What Caused Herbert Norman to Take his Life?


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16 to 18


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?

The Task

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.

continue investigation …

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Original post by Mr. D. Sader

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