The sixties were a time of “paranoia,” admitted Peter Worthington during one of our erratic email exchanges. I don’t know if he appreciated the irony of his statement, considering how much he personally had promoted an absolutist division of the world – the “free world” vs. the commies—that people under 50 can barely imagine today, even after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.
Worthington, a right-wing journalist, had become a diminished force, except in the less-read Toronto Sun, where he maintained his perch as a columnist and feature writer until dying last year at 86. Obituaries mentioned Worthington’s earlier prescient knack for being on the scene as the Toronto Telegram_ correspondent throughout the major wars and crises overseas. He was, for instance, standing only steps away in the Dallas police station when John Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. It could be argued that after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Worthington was less consistent ideologically. But his self-written obituary revealed his hankering for a simpler time, as he took one last poke at his old nemesis Pierre Trudeau, charging him with “empathy for communism.”
An obstinate man, during the Cold War Worthington could not conceive of any independent peace movement resisting the planet’s two power blocs. “Not that peace activists were sympathetic with the USSR, but the Soviets encouraged any who were active against the Americans and Vietnam,” he emailed before he died. He added: “[I was] suspicious of the peace and anti-war movement [in the ’60s]—not of those who joined, but those who organized. The likes of [James] Endicott and Canadian Peace Council were prime suspects. Distinguishing the difference between protests and subversion kept the RCMP busy.”
Back in the ’60s when newspapers had a greater importance in people’s lives, Worthington had developed a fan base for opposing the dominant and generally progressive Liberal party, first under Lester Pearson and then Pierre Trudeau. The Telegram —a milder conservative precursor to the harder-edge Toronto Sun —was read primarily by an old Anglo Toronto, plus many East European immigrants. Years later, Worthington revealed in his autobiography, Looking for Trouble, which details his upbringing as an army brat and his own fighting in the Korean War with Canadian forces, that he became less liberal regarding foreign policy following a posting as the Telegram’s correspondent in Moscow in 1965. This ended with a thud after, with the aid of various intelligence agencies, he managed to bring out of the Soviet Union his female Russian translator, whom his first wife Helen—also a journalist—described as “the other woman” in court documents at the end of their marriage. Thus began Worthington’s friendship with Leslie James Bennett, then the head of the RCMP Soviet desk and a major source for his stories of alleged Soviet espionage in the Telegram and later the Toronto Sun.
The two men of a similar disposition continued to write to each other after Bennett was abruptly forced out of the RCMP in 1972 during a Soviet mole hunt in the force instigated by the paranoid CIA chief, James Jesus Angleton. Apparently Bennett was falsely suspected of treasonous activity but was never charged.
Today one can find their letters in the Peter Worthington papers at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. In one letter of Feb. 1968, while still in the RCMP, Bennett enthused over some profiles of Toronto’s “Peace Establishment” (Worthington’s words) which had appeared weeks earlier under Worthington’s Telegram byline, “As I understand it the series has had quite an impact in government circles—where it matters—in Ottawa.”
But Bennett’s newspaper buddy was not undertaking a nuanced exploration of Toronto’s anti-war protesters. The lead paragraph in his first piece on Jan. 27 said it all. “This is the winter of discontent for the peace movement—or more specifically for the anti-Vietnam War mish-mash of hippies and housewives, clergymen and Communists, professors and politicians, ardent students and articulate screwballs.”
This was 1968, the year of campus unrest in North America and Western Europe. Worthington warned against a domestic upsurge of students and professors of the anti-war persuasion: “There are those who expect this militancy to erupt into violence, to exceed the bounds of law and order, to become civil disobedience,” he continued, blurring all of these dissimilar concepts together.
Worthington’s series was an inflammatory, one-dimensional portrait of the loose collection of activists. “The upper echelons of the anti-war movement seemed riddled with extremists.” he asserted. Among those leaders were Lukin Robinson, the late respected trade union left-economist whom the Tely reporter called “a kingpin” and Chandler Davis, the former refugee from American McCarthyism who had become a math professor at the University of Toronto. The journalist dubbed Davis “one of the ‘hawks’ among the peace doves,” and the “driving force” behind the ad hoc Stop War Goods to the US Government.
The newspaper man was not alone in sensing—falsely as it turned out—that violence in the US stemming from anti-war and racial protests might spill over into Canada. “There is a close liaison among the various EWY [End the War] in North America and around the world,” Worthington wrote.
Afterward, Worthington wrote to Bennett that he expected “little lasting effect” from his exposť. Still, he had mixed feelings about becoming “the resident expert” on the peace movement, recipient of many phone calls “asking for details about individuals.”
It remains uncertain how much Worthington influenced the extensive RCMP surveillance of political and social activists on the left in the sixties and later—including peace and anti-war activists. The Southam newspaper chain reported in September 1989 that it had discovered via FOI request in Washington a US Justice Department memo showing that in July 1968 Worthington had passed along the names of 282 attendees for an upcoming anti-Vietnam War Conference—including 80 prominent Canadians such as June Callwood, Henry Morgentaler, Anton Kuerti, and Harry Rankin. The American assistant attorney general. received the list and handed it over to the FBI director, J Edgar Hoover. Worthington had written in the Telegram in that year that “some extremist leftists and identifiable Communists appeared to be involved” in the anti-war conference.
Southam’s possession of a genuine US government memorandum was never disputed by Worthington or the Ontario Press Council, who accepted his complaint that he had not been given the opportunity to refute the charge of being an “FBI informant.” But the Canadian media did not follow up this story. Worthington maintained, “I had some contacts—mostly retired FBI or CIA in connection with Soviet espionage, defectors, double-agents, but no contacts re[garding] domestic matters.”
In an unpublished 1979 statement found in the RCMP files at Library and Archives, Worthington reported having told the Metro Toronto Police nine years before, “I am sure I then called the city police but I cannot swear to it. Metro [Police] had only just started an intelligence squad and I feel that I called them. They had come to me after I had a long series on the peace movement when Lukin Robinson was kicked out of the UN. [He was] also kicked out of the Civil Service, Ottawa. He was thought to be a Red Agent.”
Elizabeth Quinlan, a sociology professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Robinson’s daughter, said: “Isn’t it amazing that even as late as 1979—five years after the RCMP surveillance of Dad stopped (at least officially) the red-baiting continued.” She added that Robinson had been active in the NDP but never a Communist.
In the upcoming spring 2014 issue of Labour/LeTravail, Quinlan recalls that Robinson, heading a progressive slate, had been defeated in a 1948 federal civil service union election at the height of the anti-communist hysteria. But in 1952 an independent tribunal exonerated him and financially compensated him for being dismissed from his UN job as a demographer while seeking to organize a staff association. There was an acknowledgement in the ruling that the international body had violated its own declaration of human rights.
Worthington was not the only Canadian journalist preoccupied with Soviet spies and subversion. However, it is not clear how important Canada was as a location of scientific and military secrets coveted by Moscow. In their book, Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America, Reg Whittaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby argue that Canada was probably not a very important Cold War target. It was a bit player in nuclear development, despite “sensational publicity” stemming from the 1945 revelations of Soviet embassy cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko (one of Worthington’s heroes). Canadians were mainly involved in “small subcontracting roles” in defence technological projects. “Canada may not have had a lot of secrets of its own worth stealing but it did share in the secrets of its Allies and could therefore be one particular pressure point for Soviet inquisitiveness,” the three academics write.
Worthington’s 1968 peace articles missed the more significant story about thousands of incoming Americans fleeing the draft.
In her book Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, 1965-73 Jessica Squires documents extensive surveillance of American war resister activity in Canada before and after the border was opened in 1969 to US military deserters. American draft dodgers faced fewer barriers. The RCMP warned various federal departments about “the militancy” of the delegates attending a May 1970 meeting of the Pan Canadian Conference of US War Resisters.
The Toronto Anti-Draft Program captured RCMP attention by bringing dodgers and deserters into Canada. They sent cars across the border to pick up more fleeing Americans and gave them clothes and other basic essentials.
The security expert Steve Hewitt, author of Snitch: A History of the Modern Intelligence Informer, maintains that the RCMP Security Service relied on people within these targeted left-wing groups to gather information for their investigations. Indeed, “the informer may well have been the one taking the notes of the meeting.”
What shall we make of Worthington himself? It seems he was less absolutist in his thinking in other topics. Though still a pro-military conservative, he was capable of writing sympathetically about Omar Khadr or amnesty for illegal immigrants. He was not as moderate as Joe Clark, another of the old Tely journalist’s bÍte noirs, but nor was he unique in serving his base of support and damning everybody else. Such journalism was common during the Cold War, and is still a concern today.
Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelance journalist.