Below the Surface

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Antisemitism in the nation’s capital, circa 1928, was “below the surface,” according to Ronald Clark, William Friedman’s biographer. Latent, yet also “ever-present.” There was an “us-them feel,” he wrote, and William Friedman was one of “them.” [Clark 86] I wanted to know more about how antisemitism might have affected the great cryptanalyst. To what extent did he experience prejudice? How did he handle it? I thought Joseph Bendersky’s The “Jewish Threat”: Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army might help me answer those questions. After all, Friedman spent a quarter-century serving in the Army, ultimately earning the rank of colonel. There were no direct answers, but the book did fill out the context in which Friedman lived, breathed, and worked.

Bendersky spent most of a decade combing through the Army’s extensive archival material, declassified only after decades guarded from sight. The mental world of Army officers that he reveals is ugly indeed. “Below the surface” the prejudice may have been, but it was, in many notable cases, not at all subtle. Officers read books and otherwise absorbed ideas that claimed a veneer of scientific truth. Biology, in the context of the Darwinian revolution, was in ascendance. Race was ineluctable fact, and racial characteristics were open to “scientific” study.  The laws of nature applied to humans, and harsh conclusions could be drawn by anyone cold-eyed enough to face the facts.

“Watch a herd of animals. If a member of the herd becomes unfit…the unfortunate is recognized at once and driven out of the herd, only to be eaten by the timer wolves. That seems hard–but is it, in fact? The suffering is thus limited to one. The disease is not allowed to attack others… With us humans, what we call civilization compels us to carry along the unfit in ever increasing proportions.” –General George Van Horn Mosely [Bendersky 27]

William Ripley, Charles Davenport, Charles Woodruff, Homer Lea, Madison Grant, and Lothrop Stoddard were spokesmen for this hard-hearted (and racist) view of human affairs. Well-educated (three of six went to Harvard and another to Yale), these men were both familiar with modern ideas and fearful of modern demographics. Immigration was making unrecognizable the country they thought they knew. Titles such as The Passing of the Great Race and The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy were as alarming to their readers as they are heinous to us today.

“We are infinitely more careful in the selection of animals for breeding purposes than we are in the selection of our incoming aliens. …an unfit animal is an unfit animal, whether it be man or woman, horse or sheep.” –Representative Albert Johnson (R, Washington), sponsor Immigration Act of 1924 [Bendersky 165]

The origin of their fears can be traced to the mid-1890s when immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began to eclipse those from the north and west. (We’ll ignore, for now, similar concerns over Chinese immigration on America’s other shore, which preceded these by a generation.) American identity was changing and would change irrevocably, these men argued, if the tide could not be stemmed. The chief culprits: eastern European Jews, “the dregs from Russia,” with their “long black coats, greasy beards, little curls over their ears, round black hats.” Religion, custom, language, “a lack of national feeling,” “a certain aloofness”: all conspired to make Jews doubly foreign and “a race apart.” [Bendersky 202, 86, 183]

If that were not enough, by 1919 Jews had become almost synonymous with the most un-American of political animals: the communist. In the thinking of the Army intelligence officers of MID, Jews were a combination of dirty proletarians, money-grubbing merchants, millionaire bankers, and conniving political schemers. The conspiracy theorists made the dots connect despite obvious contradictions. “Jewish multi-millionaires” financing the Russian revolution in support of “Jewish proletarians” toward an ultimate goal of world domination somehow passed the smell test. [Bendersky 57] The publication of the first English edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, titled The Jewish Peril, confirmed all their worst fears. The revelation the next year that it was a forgery dampened the paranoia only marginally.

Seminary Co-op

After passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the frenzy did begin to ebb. I, for one, was fascinated to read how readily nativists backpedaled when the politics began to shift on the House floor and in the papers. No, they denied, their bill was not “directed at the Jews” or “any particular type of immigrant.” Nor was it built on “the desirability of the ‘Nordic’ race.” [Bendersky 165] Nothing of the sort. The incident showed once again that ideas do not live apart from human affairs, waiting to be plucked from the ether and espoused as true. I think of the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, who backed off some of his forcefully stated positions under the bright lights of the Senate. And Marjorie Taylor Green who disavowed her earlier outrages when challenged by her new, more discriminating, colleagues in the House of Representatives.


This small account of Bendersky’s (he provides others like it) goes a long way to explain the “below the surface” quality of antisemitism in Washington, DC, in the 1920s and 1930s. In the privacy of their letters, officers could share mutual admiration for the likes of Stoddard and Grant, but if aired in society these same views might fail the test of public scrutiny. Even so, William Friedman was rubbing elbows daily with men (and women, too) who carried prejudiced thoughts in their head every time they interacted with him. Friedman was a “good Jew”–assimilated, educated, well-dressed–yet questions would still have hovered in the air. [Bendersky 43]

Friedman’s brainy cleverness, his effeminate sensitivity might have played to stereotype. Sociologist Edward Ross had described the “Hebrew” type as “the polar opposite of our pioneer breed.” He said they were “undersized and weak-muscled…shun bodily activity and are exceedingly sensitive to pain.” This in contrast to the alleged American type defined by “great physical self-control, gritty, uncomplaining, merciless to the body for fear of becoming ‘soft.'” The city-dwelling, merchant-class Jew could not have been farther from the “roaming, hunting, exploring, adventurous breed” that was the American male. [Bendersky 35]

My thoughts are drawn to the Jewish Back-to-the-Land movement to which William Friedman himself was drawn in the first decade of the twentieth century. The impetus to settle and to farm had many sources: a liberal desire to break free of czarist restrictions, socialistic ideas of ownership and autonomy, religious hopes for redemption and renewal. Was there within it an assertive response to critiques like Ross’s above? Was there, somewhere within the movement, a need to prove that the Jewish male could survive and thrive in dawn-to-dusk farm labor as well as his gentile brethren? As it happened, the vast majority of Jewish farm settlements neither survived nor thrived. They failed within two years.

William Friedman matriculated at Michigan Agricultural College with “notions of scratching a living out of the soil when the ‘back to the farm’ movement hit this country in 1910.” Did he feel the need to prove himself tough enough for rustic labor? Whether yes or no, he quickly learned that the farm life was not at all for him: “A few weeks of preparation for the ‘return’ showed me that Mother Nature got the wrong number when I answered that call.” [Clark 16-17] He needed brainier work. He tried genetics, but a series of fortuitous events led him into cryptology. When war came, he used his codebreaking talents to help defend his country.

“A  race that will not fight is a base race, a slave race… and when not fighting, they still find weapons–of passive resistance, and calculating intelligence….” –Major Gordon Young [Bendersky 212]

Did such “racial” stereotypes affect Friedman’s decision to enlist in the Army in the summer of 1917? Did they add to his sense of obligation above that of other men? Perhaps. Enlisting also kept him out of the draft as a possible infantry soldier. It represented a possible career move for a man dependent on the largesse of a quirky millionaire, George Fabyan.

Once with the U.S. Army Signal Corps and later as director of the Signal Intelligence Service, was his loyalty ever questioned or doubted because of his Jewish heritage? According to Bendersky, officers had been concerned about a cabal of International Jewry since at least 1917. I have seen no evidence that Friedman suffered from suspicion. Even when many of his books were confiscated in Cold War years, the actions stemmed more from over-active paranoia regarding security than about specific concerns of communist activity.

Fagone gives at least one instance of William being affected by “casual” antisemitism. When he was stiffed by a client for a freelance decryption job, William chose not to demand payment lest he risk playing to the “money-grubbing Jew” stereotype. [Fagone 130] What today we call micro-aggressions were surely a regular part of his life in Washington, DC.

Jewish Review of Books

William Friedman was not a religious Jew. He and Elizebeth were married by a rabbi, but I have no evidence he attended synagogue or otherwise practiced his religion after marriage. On the other hand, the Friedmans did send out Christmas cards…as cryptograms! William had been bar mitzvahed and likely had a positive relationship with his rabbi at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Michael Fried. Evidence suggests his parents were less than active members. In the Tree of Life Golden Anniversary album, Mrs. Rosa Friedman is conspicuously absent from a list of more than a hundred and twenty-five names in the Ladies Auxiliary Society, who, by my calculations, represented about 85% of the dues-paying membership. Of the Friedman parents it might be said, as it was of many of their contemporaries, “their Jewishness was…an incidental factor, to be neither repudiated nor cultivated.” [Davis 205-206] Maybe. But by joining Tree of Life congregation, they did choose to have Jewishness cultivated in their children.

Judaism surely had a different meaning for William than it did for his parents. For them, it was the Old World they had escaped. It came accompanied by the shackles of restrictive laws and sometimes violent discrimination. Leaving it behind might well have felt welcome. For William, a second-generation American (though actually born in Kishinev), the Americanized form of his religion was nevertheless a tangible connection to his Russian heritage and a defining element of his identity. But he married a goy and worked in the Army. He may not have repudiated his religion, yet neither did he feel free to cultivate it. Indeed, he rarely spoke of it in the public record, as far as I know. The repression of that side of himself must have been a burden, as evinced by a comment he made in the last year of his life when he finally felt free to lament “the five thousand years of oppression to which thousands of my ancestors and myself were subjected by the enlightened non-Jews of all the continents of the world[.]” [Clark 10]

Maybe the prejudice wasn’t as below-the-surface as all that.


Bendersky, Joseph W. The “Jewish Threat”: Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Clark, Ronald. The Man Who Broke Purple: The Life of Colonel William F. Friedman, Who Deciphered the Japanese Code in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.

Davis, Moshe. The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in 19th Century America. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1963.

Fagone, Jason. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: a True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.

“Golden Anniversary Tree of Life.” Pittsburgh: Congregation Tree of Life, 1914., accessed January 2021.

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