Hero or Goat?

He might have been the hero of Midway, one of many, perhaps, but potentially the first among them, the one who made all the others possible. Commander Joseph Rochefort led the Station Hypo team of cryptanalysts,  linguists, communications experts, and IBM-machine card punchers who partly discovered, partly intuited Japanese naval intentions in June 1942, turning the tide on Japanese advancement and putting Allied forces on equal footing with their enemy in the Pacific. Rochefort gave full credit to his staff, whom he called the greatest cryptanalytic team in history, but his staff gave the greatest credit to him.

Captain Thomas Dyer went as far as to say Rochefort was “almost solely responsible for producing the intelligence, which resulted in the Battle of Midway.” He located his commander’s strength in seeing the big picture, in weaving fragmented intelligence into a coherent operational narrative. Rochefort combined uncanny intuition with extraordinary powers of analysis and memory of details. It was his  according to Lieutenant Commander Jasper Holmes named his “qualities of leadership” as the key to their unit’s success at Midway.

Following the action, Rear Admiral David Bagley, Commandant of the 14th Naval District at Pearl Harbor, recommended Rochefort for the Distinguished Service Medal. Privately, Rochefort demurred. “I advised against doing anything like this, because it’s going to make trouble.” A cryptanalyst at heart, he shunned the exposure of daylight, let alone of the spotlight. Even within the shadowy world of the intelligence community, Rochefort knew the attention would be unwelcome. He was aware that he had stepped on toes, specifically those of Rear Admirals John Redman and Joseph Wenger.

Rear Admiral Joseph N. Wenger played a leading role in the development of both the Naval Security Group Command and the National Security Agency, and was one of the most influential figures in American cryptologic history. He was a pioneer in the development of machines for use in cryptanalysis, and was among the first to recognize the need for centralization within the naval Communications Intelligence (COMINT) establishment. More than anyone else, he was responsible for establishing a Navy-wide cryptologic organization. [NSA/CSS Hall of Honor]

So reads the opening paragraph of Wenger’s NSA Hall of Honor inductee page, and an impressive summation of a career it is. Adding weight to the praise is the fact of his close affiliation with William Friedman, America’s greatest cryptanalyst and “the man who broke Purple.” The two met in the 1920s and became fast friends.

But what is one to make of Wenger’s association with John Redman? According to Rochefort biographer Elliot Carlson, he brought radio expertise to his position as Director of Naval Communication but almost no intelligence experience.  Redman, according to Carlson, was “a gifted self-promoter, blending likeability and competitiveness with an aptitude for winning the support of influential officers….” [Carlson 217] As it turned out, he was a real snake-in-the-grass for the likes of Joe Rochefort. So why did Wenger align himself with Redman in an effort to bring down Rochefort.

The answer is evident in the Hall of Honor accolades printed above. It says Wenger was “among the first to recognize the need for centralization within the naval Communications Intelligence (COMINT) establishment.” Rochefort was an obvious impediment to advancing that goal. As Dyer put it, Rochefort “shot himself in the foot” by giving the message to Washington “to send us more men and leave us alone.” Wenger himself used similar words: “The attitude [at Pearl] was ‘give us what we need and let us alone, CINCPAC is running the war. You are too far away to control.'” Oddly, perhaps, it’s easy to see that both could have been right. Under Wenger and Redman in Washington, OP-20-G seemed to do everything in its power to undercut Rochefort and his team as they worked to defend the Pacific fleet against the Japanese offensive at Midway. Redman even objected to their “unapproved” water evaporator deception which had clinched Hypo’s Midway hypothesis. Redman appears to have been more concerned with being right than with defeating an enemy in a global, existential struggle. Rochefort was right to defend his office from collateral damage in a petty turf war.

Yet Wenger was probably not incorrect about the need to centralize, rationalize, streamline COMINT operations. Nor that Hypo Station in Pearl Harbor could not see the big picture of a two-front/two-ocean war. Only a centralized authority in Washington could “comprehend more clearly the global nature of the conflict,” he wrote in retrospect. Wenger’s fingerprints are all over the structure and organization of post-war intelligence in the United States, whereas Rochefort left nothing enduring behind. As intelligence historian Robert Hanyok wrote, “You don’t see his imprint” anywhere.

Except, of course, that in allowing victory at Midway, he enabled ultimate victory in the war and a Pax Americana that lasted almost fifty years. Rochefort didn’t get his Distinguished Service Medal during the war or even during  his lifetime. But Ronald Reagan did bestow it on him, posthumously, in 1986. He was inducted into the NSA Hall of Honor in 2000, five years before his nemesis, Joseph Wenger. Wenger may not have been the villain that he is in the context of the Joe Rochefort story. On the other hand, one imagines a more adept leader would be able to further his centralizing agenda while also taking full advantage of one of his strongest, if independent-minded officers, Joe Rochefort.


Carlson, Elliot. Joe Rocheforte’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2011.

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.

Layton, Rear  Admiral Edwin T. Layton (with Pineau and Costello), And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway–Breaking the Secrets. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

“But It Helps”?

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Early in his career as the United States government’s go-to man on all things cryptologic, William Friedman was asked if insanity was a prerequisite of the codebreaker. Friedman didn’t hesitate in his response. It was “not necessary,” he said, “but it helps.” [208]

A flippant response to reinforce the cryptanalyst’s mystique? A glib remark to get a laugh? Perhaps. But the task of worrying a garble of letters for days or weeks at a time, holding to a faith that the effort will yield results, took a certain kind of, if not insanity, then extreme doggedness not found in ordinary men. But which is the cause and which the effect? In Friedman’s case, at least, the witticism hid a painful truth. America’s greatest cryptologist was predisposed to anxiety/self-doubt/depression which his profession’s relentless demands only exacerbated.

It was not just the stress of work on whose success the security and survival of the nation relied. It was the doubt he harbored–doubt that only grew stronger with the years–about his profession’s moral legitimacy, at least in practice. Coming out of the Second World War, the intelligence organization Friedman had helped build only expanded its operations in peacetime. The Cold War brought new levels of, what Friedman saw as, paranoia and security obsessiveness. Genetics, the field he might have entered thirty-five years before, was just then coming into bloom. Its promise posed a stark contrast with the increasingly tainted world of intelligence-gathering (and -withholding). To Henry Stimson’s biographer on the question of gentlemen reading each others’ mail, he wrote, “You may be interested to know that my own feelings on the ethical point at issue are quite ambivalent–and have been for a long time. I have often wondered whether a good portion of my psychic difficulties over the years are not attributable, in part at least, to that ambivalence.” [116] To another historian he wrote about “the frustration generated by my having chosen as a profession one so enmeshed with measures requiring great secrecy–some quite necessary, some quite absurd or futile….” [261]

It didn’t help that he had become the object of the NSA’s paranoia. His papers, many of them going back as far as the First World War, were reclassified as “confidential” by the newly-organized National Security Agency. This was a slap in the face to a man who had given so much in his country’s service. Having foregone more lucrative opportunities in his prime working years, he had hoped to garner some income in retirement from the sale of his works. Not if the NSA had anything to say about it, which it did.

More slaps: Forty-eight volumes from his personal library, fastidiously organized in his Capitol Hill home, were confiscated as security risks by two NSA agents–a raid on the United States’ most accomplished cryptologist. “The NSA considers me their greatest security risk,” said an exasperated, and perhaps self-pitying, Friedman. [253]

Writing to longtime friend Boris Hagelin, Friedman was less caustic, more self-aware. Besides a genius for cryptography, both men shared a birthplace in the former Russian empire; both were, using Hagelin’s locution, “neurotics.” [208] In a phraseology more in line with our own time, the men gave each other therapy through their correspondence.

That’s the way it sounds to me in a letter Friedman biographer Ronald Clark quotes at length: “My nervousness, depression, at times despondency–frightening to be alone a/c suicidal thoughts–realization of how wrong that would be in all respects. Flight, fight, or neurosis. For fifty years have struggled with this off and on.” Friedman is surprisingly honest about his concern for his “reputation” and his “feeling of being a ‘has-been.'” His reference to a “‘floating anxiety’ which attaches itself to anything and everything” evinces the all-encompassing nature of his mental illness. [258-259]

Another side of his “neurosis” caught my attention in an amusing and withal not insignificant anecdote. After submitting a manuscript on the inscrutable Voynich codex, Friedman had post-eleventh-hour second-thoughts, as explained in this letter to his editor:

I went to play a round of golf, alone as usual, during the week. This is often bad for me because I have not only time to play but also to think. I get ideas for improving (and often ruining instead) this and that, which is bad for one who should be content to leave well enough alone. The idea I have (you’ve no doubt divined that I’m about to spring it on you) is this: I’d like to delete the last two sentences of footnote 28 and substitute the following…: [216-217]

Golf is one game, played alone or not, that can distract the average man from life’s cares and focus him instead on balls and holes and keeping his head down. Not one as cerebral as William Friedman. No, this is “bad” for him, and “bad” again. He can’t keep “ideas for improving (and often ruining instead)” from storming his mental fortress. This is impressive self-awareness, revealing an understanding that over-thinking can be as hazardous as thinking too little. Evident, too, is a recognition that such an awareness is not sufficient safeguard against the demons that haunt you.

A note of recognition registered as I read these words. I have “ruined” more than my share of lesson plans by over-thinking them, though I’m not sure this is literally true. I’m not sure Friedman believed it about his case, either. What is ruined in this particular neurosis is one’s mental equanimity, something indispensable in a teacher of children–and pretty important in a cryptographer helping to save the free world, too. Like Friedman when he made the comments above, I am fully aware of both the hazards and, yes, benefits, of my obsessiveness. As a result, its grip on me is less debilitating. Like him, this self-awareness does not preclude persistent, periodic self-doubt (and, in my case, self-loathing). Unlike the great cryptologist, I have never been hospitalized for my psychiatric imbalances. I doubt I ever will be.

SourceClark, 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.


Aggressive Resistance

Sometime around age fifty I felt the world beginning to pass me by.

Technology was the catalyst. Facebook. Twitter. I wanted no part of them. The same, later, for Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok. I would catch my daughter or her boyfriend, heads down, thumbs flying, even as I was trying to engage them in conversation. They were in a different world, one I was not even interested in visiting.

Naturally, I thought of my own father. As personal computers  became ubiquitous in his final decades, he assiduously avoided them. He never used one, not once. I made my effort to convince him otherwise. I tried to show him how Google could take him, virtually, to all those corners of the world that fascinated him, how it could bring him new information that so delighted him. He wasn’t swayed. His antipathy to the machine doused any spark of curiosity before it could alight.

I, I realized, was headed down the same path. Thirty years his junior, I was already giving up on a world changing beneath my feet. I had opted off the moving sidewalk, would spend my next score years and ten watching the world to hustle past me. The passivity of my resignation, so early in middle age, was disconcerting.

How universal is this conservatism of age? Does anyone stay fresh in the second half of a life? Is it possible to escape the tyranny of our coming-of-age years on our understanding of the world?

Miss Aggie Meyer came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century when there were no planes, few cars, and little electricity. The cultural fruits of mass production and mass consumption were still but a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye.

Yeoman Myers, ca 1918 (far right)

Governmental intelligence-gathering was unheard of, too, but this was about to change. War came for the Americans in 1917, and Miss Aggie, 29-years-old, enlisted in the Navy in 1918, among the first women to do so. Her assignment to the Code and Signal Section of the Director of Naval Communications led to a lifetime career just then coming into being: cryptanalyst.

Herbert Yardley argued successfully for continued intelligence-gathering after the war, and his so-called Black Chamber decrypted foreign diplomatic communication throughout the 1920s. At the same time, both the Army and Navy maintained their own cryptologic departments. William Friedman turned the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service into the crack operation that would eventually crack the Japanese PURPLE cipher machine. The Navy’s was always a smaller operation. Miss Aggie began work in 1919 as a stenographer before working up to the lofty title of clerk.

Oxley Hall, OSU, Women’s Dorm, 1910

She did more than type and file and take shorthand. Meyer studied the Navy’s crypto-systems for the purpose of improving their security. Her studies in math, physics, music, and foreign languages at Ohio State University provided a strong foundation for this work. But it was her innate ability that carried her ahead. Her superiors recognized that this skinny, thirty-something had what Yardley termed “cipher brains,” and they put her to work on whatever she could handle. [Yardley 120-121] She handled more than most of men who supervised her. In 1921 she solved Edward Hebern’s first-of-its-kind rotor cipher machine, much to the inventor’s chagrin. He hired her to consult for his Hebern Electric Code Company in 1923. She resigned from the Navy, knowing she could advance only so far as a civilian and a woman within its hidebound system.


For a variety of reasons, Hebern’s cipher business didn’t take off, and the now-married Agnes Driscoll returned to the Navy in mid-1924. She worked under and alongside a series of men who would go on to achieve cryptologic greatness in the war, at Midway and beyond. As Robert Hanyok wrote of her years in OP-20-G in the 1920s and 1930s, “Agnes Driscoll would teach an entire generation of Navy cryptologists whose later exploits would influence the outcome of the Pacific theater during WWII.” [Hanyok 3] Among them:

Captain Laurance Safford, who wrote, “Mrs. Driscoll got the first break [on the Japanese Red code book], as usual.”
Commander Joe Rochefort: “When I first came in contact with Mrs. Driscoll in 1925 in Washington, she was exceptionally capable, very capable. I considered her sort of a teacher to me.”
Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton: “She not only trained most of the leading cryptanalysts of World War II, but they were all agreed that none exceeded her gifted accomplishments in the business. …In the Navy, she was without peer as a cryptanalyst.”
And Captain Thomas Dyer: “…absolutely brilliant…” [Johnson 38]

Agnes Meyer Driscoll had both the skill and the patience to endure what David Kahn has called “perhaps the most excruciating, exasperating, agonizing mental process known to man.” [Kahn 21] Even William Friedman, considered by most to be America’s greatest cryptologist, admitted quavering at the task: “The work is so hard and the results so very, very meagre. Sometimes I fear I haven’t got it in me at all.” [Fagone 103] There is no evidence that Mrs. Driscoll ever suffered similar self-doubt. As cipher machines gained rotors and the super-encipherments produced ever more random cryptograms, Driscoll plugged away with pencil-and-eraser, magnifying glass, and boxes and boxes of index cards.

Hebern Rotor Cipher Machine
Hebern Rotor Cipher Machine

Though she had helped co-invent an early cipher machine and consulted with Hebern in the development of a second, for the most part Driscoll eschewed their use in decryption. This proved a hindrance. She didn’t adapt as the world of decryption changed around her. As Kevin Wade Johnson explained in the closest thing we have to a biography on Driscoll: “A catalog attack, with hundreds or thousands of possibilities to search for by hand, was a practical method with the cryptosystems Driscoll was used to [in the 1920s and early 1930s]. But searching for millions of possibilities would make timely exploitation impossible.” [Johnson 26]


Driscoll, ca 1958

Frank Raven, her subordinate–and most vocal critic–during her final years at OP-20-G, said her method was “a trial of exhaustion. …She can’t test one crib, one message in the lifetime of the war.” [Ibid] A less biased cryptanalyst still believed her work “would take only a fraction of the time if she would use and rely on machine support. But it was her apparent belief that there was no substitute for hard copy traffic, and she was supplied with endless boxes full of it to use for her analysis.” [Johnson 33] Driscoll didn’t abjure all machine assistance, but it seems inescapable that she resisted the advent of proto-computers and clung perhaps too tenaciously to the time and place of her original successes.

There is another factor in her story that needs to be considered. In 1937, at age 48, she suffered a devastating automobile accident that some said adversely affected her personality. They called her a “hag,” a “witch,” and “very secretive.” Yet there were others who insisted she returned to work months later “herself in every respect.” [Johnson 21, 22] Even so, it seems likely that there was at least some crotchetiness beginning by late-middle age.

Captain Eddie, 1967

No one called Eddie Rickenbacker a hag, but they did call him an “s.o.b.” [Lewis 448] Crotchety, yes, and a Jeremiah, too. He was aggressive in his conservativism. His leadership style has been described as “authoritarian.” [Lewis 525] Booton Herndon, the ghostwriter for his autobiography, who for two years spent more time with the aging ace than anyone else, had these not-very-complimentary words to say about his subject: “He is a competitive and aggressive individual who occasionally flies off the handle into bursts of hysterical fury.  He is an egomaniac who considers most of us mortals to be beneath him and he doesn’t hide it….” [Lewis 544] There is evidence that the younger Rickenbacker, aged 25 to 40, could rub people the wrong way, sometimes. But no one made so categorical a judgment as Herndon did about the 74-year-old.

Does age sour us?

It is interesting to note that devastating accidents served as pivots in both Driscoll’s and Rickenbacker’s lives, for each on either side of age 50. In Rickenbacker’s case, he suffered two such near-death experiences almost back to back. In the second, adrift in a lifeboat for 23 days on the Pacific, he browbeat his fellow crew members into staying alive. They remembered him as “the meanest, most cantankerous so-and-so that ever lived” and “confessed that they swore an oath to live for the sheer pleasure of burying [him] at sea.” [Rickenbacker 1943, 53] Drawing their ire on himself, Rickenbacker felt he was giving the men energy to survive, the will to live. This was a revelation to him, and he used the same approach in his public life thereafter. If he could inspire his countrymen’s anger, he could wake them up to the dangers of communism and give the country the will to defeat it.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Rickenbacker was no Luddite. His conservatism was not the kind that resisted technological change. Remember, he had embraced the automobile and aeroplane just as they appeared on the scene, just as he was coming of age. Welcoming new technology became a defining aspect of his person that he carried with him into old age. New ideas about his country, its government and political economy? Not so much.

So far I have mere anecdotal evidence, a study with an n of two. (Though I can double it by including Rose Wilder and her more famous mother, Laura Ingalls.) My father, while phobic on digital technology (and many other kinds), never approached anything like crotchety or reactionary. He became “set in his ways,” as he sometimes said, and my own are starting to fix in place, too. My wife has called me out on a certain inflexibility. Not in my political views: I remain staunchly open-minded (oxymoron intended). But in the ways of doing or thinking about the small things of life. Boy, can I get exercised over my own and other’s micro-transgressions!

Look out, Eddie. Look out, Aggie. Here I come!

Driscoll, ca 1910


Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1967.

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.

Hanyok, Robert. “Still Desperately Seeking ‘Miss Agnes,'” NCVA Cryptolog, fall 1997: 3,22-23.

Johnson, Kevin Wade. The Neglected Giant: Agnes Meyer Driscoll. Ft. Meade: Center for Cryptologic History (NSA), 2015.

Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

“Remembering Navy Cryptanalyst, Mrs. Agnes Meyer Driscoll.” Station Hypo. July 24, 2017. https://stationhypo.com/2017/07/24/remembering-navy-cryptanalyst-mrs-agnes-meyer-driscoll/ [All images of Agnes Meyer Driscoll]

Oxley Hall: https://library.osu.edu/site/archives/files/2012/02/1910_Oxley_Hall.jpg

Herbert O. Yardley: A Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail

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“I must confess to considerable distaste for Y. Frankly, I didn’t like him at all. He acted like a wooden Indian.” [Fagone 104] William Friedman‘s aversion to fellow cryptologist Herbert Yardley was sincere, yet his choice of descriptor is odd. “Wooden Indian” are not be the words that would come to my mind. “Rabelaisian, outgoing, superficial, free and easy with the details of a good story” were the ones that came to Yardley biographer David Kahn. [Kahn 1967, 369]  In fact, there was much to admire in Herbert Yardley and much to like. Still, there was that not insignificant part to deplore, which had nothing at all to do with being a wooden Indian.

Let’s start with the admirable.

Herbert Osborn Yardley was born into an Indiana Quaker family in 1889. (Coincidentally, Friedman’s wife, Elizebeth Smith, was also raised a Hoosier and a Friend, though beginning three years later.) He was an avid reader and a strong student. He impressed both classmates and teachers as “the smartest boy in the country,” “very brilliant,” “a genius.” [Kahn 2004, 2]. At thirteen, after his mother died, Yardley applied his smarts to poker, which became a lifelong passion and a periodic source of income. At seventeen, he focused his analytical brain on telegraphy. He excelled there, too.

A job as government telegrapher allowed Herbert to escape small town Indiana, and also to make a favorable marriage. The couple set up home in northeast DC in 1914. Off hours, Yardley advanced his education taking correspondence courses in American and English literature through the University of Chicago. Even on the job, he was a sponge for knowledge. His colleagues’ stories of international communications intrigues piqued his curiosity–and his ambition, too. “I knew that I had the answer to my eager young mind which was searching for a purpose in life. I would devote my life to cryptography. Perhaps I too…could open the secrets of the capitals of the world. I now began a methodical plan to prepare myself.” [Yardley 20]

Yardley had no internet, but he did have the Library of Congress close at hand. He discovered there was little in the way of published work on cryptology. After working through Mauborgne‘s “Military Cryptography,” Hitt‘s Manual for the Solution of Military Ciphers, and even Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” Yardley devised his own course of study, including the solving of enciphered telegrams coming in over the wire at work. Yardley was shocked the night he solved a cryptogram from Colonel House to President Wilson. How could these two most important of men be using such an elementary cipher system? His main course of study, though, was the American diplomatic code itself. After almost two years of dedicated work, he produced a pamphlet he called “Solution of American Diplomatic Codes,” which he promptly plopped on his boss’s desk. That caught the department’s attention. Yardley had a knack for turning heads and drawing attention, an odd thing for a man in an otherwise clandestine business.

He organized and ran the War Department’s first intelligence unit, MI-8. He did the same for the State Department’s first peacetime intelligence gathering unit after the war, which he dubbed the Black Chamber. His staff’s reading of Japanese diplomatic correspondence preceding and during the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 allowed American negotiators to get the most out of their bargaining. It was Yardley’s greatest coup. He and his staff were treated to a well-deserved Holiday party and large Christmas bonuses. But the Cipher Bureau, as it might more properly be called, never achieved a comparable success in its lifetime.

That life came to an abrupt end in 1929 with the incoming Hoover administration. Newly sworn-in Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously pronounced, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” [Kahn 98] The Black Chamber was shuttered and Yardley was out of a job. (The War Department, Army and Navy, kept its units operating.) Yardley turned down some opportunities that might have proved productive. He was turned down by some who might have benefitted from his expertise. A year into the Depression, his suits threadbare and his family insufficiently provided for, Yardley did what any self-respecting fallen celebrity would do today. He sold his story.

And he was confident it was a good story. But he also knew he wasn’t a writer, so friends pointed him to a literary agent named Bye who,  it was said, “could make anyone write.” Bye led Yardley to a deal with Bobbs-Merrill of Indianapolis (Back to his Hoosier roots!) and gave him the encouragement to persevere in the project. “I don’t believe you realize what a slave driver you are,” Yardley told him, affectionately. “In any case, George, it must mean something to you to pick up a person from the street and by your genius for encouragement and criticism inveigle this person to produce a book within a few weeks.” [Yardley xx-xxi]

In the same letter, Yardley had written, “I utterly detested the job of writing what had seemed to me one of America’s greatest episodes. All that I had done in life had been done well. …But I knew nothing about writing. And, George, it seemed to me that I had a thrilling story to tell. You cannot know what it means to sit before a typewriter with a tremendous story with no training, no craftsmanship to tell it. I was desperate.” To be thrown from the top of one profession to flounder as a tyro in another was “humiliating,” he said. He described staring at the page, “without words to express [him]self.” [Yardley xix, xx]

He protested too much. Or, rather, he was spinning a yarn about spinning yarns. Herbert O. Yardley was a born storyteller.

I read The American Black Chamber on the heels of a biography of Joseph Rochefort. Rochefort’s cryptological work I dare say had farther reaching consequences than Yardley’s. He helped win the Battle of Midway. Yet, other than the salt water evaporator deception, there was very little cryptology I could sink my teeth into. The decryption involved numbers of messages too large for a biography to encompass, with mathematical reasoning too layered to comprehend. Even the cryptanalysts at Station Hypo on Oahu relied on the invisible workings of IBM tabulating machines, churning through punch cards in a search for patterns that they might then interpret. Traffic analysis, the meat-and-potatoes of their work while cipher system JN-25b remained mostly unsolved, was comprehensible but hardly the stuff of cryptologic thunderclaps.

Then I read Yardley’s American Black Chamber, and I was transported to a world of real-life proto-James Bond intrigue. More cloak-and-dagger than basement brain trust; more craftsmen cryptology than industrialized intelligence complex. The bulk of Yardley’s exploits, tellingly, come from World War I, though his work, including post-war peace negotiations, lasted barely a year. No IBM tabulator, PURPLE encryptor, or brute force number-crunching. Instead, there was an invisible ink arms race, complete with German mole, and two spies whose exposure and capture Yardley recounts in full-length chapters: the alluring–and elusive–Madame de Victorica and the pernicious Pablo Waberski. Perhaps most memorable is the drinking bout Yardley enters into with a “bewitchingly” attractive young woman who had revealed a “strange inquisitiveness” into his affairs. He managed to stay (relatively) sober longer than his rival and avoided yielding secrets to her. [Yardley 328-329]

But the book stands tall in the literature of cryptology for its detailed explication of actual cryptograms solved by his bureau: the 5-digit codes of German radio intercepts to Mexico, the 10-letter gobbledygook that led, when deciphered, to the arrest of Pablo Waberski, and, pièce-de-résistance, the 10-letter cipher groups of the Japanese diplomatic code. It also abounds with pithy insights into cryptology for readers who had no idea there even was such an endeavor. They are no less illuminating for today’s lay readers. [Yardley 120, 273, 347, 203, 365]

“To excel, [the cryptographer] not only needs years of experience but great originality and imagination of a particular type. We call it ‘cipher brains’.”
“In my opinion, it may be easier for a cryptographer to learn Japanese than for a Japanese student to learn cryptography.” [Yardley taught his readers that it was not necessary to understand a language to decipher messages in it, merely to know its structures.]
When a cryptogram is “completely solved, it is utterly impossible to have anything but the correct solution.”
“…there is no such thing as an indecipherable code or cipher constructed along conventional lines.”
The only indecipherable cipher is one in which there are no repetitions to conceal.”

Images of original documents abound in The American Black Chamber, all printed on glossy photographic paper. They could have but one source: Yardley walking out the door with armfuls of documents. One editor who had steered clear of the project, summed up the endeavor: “In a sense the whole thing was illegal.” [Kahn 106] Yardley asked, disingenuously, if the cryptologic practice were indeed so ungentlemanly, why should it not be publicly aired? And Bobbs-Merrill’s lawyer argued that the government had obtained the information through “improper methods” and the Black Chamber had been a “left-handed appendage of the State Department which was not regularly organized and recognized.” So where was the liability?

In fact, the court agreed. Amazingly–from our perspective–Yardley had broken no law. (Legislators swiftly enacted the so-called Yardley law to put the kibosh on future security breaches.) The court of public opinion was more mixed. The book sold well and garnered positive reviews: “The author has told his story more than well…”; “Yardley does tell rattling good mystery stories.” [Kahn 117, 122] But insiders knew he had played loose with the facts and stretched the truth when it worked to his benefit. One of his oldest cryptologic colleagues, Charles Mendelsohn, called attention to his immodest tone. (“No wonder the Navy Department Cipher Bureau was secretive. They didn’t have anything to reveal.” [Yardley 204]) Another, John Manly, was less restrained: Yardley “has invented conversations, changed details, and made revelations I do not think he ought to have made.” [Kahn 128]

With all the relevant sources at his disposal, biographer David Kahn identifies the factual errors in American Black Chamber, especially those surrounding the mysterious Madame de Victoria. Yet he also acknowledges that Yardley acknowledged his own use of “bunk” and “hooey.” “To write saleable stuff,” he wrote, “one must dramatise. Things don’t happen in dramatic fashion. There is therefore nothing to do but either dramatise or not write at all.” [Kahn 116-117] He was a savvier writer than he let on in his letter to Mr. Bye.

William Friedman spoke for many in the intelligence community when he prophesied, in 1931, “the great harm that [Yardley] has done our country will not become fully apparent for many years to come.” [Kahn 136] Surely he had Japan in mind. Indeed American Black Chamber created a firestorm in the empire across the Pacific. After all, its centerpiece was the Chamber’s cracking of Japanese diplomatic code and its use of decrypts to American advantage at the Washington Naval Conference. The Japanese didn’t relish being made fools of–though they might have indulged a smidgen of masochistic pleasure in snatching up so many copies of Yardley’s book in translation. Almost four times more were sold in Japan than in the United States.

At the end of his study of Yardley’s life, David Kahn makes clear that the American Black Chamber did not set back the American cryptology in the build-up to war with Japan and probably even helped it. Its publication did not cause Japan to upgrade its cryptographic systems. This was already in process at the time. Nor did it lead other countries to do so. Rolling out new codes takes much time and effort, not to mention risks. Point taken.

Yet, the stir Yardley’s book created in Japan was not without effect. The humiliation it engendered lengthened the string of grievances Japanese militarists could exploit in pushing their bellicose program. As Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Admiral Nimitz’s chief intelligence officer, judged it, “The real cost of Yardley’s escapade was not just that it caused the moderate Japanese government to lose face but that he had revealed very precisely how we had broken Tokyo’s secret cables.” [Emphases mine] Layton, who was living in Japan at the time, was in a position to see how “the furor over Yardley’s exploits had increased Japanese xenophobia.” [Layton 41-42] All actions have consequences that ripple beyond their immediate effects. In the case of Yardley’s spectacular action, the ripples approached full-blown waves. But there were many more than Yardley’s on that troubled sea.

Yardley’s actions were not decisive, yet his perfidy (as it was seen in the intelligence community) made him persona grata therein. No one would touch him. Except Hollywood, which put him to work as a consultant on Rendezvous, whose Black Chamber-inspired plot moved ever farther from its source as production progressed. The Chinese hired him when they alone–but with foreign aid–battled the Japanese. Then he worked for the Canadians–at least, until the Americans sniffed him out. They put pressure on the British, who put pressure on the Canadians, who had no choice but to drop him.

His skills had become limited in any case. He remained a paper-and-pencil cryptanalyst in a cipher machine age. Frequency analysis, super-imposition, and trial-and-error had not been supplanted. They were still necessary tools for the  cryptanalyst, but they were no longer sufficient. Yardley did not have the mathematical tools that Friedman had. It is doubtful he could have broken Purple, as Friedman did.

Above all, Yardley’s character does not inspire. He comes across today as a bit of a scalawag and, perhaps worse, politically incorrect. A remark from the Paris peace conference hints at his insensitivity, lack of principal: “If the President wasn’t worried about the rape of Montenegro, I couldn’t see why anyone else should lose sleep over it.” A comment from a China colleague evokes an unsympathetic creepiness: “Sex is a major obsession with [Yardley] and his conversation is filled with vulgar and bawdy references to women.” [Kahn 196] Quotations from his own letters are too crude to be repeated here.

Friedman, Rochefort, Manly, and many other cryptologists exuded patriotism, service to country motivating them as much as the thrill of cracking ciphers. Yardley shared the thrill, yet money and fame seemed more important to him than service. That fact is all one needs to understand why he was so resented by peers. He was willing to sell them and their profession out for a buck and some publicity.

However, as always, things are never so simple or straightforward. In the 1930s Friedman criticized Yardley for revealing governmental secrets, but by the 1950s his concerns had moved to the other side of the issue. He feared the growing power of a secretive state. He argued for greater transparency in the NSA‘s intelligence gathering operations. Did his older-and-wiser self acknowledge that he had moved in Yardley’s direction? Had he given up the realist’s faith in secrecy as a necessary means to preserving democratic sovereignty and the freedoms it allows? The answers are, surely, no and no.

Yardley’s book stands today as both “a rattling good” read and an early testament to the inherent tensions of intelligence gathering in a democracy, tensions which have become only more pronounced in recent years. How much secrecy should the government be allowed to conduct intelligence gathering? How much secrecy is too much? How much intelligence is too little? The questions multiply with global terrorism and global digital networks.

Not that Yardley had much stake in resolving these tensions. He wanted to wear pressed suits, smoke expensive cigars, and attract the attention of pretty women and important men.  Herbert O. Yardley thought small. He thought, first and foremost, of himself.


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.

Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1967.

Kahn, David. The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking. New Have: Yale University Press, 2004.

Layton, Rear  Admiral Edwin T. Layton (with Pineau and Costello), And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway–Breaking the Secrets. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

Yardley, Herbert O. The American Black Chamber. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrrill Company, 1931.