Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Propaganda and Persuasion: The Cold War and the Canada-Soviet Friendship Society
by Jennifer Anderson
University of Manitoba Press
May 2017, ISBN 978-0-88755-742-2, Paperback, 272 pages
In Propaganda and Persuasion, Canadian historian Jennifer Anderson explores the origins, activities and impact of the Canadian Soviet Friendship Society, a Cold War organization that existed from 1949 to 1960). As a high school student, Anderson became interested in the Soviet Union, which had ceased to exist by the time she entered university. After graduation, Anderson spent five years in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she met people “struggling to overcome seventy-five years of poor policy, with limited success.”
While examining the activities of the Canadian Soviet Friendship Society (CSFS), Anderson tried to understand what would motivate a Canadian to be a friend of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. She found that members and supporters of the CSFS had false perceptions of conditions in the Soviet Union. They wanted a society with no gender, class or ethnic inequalities, and imagined, incorrectly, that the Soviet Union was such a place.
From its beginnings, the Soviet Union had attracted western interest, usually negative, but during World War II, after the Nazi invasion of Russia brought the Soviet Union into the conflict on the western allies’ side, “fraternal good relations” became “in style”. The red scare of earlier decades was forgotten, as prominent Canadians like Prime Minister Mackenzie King, provincial premiers and other public figures became patrons of the Congress for Soviet Friendship in 1944.
For the Canadian government, however, support for the USSR was “wartime expediency” which was soon set aside after the war, especially when Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko defected from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa in 1945, claiming that a Soviet spy ring existed in Canada.
The Cold War was “an ideological and cultural contest on a global scale”, and, in part, an “information war” in which the Soviet Union and the west, primarily the United States, vied to show their cultures as superior. The Soviets considered Canada “geopolitically important” and saw Canada as useful in influencing “the wider North American public against starting another war.”
As early as 1925, the Soviet government established the “All Union Society for Cultural Relations”, or “VOKS”, to disseminate Soviet propaganda and collect information from other countries. By 1946 it had links to sixty countries.
In 1949, the wartime National Council for Canadian Soviet Friendship renamed itself the Canadian Soviet Friendship Society, with Dyson Carter as its national secretary. Soviet archival sources and Anderson’s interviews with former CSFS members indicate that CSFS was subsidized by the Soviet Union.
Former CSFS members’ stories add interest to Anderson’s history, with Dyson Carter’s being particularly fascinating. The son of Salvation Army parents, he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, a brittle bone disease which kept him bedridden into his teens, until he discovered that Vitamin D could help his condition. After attaining a Master of Science degree in chemistry and physics he joined the Communist Party of Canada early in the Great Depression. During the 1930s he wrote for the mainstream media, often on science. Later, as head of CSFS, he wrote pro-Soviet articles and distributed Soviet-produced literature in Canada.
A refrain in CSFS publications was that the authors were “telling the truth” about the Soviet Union, but as Anderson shows, they weren’t. Anderson believes that members never realized they were complicit in deception, but “sincerely hoped that as individuals they could make a difference in Cold War international relations.” Those who travelled to the USSR accepted what they were shown as the reality.
Was the CSFS dangerous to the West in the Cold War? Anderson notes that Carter forwarded to the Soviet Union “copious amounts of publicly available information” on Canadian politics, public opinion and living conditions.
“In retrospect,” she writes, “the CSFS and Carter himself do not appear especially dangerous, but in the context of the times…they were active agents in the Cold War interplay.”
It is not within the scope of Anderson’s book to examine the role of the Great Depression in turning many Canadians to the left (some to the democratic socialism of the CCF Party, others to its arch-enemy, the Communist Party of Canada.) The Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s, which impacts upon the history of the CSFS, has been explored by other historians whose works are noted in Anderson’s bibliography. Propaganda and Persuasion provides further insight into the seventy-five years of troubled relations between the Soviet Union and the West.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s novel, Grace and the Secret Vault, (Ottawa, Baico, 2017, firstname.lastname@example.org) is partly about early socialism in Canada.