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.






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