late 1950s!) and arranged for army help. The army provided an anachronistic wire-reel machine that could not play the tapes George smuggled out of meetings.

The strain of a double life affected Fraser and in 1959 he was permitted to emigrate to the United States. He expected to be welcomed by the FBI but was ignored: “I was expendable”. Later he tried to get recognition and compensation in New Zealand but failed. It remains a sad book where Fraser came to sympathise with his marks and suspect his bosses. Fraser testified that the New Zealand communists did not receive money from Moscow (unlike the United States Communist Party, whose leaders received US$28 million between 1958 and 1980).

Norman’s career had more in common with Ian Milner. Both were the products of patriotic, god-fearing parents. Norman’s were missionaries; Milner was son of the headmaster of Waitaki Boys School. Both were appalled by the great depression and the suffering of people thrown onto the street. Both became communist sympathisers. Both in the early 1930s left for Oxbridge — Milner as a Rhodes Scholar. Both had distinguished academic careers and became diplomats. Both associated with the Institute of Pacific Relations which published their work. Perhaps they met at conferences. Did either ever meet Sutch, I wonder? Both were suspected of espionage by the 1940s.

Milner’s diplomatic career was brief. Recruited from Melbourne University in 1945, he was already suspected of passing material to the Soviets by 1946. The code-breakers left him in his job, under observation. In 1950, the Soviets tipped him off and he went to Czechoslovakia. He did visit New Zealand several times which appears to indicate that the cold war was not total in New Zealand. However, there was discrimination. I gather that in the late 1960s that Auckland and Canterbury Universities invited him to lecture but rescinded when a popular newspaper said a spy was coming. The Association of University Teachers protested. I have found someone who moved a motion at council level that Canterbury University apologise to Milner. He received very little support.

As far as I can gather (I would welcome further information) Norman was well received in New Zealand despite the machinations of the United States Senate. Norman’s works contain, for example, an address he gave to Victoria University graduands in 1954 in which he urged the establishment of an east Asia studies department (which happened about 40 years later). Moreover, he several times advised the New Zealand cabinet on Asian developments.

The Canadian authorities also supported him but realised New Zealand was a good place for “a rest and a cure”. But for someone of Norman’s calibre Wellington “was exile”. Norman often seemed depressed but accepted that exile was necessary. Norman was made head of the American and far eastern division of External Affairs in 1952. The United States protested that Wittfogel’s testimony should preclude Norman having access to secret material. Ottawa was outraged and insisted that Norman had a “clean bill of health”. However, someone passed Norman’s file to the FBI which provoked fresh American protests in 1957.

The attacks on Norman aroused Canadian nationalism. The most important newspapers railed against the “smears” and claimed that United States pressure reflected a vendetta by Major-General Willoughby, General MacArthur’s chief of staff. It was well known that Norman had frequently protested MacArthur’s increasingly undemocratic policies in the Japanese occupation. Norman often saw Willoughby whom he apparently regarded as a fascist, for Willoughby had a large portrait of Franco on his wall.

Franco was an important part of Norman’s past. He had been at Cambridge in the 1930s and was apparently anxious to join two other students in enrolling in the International Brigade. Norman did not go to Spain to fight Franco, but his friend did. One was Cornford, widely recognised as the most brilliant character of his generation, and a New Zealander of whom I know nothing, named MacLauin. Norman went to Harvard and later admitted to clandestine work for the Communist Party. Norman perhaps felt some guilt for surviving the Spanish civil war while his best friends had not.

Norman sailed close to the wind of espionage. He did later confess to a campus flirtation with Marxism, but under more interrogation admitted to political activism and party membership. There is no evidence of the huge step thereafter to treason. The Canadians were satisfied. Moreover, in his suicide note he wrote “I have never betrayed my oath of secrecy. But guilt by association, as now developed, has crushed me.”

Unfortunately I cannot but retain a niggling doubt. I was born in England, so my antennae twitched when I noticed that Norman spent three years at Trinity College, Cambridge. It seems he could have associated with Philby, Burgess, MacLean, Nunn May and Blunt. Books about those people do not mention Norman. Perhaps they should.

Neville Bennett teaches Japanese history at Canterbury University

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category