The Loss of Innocence in the Gouzenko Case by J. L. Granatstein

Source:  The Loss of Innocence in the Gouzenko Case by J. L. Granatstein, Globe and Mail, 1981-03-31, in amongst a small collection of declassified RCMP records on the subject of MacKenzie King’s missing diary.

Gouzenko blew lid off.

Gouzenko blew lid off.

He had been an unsuspicious man, but espionage in the civil service in Ottawa shocked Norman Robertson into reality.

The loss of innocence in the Gouzenko case


Norman Robertson was one of this exceptional civil servants who helped turn Canada into a modern nation, along with Lester Pearson and Hume Wrlong. In 1941, at the age of 37, he became Under-secretary of State for External Affairs, the senior permanent position in External Affairs, the department to which Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko first went to bare his secrets. What follows is an excerpt from A Man of Influence, Norman A. Robertson and Canadian Statecraft 1929-68, by J. L. Granatstein, published this week by Deneau Publishers and Co. Ltd.

THE RUSSIANS in Ottawa were openly sniffing after atomic information, and at a party to celebrate the Japanese request for surrender terms on Aug. 14, 1945, “Robertson said that Russia had already proposed to Canada to include uranium in lend-lease business.” Still, no one suspected that the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa was engaged in anything other than the normal diplomatic duties that fell to any mission.

An opinion poll in the spring of 1945 found that 46 per cent of those sampled were confident of Canada’s ability to get on with the Russians after the war, and that 34 per cent were not. The Russians, in so far as most Canadians were concerned, were the people who had contributed most to the victory over Hitler. They were good allies, but there was little genuine trust.

Matters altered irrevocably on Sept. 6, 1945. Mackenzie King’s account captured the moment:

“Robertson and Wrong came to see me this morning … both looking very serious. Robertson said to me that a most terrible thing had happened. It was like a bomb on toip of everything else and one could not say how serious it might be or to what it might lead. He then told me that this morning, just half an hour or so earlier, a man had turned up with his wife, at the office of the minister of justice. He asked to see the minister. He said he was from the Russian Embassy …

“He went on to say that he had in his possession documents that he had taken from the Embassy and was prepared to give to the govt. They would be seen to disclose that Russia had her spies and secret service people in Canada and in the U.S. and were practicing a species of espionage … he had enough evidence there to prove that instead of being friends, the Russians were really enemies.”

Robertson and Wrong wondered what action to take. The Prime Minister was skeptical about the story and concerned lest the Russians think that Canada had performed an unfriendly act. Robertson then asked if the information might not be so important to Canada, Britain and the United States that it should be seized “no matter how it was obtained.” King opposed this, noting that “Robertson looked completely distraught; was so over-powered he could hardly collect his thoughts.”

Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Embassy, was thus left to wander around Ottawa seeking help with increasing desperation. Word of his movements kept filtering back to Robertson who, distraught or not, kept suggesting to the Prime Minister that the Embassy official could not be allowed to commit suicide, as he was now threatening, and that Canada could be a party to murder “if we allowed him to fall into the hands of the Embassy … At this juncture, fortunately, Sir William Stephenson, the head of British Security Co-ordination in New York and a friend of Robertson’s as a result of their co-operatioon during the war, happened to be at the Seignory Club in Montebello, Que. He was summoned to Ottawa that evening, and urged Robertson to “take him.”

 Robertson (rear left) with King on Government business.

Robertson (rear left) with King on Government business.

Stephenson’s advice reinforced Robertson’s own inclinations. The next day, after Gouzenko’s apartment had been ransacked by Soviet Embassy officials, the cipher clerk was given the opportunity of making a statement to the RCMP and the Government now became officially seized of the case. The documents he had brought with him were being translated as quickly as possible, and that afternoon, Sept. 7, Robertson told the Prime Minister “that everything was much worse than we would have believed … They disclose an espionage system on a large scale … things came right into our country to a degree we could not have believed possible. He then told me that they went into our own Dept. of External Affairs, that in the cypher room there was an agent of the Russians who had seen and knew all our cyphers … The same was true at Earnscliffe (the British High Commission) M. MacDonald’s despatches were all seen, read and known. In our Research Laboratories … where we had been working on the atomic bomb there is a scientist who is a Russian agent. In the Research Laboratories in Montreal … there is an English scientist who is … acting as a Russian agent.”

If Robertson had been naive before, he was so no longer.

He quickly notified MacDonald of the situation in his chancery and; with the co-operation of Stephenson in New York, a special communications system was set up to link London, New York and Ottawa, one that bypassed suspects. Similarly, the Americans were advised and Dr. C. J. Mackenzie of the National Research Council was informed of the spies in the laboratories.

The impact of this affair on Robertson was very strong. As he had told King, he had been an unsuspicious man, who had assumed that the civil service as a whole took the same attitude to its work that he did. But espionage had gone on in the civil service and outside it, and this deeply shocked him, probably more so than that the Russians should have been gathering secrets. Still, he was fully aware of the need to keep the Gouzenko case quiet for fear that it would disrupt the delicate negotiations under way among the Great Powers on the manifold problems of peace, and not least those of atomic energy.

Later in September, at a meeting attended by the Prime Minister, the decision was made that King should go to Washington and London to convey his information on the case directly to President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Clement Attlee.

Robertson accompanied King to Washington and London. In Washington on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, King, Robertson and Lester Pearson discussed the affair; Robertson and Pearson briefed Dean Acheson, the Undersecretary to State and a close friend of Pearson’s at the time; and King saw Truman. The key event was the Canadian decision not to proceed at once with arrests. “Robertson talked this over with me,” King noted on Oct. 1, “and I agreed with him this was not the course to pursue. We must move very slowly and cautiously. We were not ready in Canada to take proceedings and our leading advisers up to the present say it would be very difficult to get a conviction on material we have considering its source.

The parties agreed that, while Soviet behavior of the sort revealed by Gouzenko could not be tolerated, “it should be dealt with, nevertheless, so as to disturb as little as possible the continuance of normal diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R.” There was also an agreement to use the case to expose “the uses to which the Soviet Government puts local Communist elements,” but nothing was to be done to suggest that action was being taken for “ideological reasons.” Co-ordinated action by the police of the three countries was scheduled to take place in the week of Nov. 25.

But there were delays at the Americans’ request, and no move against those implicated in Canada came until February, 1946. Even then, action was forced only by a leak in Washington. Robertson told the Prime Minister that “this business has become known to too many people,” but King added that “this may be all for the best, as it gives us a special reason for starting immediately with our investigation. The decision to name a royal commission of two Supreme Court justices was quickly made, the Cabinet was informed at last on Feb. 5 and the royal commission began its work on Feb. 6 in secrecy. No public announcement was made until Feb. 15.

That morning the first arrests were made. Robertson had learned that the RCMP had intended to make the arrests at 3 a.m. but as J. W. Pickersgill, who had learned of the Gouzenko case only on Feb. 14, recalls, “he refused to agree to this. He said we are not going to behave like the Soviets.”

The arrests were made under the terms of an order-in-council passed on Oct. 6, 1945, on the recommendation of the minister of justice. That order gave the Government authority to arrest the suspects and to detain them without the necessity of formal charges. No one, neither St. Laurent nor King nor Robertson, was happy with the procedure, but as the Prime Minister wrote, “this whole matter is so serious that I think there will be disposition by Parliament to agree that the right course in the circumstances has been take[n] as the evidence is so strong.”

By this point, the royal commission was well under way with its work and Robertson was following its transcribed evidence very closely. He was also worrying over the possible actions the Soviet Govdernment might take in retaliation against the Canadian Embassy in Moscow and he must have been surprised when the Russians partially admitted guilt. In a statement given to the Canadian chargé d’affaires, the Soviet Government agreed that there had been illegal actions. “This is most unusual,” the chargé reported, “and indicates that they must feel unable to refute completely evidence which will be made public by our royal commission.”

There were successes in handling the matters raised by Gouzenko’s defection, but there were serious problems, too.

Most serious perhaps was the substantial public outcry at the way the arrests had been carried out, at the authority used to justify action, and at the keeping of prisoners in solitary confinement with neither access to counsel nor right of habeas corpus.1 From Norman Robertson’s point of view, these harsh measures were made necessary by the circumstances of the case, by the need to ensure that no warning reached those not yet jailed, and to prevent those arrested from getting Communist party orders not to talk. So long as the suspects were held in solitary confinement, one External Affairs officer closely involved with the royal commission recalled, the Government had successes in securing confessions. But once visitors were permitted, the suspects stopped talking.

Quite properly, those considerations meant little to outraged civil libertarians. Robertsons’ father complained bitterly to his son, there were denunciations by the Opposition in the House, and there were petitions to the Government from academics and others. Robertson was never unaware of the concerns expressed, but in this case he was convinced that the end — security of the state — justified the arbitrary means used.”

There could be no doubt that the evidence gathered by the royal commission substantiated the Government’s claim that the Soviet Union had operated a spy ring from behind the Embassy walls. There could be no doubt that several Canadians were guilty of spying for the Soviet Union and most, it seemed clear, had been motivated by ideological convictions.

Similarly, there could be no doubt that the revelations from the Gouzenko affair fed the building Western belief that the Soviet Union had changed from friend and ally into enemy.

1.  Good old Mackenzie King. No right of habeas corpus is how he did things.  In 1940, King arrested Adrien Arcand and Arcand’s men, denied them a trial, denied them habeas corpus, interned them, denied them appeal of their internment, treated innocent Canadians as prisoners of war, and just as the Gouzenko mess is breaking, King’s government has been slandering Arcand in Parliament to justify the criminal actions of the King government against him. Denial of habeas corpus for the Gouzenko spies was merely Business as usual for Mr. King.  As for Norman Robertson, he’s on our “suspected communist subversive” list.

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