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How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies

by Amy Knight

For those who persist in thinking that it was only the U.S. government of the 1950s that was hysterical and paranoid and abused the civil rights of its citizens in pursuit of communists, Amy Knight’s gripping account of the post-Second World War spy frenzy in Canada is a bracing slap in the face. Meticulously researched but at times bogged down in detail, How the Cold War Began chronicles a fascinating but ultimately dark chapter in Canadian history.

That chapter began on Sept. 5, 1945, with the defection of Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa. He later fingered a number of Soviet spies in Canada. The Gouzenko Affair riveted the country and opened its eyes to the notion of traitors among us and to the idea of a vast network of spies in the employ of the Canadian, American, and British governments.

Relying mainly on the diaries of then prime minister Mackenzie King and a raft of newly declassified documents, Knight’s book details the many competing personal and political agendas in a time of uncertainty, when the Soviet Union was still thought of as an ally after playing a crucial part in defeating Hitler and the Nazis. King wanted to use diplomatic channels to deal with the fallout from the Gouzenko Affair. He also didn’t want to offend Stalin. Gouzenko was being called back to Moscow and grim Soviet life and so had a powerful incentive to defect and offer himself as a holder of information valuable to the Canadian government. Meanwhile, powerful FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wanted to use the Canadian spy case as an alarm to give more leverage to his own anti-
communist agenda.

The book focuses on the heavy-handed, biased, and likely illegal means by which the RCMP rounded up people suspected of spying, as well as the devious tactics – using detainees’ testimony later to incriminate them, for example, and not allowing access to lawyers – used by the Royal Commission on Espionage. Gouzenko hardly comes across as a hero, as some suggest he was, and many innocent lives were shattered by false accusations of the era. Those shattered lives are traced in occasionally heartbreaking detail here.

This timely retelling of a real-life thriller will hopefully intensify the debate on where national security concerns end and the rights of the individual begin.