Purged. from Memory: The Department of External Affairs and John Holmes
Mackenzie, Hector, International Journal
Hector Mackenzie is senior departmental historian at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not the department.
ON 26 APRIL 1996, the minister of foreign affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, announced that a recently created "foreign policy outreach fund" would be named for John Holmes, who was described in the news release as a "former Canadian diplomat, academic policy activist and long-time head of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs." This tribute seemed an apt way to remember one who had contributed so much to the making of Canadian foreign policy and to public understanding of Canada's international relations. "Throughout his distinguished career, John Holmes always encouraged Canadians to be actively involved in international affairs," the release quoted Axworthy as saying. "It is therefore appropriate to honour his memory in a fashion that will foster and sustain public participation."(1)
Accompanying this announcement was a short biographical note about Holmes. Even in outline, the story of his working life was impressive. Holmes earned a BA from the University of Western Ontario and an MA from the University of Toronto, taught at Pickering College and went on to do graduate work at the University of London. Rejected from the armed forces for poor eyesight, Holmes returned to Canada, where he was first information secretary and then national secretary of the CIIA at its headquarters in Toronto. In 1943, he joined the Department of External Affairs (DEA) as one of the "special wartime assistants" brought in to bolster a ministry that found itself with a greatly expanded mandate but a shortage of qualified personnel.
Within a decade, Holmes had risen to the rank of assistant under-secretary of state for external affairs, "a key adviser on Canadian delegations to international meetings and conferences, particularly those associated with the United Nations." Indeed, Holmes was a familiar figure in photographs of Canadian diplomats at work in the 1950s, whether in London as second secretary, in Moscow as charge d'affaires, in New York as acting permanent representative to the United Nations (or, more frequently, as one of the delegates who came down from Ottawa for sessions of the General Assembly or other UN bodies), or in the East Block, where he played a critical role in the development and articulation of Canada's position in world affairs in the "golden age of Canadian diplomacy." Holmes held the position of assistant under-secretary from 1953 until "his retirement from the Department in 1960."(2)
More space is devoted in the short biography to the next and final public phase of the career of John Holmes, when he was the president and then director general of the CIIA (until 1973), as well as a prolific scholar and lecturer on Canada's international relations before his death in 1988. His analysis of Canada's planning for the post-war world and its implementation of those plans, published in two volumes as The Shaping of Peace: Canada and the Search for World Order, 1943-1957, is still the definitive examination of that formidable topic, one that reflects his unique insights as practitioner and then commentator.(3) Many of his lectures and papers have been collected and published, so that it is appropriate that Glendon College at York University in Toronto honoured his memory with a distinguished lecture series and that the CIIA named its library for him. Holmes inspired colleagues and students, some of whom penned essays for An Acceptance of Paradox: Essays on Canadian diplomacy in honour of John W. Holmes, edited by Kim Richard Nossal and published by the CIIA.(4) Through these efforts, as well as his numerous appearances on radio and television, Holmes made a remarkable contribution to the public understanding of Canadian foreign policy.
The release and the note, however, left at least one key question unanswered. Why did this talented and influential foreign service officer leave the DEA near the peak of a distinguished career? After all, Holmes was only 50 years old in 1960, younger than most of his colleagues in the upper echelons of the department and blessed with considerable experience and sound judgment in dealing with the principal problems of Canada's international relations. Though he had not served as an ambassador, that was not then viewed as a prerequisite for reaching the summit of the foreign ministry. Since then, Canadians have grown accustomed to the departure of senior managers lured by better offers from the world beyond Ottawa, but that was less common when Holmes left and, without offence to the CIIA and its worthy endeavours, it is difficult to depict this move as upward or even lateral.
Holmes was a man who wrote prolifically on a wide range of subjects, but he never published any account or explanation of his reasons for leaving. Holmes betrayed no bitterness about the circumstances and his subsequent observations about the department and its activities usually presented these in a sympathetic light. After he left the department, he was often consulted, especially about relations with the academic community, and his expertise was respected on both sides of the table.
In his preface to the essays in honour of Holmes, Nossal speculated that politics might have played a part in the decision. "Some have attributed his resignation," Nossal wrote, "to the frustrations of the Diefenbaker years, and the lack of trust that the Progressive Conservative prime minister showed towards those in External Affairs who had been so closely associated with Lester B. Pearson."(5) Certainly, as Nossal noted, it was fortuitous for the CIIA, which subsequently benefited from the vigour, organizational skills, fluent writing and persuasive speaking of John Holmes.(6) But those talents made his loss to DEA even more poignant and it seemed jarring that one with such a strong institutional loyalty would leave at a difficult time--particularly as Pearson had become the leader of the opposition and it was not beyond imagining that he would be a future prime minister. Unless there had been a personal confrontation or similar contretemps, it did not make sense for Holmes to leave when he did.
After his death in August 1988, there were numerous tributes from those who had worked closely with Holmes, whether at DEA in the 1940s and 1950s or later at the CIIA. A long-time colleague, John Halstead, eulogized him in the pages of the magazine of the Canadian foreign service, bout de papier, whose editor regarded Holmes as the personification of "so much of what was, and I believe still is, good in Canadian diplomacy and foreign service."(7) David Stafford recalled his impressive contribution to the CIIA in that organization's newsletter,(8) while Denis Stairs eloquently praised Holmes in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Canada.(9) All illuminated his admirable qualities, but none shed light on his departure from DEA.
The first volume of Canada's Department of External Affairs indicates that "this history is dedicated to the memory of John W. Holmes," who had chaired the editorial board when it was reviewing draft chapters about "the early years" of the department, from its founding in 1909 until the prime minister gave up the portfolio in 1946.(10) Holmes himself makes a series of cameo appearances in the final three chapters of that book. He first appears in a list of the temporary assistants "who performed work comparable to that of departmental officers recruited in the conventional manner."(11) Subsequent references include brief mentions of his work in DEA as well as citations of his scholarly assessments and recollections published much later. When the period covered by that volume drew to a close, Holmes was second secretary in Canada House in London. The book ends with a paragraph based largely on his recollections of VE Day in Trafalgar Square and the outlook for Britons and Canadians in 1945.(12)
The second volume of the official history, subtitled Coming of Age, 1946-1968,(13) deals with the ascendant phase of the diplomatic career of John Holmes. Perhaps inevitably, the references to him in the text are more frequent and more detailed as Holmes moves toward centre stage in the development and implementation of Canada's foreign policy, as well as in the administration of the department. His views were sought and heeded, for example, on whether Canada should stand for election to the United Nations Security Council in 1947. Holmes was back in New York when the invasion of South Korea by its northern neighbour tested the UN and Canadian policy. After an assignment at the National Defence College in Kingston, Holmes was named one of three new assistant under-secretaries of state in January 1954 (though he had been performing the work on an acting basis since the previous fall). In that capacity, he was one of the participants in the "prayer meetings" of senior officers with the minister (Pearson) and his deputy (Jules Leger), which ranged broadly over the spectrum of "emerging policy issues."(14) Holmes accompanied Pearson in October 1955 when the latter became the first NATO foreign minister to visit the Soviet Union,(15) and again one year later when Pearson grappled with the Suez Crisis at the United Nations.(16)
The election of John Diefenbaker does not appear to have prompted Holmes to resign. On the contrary, it was Holmes who advised his colleagues to be patient and to readjust to the requirements of the new prime minister and his government, as a letter to Norman Robertson, which is quoted at length in the departmental history, makes abundantly clear.(17) Yet the next reference to Holmes in the text is when his departure is mentioned (along with the resignation of Douglas LePan) as one of "a number of changes among the assistant under-secretaries," without comment or explanation.(18) Later, there is a passing reference to his absence when the return of the Liberals to power is discussed. According to the authors, "some of those whose ideas Pearson had found most stimulating, such as John Holmes, were no longer there," but we are still not told why he was gone.(19)
Readers are led very indirectly to the answer to this question in a part of chapter 5, sub-titled "Security clearances." The text discusses the emphasis on "character weakness" as a cause of vulnerability to blackmail and hence a justification for denial of security clearances that were essential for employment in DEA and especially for posting abroad. Foremost among the identified forms of "character weakness" was homosexuality. According to this brief account (less than a page and a half), the RCMP investigated such cases within a framework laid down by the security panel in response to a directive approved by the cabinet on 21 December 1955. However, "responsibility for decision normally rested with the under-secretary" who "was keenly aware of the personal consequences for the employees concerned," yet conscious as well "of his responsibility for maintaining the security procedures developed in response to the practices of hostile intelligence services." The authors then comment that "the price paid was high when careers in External Affairs were ended and the department lost the services of experienced and valued personnel." In a footnote, various published sources are cited, including Canadian Press articles by Dean Beeby in the Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald, 24 and 25 April 1992.(20)
Not surprisingly, the journalist was not as circumspect. In a story which the Globe and Mail carried on its front page, Beeby outlined his findings from documents which he had obtained under the Access to Information and Privacy Act. "Mounties staged massive hunt for gay males in civil service," according to the headline. The initial article highlighted the individual case of John Watkins, former assistant under-secretary of state for external affairs and ambassador to the USSR, who had died of a heart attack in 1964 after questioning by the RCMP. Watkins had retired before his interrogation, so that, strictly speaking, he was not fired or forced to resign. However, Beeby also underlined the extent, duration and consequences of the "witch hunt" and noted that DEA was a particular target "because its employees were posted in Soviet bloc countries."(21)
In a follow-up article, which the Calgary Herald headlined "Mounties defend gay purge," Beeby supplemented his file research with an interview with a former head of the RCMP Security Service, William Kelly. After describing the context and noting that "about six" gay employees of the RCMP itself were "ferreted out and fired," Kelly named two of the senior victims of the "gay purge" in DEA, Holmes and David Johnson (another former ambassador to the USSR). "[Holmes] was allowed to resign," according to Kelly. "He was confronted." As for Johnson, "he was warned not to come back to Canada as he might run into difficulty, and he never did."
Kelly and others--including R.B. Bryce, who had chaired the so-called "Character Deviate Committee"--defended the "gay purge" to Beeby as an unfortunate necessity to counter a presumed threat posed by the NKVD (the Soviet commissariat of internal affairs) and its successor, the KGB. John Starnes, who then dealt with security and intelligence questions as head of Defence Liaison (2) Division of DEA, has pointed out that the Mounties were simply attempting to implement cabinet directives. According to Beeby, however, "none of the officials could identify an instance in which a KGB-blackmailed homosexual was uncovered by the RCMP hunt."(22) An accompanying article highlighted the pseudo-science of the "fruit machine" and other devices or tests to detect homosexual tendencies as well as efforts at entrapment and betrayal.(23) In fact, as John Sawatsky pointed out nearly 20 years ago, the greatest damage to Canada's security from Soviet attention to embassy staff in Moscow arose from the heterosexual entrapment of a night security guard. In that case, the unlikely prospect of securing a criminal conviction for treason prompted Canadian authorities to allow the offender to resign.(24)
In his memoirs, Starnes briefly discusses the case of John Holmes. According to Starnes, Holmes "was targeted by the Soviet NKVD in an attempt to coerce him into assisting it." The source of this allegation was "a Russian defector." Starnes accompanied Holmes to RCMP headquarters, where the latter was questioned privately. "Exhaustive inquiries," Starnes recalls, "found absolutely nothing to suggest that Soviet intelligence had succeeded in recruiting John or that he had been disloyal in any way." In accordance with procedures laid down by the cabinet, however, Norman Robertson, "as Holmes's deputy minister, had to decide his future. With Holmes's concurrence, he decided to look for employment for him outside External Affairs. Robertson quickly found him a post in academic life, where he soon became a respected commentator on many aspects of foreign affairs and a distinguished author." Still, it was a sad end to the diplomatic career of a man whom Starnes remembers as "one of two members of Canada's fledgling foreign service during the formative postwar years whose ideas and initiatives had valuable and lasting effects."(25) The elaborate effort to entrap Watkins, who "showed great courage and fortitude in facing the ordeal created by the Soviet machinations," had also failed. Simply put, there was "no evidence to suggest that Watkins had been a traitor."(26) As for Johnson, Starnes refers in passing to his brief tenure as chair of the joint intelligence committee, but he does not mention his departure from the foreign service.
These must have been especially painful episodes for Robertson. According to the minutes of the security panel, he had argued that "a weakness such as homosexuality might exist in an individual of great discretion and with a brilliant capacity for public service. In many cases," Robertson is quoted as saying, "the security dangers of the sexual propensity might well be neutralized by other aspects of the person's character." A majority of the panel, however, endorsed the RCMP's stance that homosexuality itself was a sufficient "character weakness" that it left an individual too vulnerable to entrapment and blackmail to retain a security clearance and government employment.(27)
As Starnes points out, Robertson was concerned to find an alternative for Holmes. In the case of Johnson, there was a further personal dimension. It was Robertson who had found Johnson his first job in Ottawa--as a legal adviser to the department of finance--and their friendship dated back to college days together in Oxford in the 1920s. According to his biographer, Robertson would give priority to what he deemed to be the "national interest," but he was mindful as well of the need "to protect the privacy of the individual."(28) We know considerably less about Johnson's fate than about that of Holmes or Watkins. As of January 1961, Johnson was seconded to the UN Technical Assistance Board as its resident representative in Nigeria. Formally, he retired from DEA in September 1963. Beyond that, little is known, according to Beeby, other than that Johnson "is believed to have died in the early 1970s."(29)
Given that the purge affected the senior ranks of DEA, this was not an impersonal or anonymous process from which decision-makers could be detached. It tested friendships, curtailed careers and shattered lives. What is perhaps most remarkable in the circumstances is the extent to which John Holmes transformed a personal calamity into an opportunity to inform Canadians about international affairs and to advise his former colleagues on a range of subjects, including how to deal with the scholarly community of which he had become a member. To this dual role, Holmes brought unique insight, intelligence and eloquence, as well as wit, charm and compassion. These qualities were abundantly evident, particularly to those students for whom he was "both mentor and friend."(30) No doubt there were many members of the Department of External Affairs who had similarly benefited from his guidance.
DEA as an institution undoubtedly suffered with the loss of experience and judgment as senior officials who had helped to devise and to direct policy during that golden age of Canadian diplomacy left the department. From those cases disclosed thus far, the impact was especially pronounced with respect to assessment of the USSR, as three known targets had been heads of post in Moscow. But Beeby's articles--along with subsequent research by Gary Kinsman and others-- suggest that these cases were simply the tip of the iceberg for DEA.(31) Ironically, Johnson himself had first come to the RCMP's attention when he had sent home a clerk--subsequently fired--whose own homosexual activity had attracted Soviet interest.(32)
Although most memoirs and other accounts skirt this topic, it seems likely that the "gay purge" had a widespread impact on DEA and its morale. "With the possible exception of the Navy," one assessment concludes, no part of the government came under such intense scrutiny as DEA, particularly when the "net" was cast wider.(33) A report by the RCMP in 1960 claimed that 59 suspected homosexuals had been identified at DEA--out of a government-wide total of 363. Of these 59 individuals, nine had already resigned, one had been released, one had retired and two had died.(34) As word of the investigations spread through informal networks, there may even have been a negative impact on recruitment for the foreign service. Curiously, DEA's personnel policies may have aggravated the problem, as there was a preference for posting single men to Russia owing to the hardship the post posed for families. In other words, the most likely locale for entrapment was often a destination for unattached males.
Other potential vulnerabilities such as heterosexual infidelity, ideological sympathy or personal greed--more difficult to detect yet arguably more successfully exploited--were eclipsed by the "scientific" pursuit of gays and lesbians. This emphasis was consistent with a trend evident in the State Department of the United States as well as in the foreign ministries of other countries, such as Australia, and it was justified by reference to a perceived shift in emphasis by Soviet intelligence.(35) Homosexuality had been defined as a risk to national security. In contrast to other "character weaknesses," it was not necessary to document a specific breach of confidentiality in order to act against a homosexual public servant. The RCMP may not have had spectacular success in uncovering traitors or spies--whose motivations were often ideological or mercenary in any event--and some of its "scientific" methods for determining sexual orientation appear to have been rather dubious, but it could certainly impress its political masters with statistical summaries of its "progress" in this domain.(36) However, for those who came under suspicion--and especially for those who were purged--the consequences of the anti-homosexual security campaign were highly personal and often cataclysmic. "The sudden departures," John Sawatsky has written, "touched all levels, from senior administrators to lowly clerks." Moreover, the latter were presumably less likely to receive assistance in finding alternative employment.(37)
In response to Beeby's articles and to questions in the House of Commons from Svend Robinson, MP for Burnaby-Kingsway, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney condemned the purge on 27 April 1992. "The passage of time, based on what I have seen," Mulroney declared, "certainly does not make it any less odious. This would appear to be one of the great outrages and violations of fundamental human liberty that one would have seen for an extended period of time." The prime minister did "not know much beyond what I have read because of the manner in which documents are kept, but I have instructed the Clerk of the Privy Council [Paul Tellier] to bring forward for consideration ways that we might examine this more carefully because on its face it would appear to be a fundamental violation of the rights of Canadians and, if it is as it has been reported, a most regrettable incident." In response to a supplementary question, the prime minister clarified that "I did not undertake to look into a full public inquiry."(38)
More than 10 years after this parliamentary exchange and 15 years after the death of John Holmes, there remain unanswered questions about the circumstances in which he left Canada's foreign service and the implications of that departure for the government which he had served so well. What is known thus far suggests that the answers, however incomplete or uncertain as yet, will ultimately interest those who study this subject from various perspectives. Certainly the impact of the "gay purges" on the Department of External Affairs and its employees, as well as their friends and families, merits closer attention. It is vital to an understanding of the significance of this episode for scholars and writers in different disciplines and with diverse approaches to learn from the work of colleagues. It is equally essential that those currently in government learn from a more thorough examination of the experience of the past.
(1) "Lloyd Axworthy Announces Outreach Fund Honouring John Holmes," Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade News Release, no. 80 (26 April 1996).
(2) Ibid., "Biographical Note."
(3) Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979 and 1982.
(4) Toronto: 1982.
(5) Preface, An Acceptance of Paradox, x.
(6) David Stafford, "John Wendell Holmes 1910-1988," Institute Affairs, 3, no. 1 (December 1988).
(7) John Halstead, "John Wendell Holmes," bout de papier, 6, no. 3, 32-33; Barbara Martin, "Editor's Notebook / Carnet du redacteur" in the same issue.
(8) Stafford, ibid.
(9) Denis Stairs, "John Wendell Holmes," Proceedings of The Royal Society of Canada, (1988), 235-37.
(10) John Hilliker, Canada's Department of External Affairs, Volume 1, The Early Years, 1909-1946 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990), xiv.
(11) Ibid., 260.
(12) Ibid., 321.
(13) John Hilliker and Donald Barry, Canada's Department of External Affairs, Volume 2, Coming of Age, 1946-1968 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995).
(14) Ibid., 91.
(15) Ibid., 112-13.
(16) Ibid., 123-28.
(17) Ibid., 140-41.
(18) Ibid., 168-69.
(19) Ibid., 253.
(20) Ibid., 191-92, footnote 55 (446-47).
(21) Dean Beeby, "Mounties staged massive hunt for gay males in civil service; Police kept files on 8,200 during Diefenbaker-Pearson era," Globe and Mail (24 April 1992).
(22) Dean Beeby, "RCMP was ordered to identify gays; Only carrying out cabinet policy, former head of Mountie security service says," Globe and Mail (25 April 1992).
(23) Canadian Press, "RCMP hoped 'fruit machine' would identify homosexuals," Globe and Mail, (24 April 1992).
(24) John Sawatsky, For Services Rendered: Leslie James Bennett and the RCMP Security Service (Toronto, 1982), 184. The traitor was detected at a subsequent posting in Tel Aviv by Israeli intelligence when he met with his Soviet controller.
(25) John Starnes, Closely Guarded: A Life in Canadian Security and Intelligence (Toronto, 1998), 53-54.
(26) Ibid., 67-68.
(27) Remarks attributed to Robertson in meeting of Security Panel on 6 October 1959, quoted in Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile (with the assistance of Heidi McDonell and Mary Mahood-Greer), "In the Interests of the State": The Anti-gay, Anti-lesbian National Security Campaign in Canada, A Preliminary Research Report (Laurentian University, Sudbury, 1998), 69. Daniel J. Robinson and David Kimmel, "The Queer Career of Homosexual Security Vetting in Cold War Canada," Canadian Historical Review, 75, no. 3 (September 1994): 319-45.
(28) J.L. Granatstein, A Man of Influence: Norman A. Robertson and Canadian Statecraft 1929-68 (Toronto, 1981), 330.
(29) Beeby, Globe and Mail (25 April 1992).
(30) Nossal, "Preface," Acceptance of Paradox, xi.
(31) In addition to the research report and article cited in note 27 above, see also: Gary Kinsman, " 'Character Weaknesses' and 'Fruit Machines': Towards an Analysis of the Anti-Homosexual Security Campaign in the Canadian Civil Service," Labour/Le Travail, 35 (Spring 1995), 133-61, and Gary Kinsman, "Constructing Gay Men and Lesbians as National Security Risks, 1950-70," in Gary Kinsman, Dieter K. Buse, and Mercedes Steedman (eds.), Whose National Security? Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies (Toronto, 2000), 143-53.
(32) Sawatsky, For Services Rendered, 174. "The External Affairs clerk who had ignited this purge also told the Security Service about his suspicions of Ambassador Johnson. The clerk said he had never had an affair with the ambassador but had heard his name through the network. So Johnson, who a week earlier had sent the clerk home, suddenly found himself flying back for interrogation. The ambassador admitted an ongoing relationship with one of his senior embassy officials, who was subsequently recalled and questioned, but said he had no relationship outside the embassy and had never been entrapped or blackmailed by the KGB. Both he and his lover promptly resigned."
(33) Kinsman, " 'Character Weaknesses' and 'Fruit Machines'," 142; John Sawatsky, Men in the Shadows: The RCMP Security Service (Toronto, 1980), pp. 138-39.
(34) "Homosexuality Within the Federal Government Service - Statistics," Appendix A to a memorandum from J.M. Bella, director of security and intelligence, to the commissioner of the RCMP, 29 April 1960. Although the name of the Department of External Affairs has been blocked out on the declassified copy, the statistics are arranged in alphabetical order by title in English of the department or agency, so that it is easy to identify the figures for DEA. The total of 59 for DEA is broken down as follows: 9 "confirmed" ["those who have been interviewed and admitted being homosexuals or who have been convicted in court on a charge of sexual deviation with another male"]; 17 "alleged" ["those who have been named as homosexuals by a source or sources whose information is considered to be reliable"]; 33 "suspected" ["those who are believed to be homosexuals by a source or sources whose information is considered to be reliable."]. This document is reprinted as part of Appendix B, "Selected Security Regime Documents" in Kinsman et al, "In the Interests of the State", following 151.
(35) Kinsman et al, "In the Interests of the State," 33-35.
(36) The Shift in emphasis from ideological concerns to "character weaknesses" and specifically to homosexuality as the basis for investigations--as well as the statistical reckoning of the impact of the RCMP's work--is discussed in Robinson and Kimmel, "Queer Career."
(37) Sawatsky, Men in the Shadows, 138.
(38) House of Commons, Debates, 27 April 1992 (9713-9714); "PM denounces 1960s purge of homosexual civil servants," Globe and Mail (28 April 1992).…
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Publication information: Article title: Purged. from Memory: The Department of External Affairs and John Holmes. Contributors: Mackenzie, Hector - Author. Journal title: International Journal. Volume: 59. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2004. Page number: 375. © Canadian Institute of International Affairs Fall 1997. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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