Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

How the Cold War Began…with British Help: The Gouzenko Affair Revisited

Document type Article
Author Molinaro, Dennis
Journal Labour / Le Travail
Volume 79
Date 2017 Spring
ISSN 1911-4842
Pages 143-155


The Gouzenko Affair is referred to as the event that started the Cold War. This article draws on recently declassified documents that shed new light on Britain's role in this affair, particularly that of the Foreign Office and the British High Commissioner to Canada. The documents reveal how the British had a major part in directing the response to Igor Gouzenko's defection in 1945. This event revealed the need for increased counterespionage security, but it also became a spectacle that directed the public's attention away from the British connection: specifically, the role of Alan Nunn May, a British nuclear scientist who had provided the Soviets with classified information. Instead, the public's interest was centred on Soviet spies, communism as a subversive force, and the brewing Soviet-US conflict. These newly declassified sources demonstrate how it was the British intelligence services and the British government that went to great lengths to help focus the public's attention in this direction. They took great pains to direct Canadian policymaking, which included working to discourage Canada's prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King from handling the affair privately with the Soviet ambassador, and were likely behind the infamous press leak to US reporter Drew Pearson that forced King to call a Royal Commission and publicize the affair. With the help of the British government and intelligence services, the Cold War began.