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The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail

The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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    The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail
    Book Description:

    One of the most colorful and controversial figures in American intelligence, Herbert O. Yardley (1889-1958) gave America its best form of information, but his fame rests more on his indiscretions than on his achievements. In this highly readable biography, a premier historian of military intelligence tells Yardley's story and evaluates his impact on the American intelligence community.Yardley established the nation's first codebreaking agency in 1917, and his solutions helped the United States win a major diplomatic victory at the 1921 disarmament conference. But when his unit was closed in 1929 because "gentlemen do not read each other's mail," Yardley wrote a best-selling memoir that introduced-and disclosed-codemaking and codebreaking to the public. David Kahn de-scribes the vicissitudes of Yardley's career, including his work in China and Canada, offers a capsule history of American intelligence up to World War I, and gives a short course in classical codes and ciphers. He debunks the accusations that the publication of Yardley's book caused Japan to change its codes and ciphers and that Yardley traitorously sold his solutions to Japan. And he asserts that Yardley's disclosures not only did not hurt but actually helped American codebreaking during World War II.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12988-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    David Kahn
  4. A Short Course in Codes and Ciphers
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. How Yardley Wrote His Best-Seller
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. 1 All-American Boy
    (pp. 1-7)

    In 1890, the center of population of the United States moved into Indiana. That brought it ninety miles east of, and approaching, a small rural town sixty-five miles southwest of Indianapolis. This was Worthington, a grain terminal. Hills rose to the north, but the town and surrounding fields of corn, wheat, and oats lay flat. At its eastern edge flowed the Eel River. Worthington, population 1,448, was laid out in a grid, although two railroad lines and the parallel Commercial Street cut its southern end diagonally.

    The station agent and telegrapher for one of those railroads, the Indianapolis and Vincennes,...

  7. 2 His Life’s Work
    (pp. 8-13)

    After their wedding, Herbert and Hazel returned to his northeast Washington home at 1009 Seventh Street, a three-story brick house where he probably rented a room. They did not then take a honeymoon. Ties with Worthington remained strong. Hazel visited her parents in September; the following July, 1915, the couple’s kid brothers, Dick Yardley and Pat Milam, visited the pair; in 1916 Hazel, wisely escaping Washington’s heat, spent the summer with her parents. In 1917 she took a job in a depot of the quartermaster corps as a typist at $1,000 a year. She and Herbert later moved to a...

  8. 3 A History of American Intelligence before Yardley
    (pp. 14-21)

    Ralph Van Deman was in charge of military intelligence. But neither he nor Yardley knew much about the background of that activity.

    It had begun even before the nation came into being. As head of the Continental Army, General George Washington sought information about British activity. He dispatched one of his first spies only eleven weeks after independence was declared. The mission failed. Nathan Hale was captured while trying to return to American lines, but he immortalized himself by saying that he regretted that he had only one life to lose for his country. Washington improved as spymaster as the...

  9. 4 A Rival
    (pp. 22-27)

    George Fabyan usually wore riding or yachting attire, though he never rode a horse or sailed a boat. He parroted the phraseology of the learned, even though he was a high school dropout. At fifty, he was tall and thickset, with a high forehead, a straight nose, a dark Vandyke beard, and an imperious manner. Instead of speaking, he bellowed. Instead of laughing, he guffawed. He used profanity. He bossed people around. He butted into their private lives. He was rich.

    Fabyan was the multimillionaire owner of a cotton-goods business inherited from his father. Around the turn of the century,...

  10. 5 Staffers, Shorthand, and Secret Ink
    (pp. 28-35)

    When he began, Yardley wanted to break foreign codes, but four things stood in his way. First, Riverbank was doing that work. Second, the British reported that the War Department code was unsafe (probably because they themselves had solved or stolen it), and Yardley was ordered to drop everything and revise War Department cryptosystems. He had Altus E. Prince, a former State Department official with experience in code work, commissioned to take charge of this endeavor. Soon Prince was e¡fficiently running a ten-man code and cipher compilation subsection whose work Yardley had to spend only an hour a day reviewing....

  11. 6 The Executive
    (pp. 36-49)

    During these early months of organizing and running America’s first communications intelligence agency, Yardley rapidly grew in confidence and decisiveness. In September 1917, for example, in dealing with an inventor’s proposal for an improvement in a cipher mechanism that had been solved earlier by Hitt, he directed that “his device really should not be examined” and "We should not return the papers to him.” He won his staff’s loyalty and credence. Van Deman regarded him and his work as “outstanding” among the military intelligence people. A former subordinate said retrospectively that “Yardley possessed unusual organizing and executive ability. It must...

  12. 7 Morning in New York
    (pp. 50-62)

    In the eighteen months of its existence, MI-8 read 10,735 foreign messages and solved about 50 codes and ciphers of eight governments (though Yardley, in a characteristic exaggeration, claimed the solution of 541 Mexican cryptosystems by counting each mono-and polyalphabetic key as a separate system). Its flashiest result had condemned a German spy to death, but, as Yardley said, “The chief value of all this work has resided in the large and constant stream of information it has provided in regard to the attitudes, purposes, and plans of our neighbors.” He was expressing the conclusion that not only the United...

  13. 8 Yardley’s Triumph
    (pp. 63-71)

    Yardley was then thirty-one. His frame was slight but his physique was wiry, enabling him to get on with little or no exercise and to endure stress. His forehead was prominent, his nose straight. Though, as an acquaintance said, he “characteristically had an emotionless expression . . . on his immobile face,” he was energetic, ambitious, effective as an administrator, fair but determined. If things had to be done, he made sure his people did them. He thought he had broken “enough codes to awaken the government to a sense of responsibility in this sort of work even in peace...

  14. 9 The Fruits of His Victory
    (pp. 72-80)

    The war to end all wars had left the world abhorring war. But warship programs continued in Japan, Britain, and the United States. They cost millions. As the postwar recession struck, budgets tightened. More and more people wanted to stop the programs. The war had altered the global constellation of power. So in Great Britain, as the time for reconsideration approached under the Anglo-Japanese pact of 1902, sentiment for abandonment grew. The two countries had originally supported each other against Russia, which menaced both India and the western Pacific, and later against Germany. But both those threats were gone, and...

  15. 10 The Busy Suburbanite
    (pp. 81-93)

    The exhilaration of the Washington conference was followed by exhaustion. Yardley went to Arizona to recuperate from a mild case of tuberculosis. Staff members were so overworked they had nightmares—one dreamed that she chased a bulldog around and over and under the furniture in her bedroom and that when she caught it she found the word “code” written on its side. A couple resigned. But these negative aspects of their line of work were countered by two positive ones.

    One came from Secretary of State Hughes, whom Yardley’s work had so helped during the disarmament conference. In gratitude, Hughes...

  16. 11 End of a Dream
    (pp. 94-103)

    Soon after Major Owen S. Albright of the Signal Corps took charge of the Military Intelligence Division’s communications division in July 1928, he surveyed its work. That included supervising Yardley’s agency. Albright concluded that the Cipher Bureau was not doing what the army needed. It produced material of use to the State Department but not to the War Department. Most important, it was not training people for wartime use—the army’s main requirement. “The expert staff of three were getting older each day and there was no arrangement for replacement or addition by young blood,” he wrote. Nevertheless, even though...

  17. 12 The Best-Seller
    (pp. 104-120)

    Yardley had to support a wife and a four-year-old son. He made no money from his real-estate or codebreaking ventures in 1929 and he lost money in 1930. Never a saver, he had few or no resources to fall back on. Codebreaking jobs did not exist; his talent was “lodged with me useless.” He gave up his fancy apartment in Jackson Heights and by October 1929 had retreated to Worthington, where he could live in his old house. His father was still alive; Yardley’s well-to-do in-laws had just died and left Hazel and him some money, but Herbert soon spent...

  18. 13 The Critics, the Effects
    (pp. 121-136)

    The American Black Chamberexploded into the consciousness of the world on publication day, Monday, 1 June. All three Washington dailies—thePost,theHerald,and theEvening Star—front-paged their stories about it. So did the ChicagoTribuneand theNew York Herald Tribune.TheNew York Timesput its story on 3, as did theBrooklyn Eagleand the AtlantaJournal.Some papers ignored the story, among them theNew York World-Telegramand theNew York Evening Post.The news was not the publication of a book but Yardley’s statement that he had solved a coded message revealing...

  19. 14 Grub Street
    (pp. 137-157)

    ThoughThe American Black Chamberhad made Yardley famous, it hadn’t made him rich. On 15 July 1931, six weeks after publication, he told Bobbs-Merrill that he was broke and needed $500. The publisher advanced the money to him. Small payments, apparently from sales of excerpts to various publications, trickled in: $122.64, $18.32, $100, $25, $67.80. He got a check for $532.01, and in March 1932 he received his biggest payment: $3,694.21. Three $500 advances had been deducted before Yardley got that money. In August 1932, the publisher advanced him $250, saying it could not give more because of the...

  20. Photo gallery
    (pp. None)
  21. 15 A Law Aimed at Yardley
    (pp. 158-172)

    In the months following the publication ofThe American Black Chamber,while Yardley was trying to exploit its success, he conceived another book idea. It would expand on his best work and best story: the solution of Japanese intercepts at the Washington disarmament conference. And best of all, he wouldn’t have to write it: it could be produced, asYardleygramshad been, by a hired hand. By October 1931, he had his ghostwriter. Marie Stuart Klooz, a native of Pittsburgh, was a 1923 graduate of a Virginia women’s college, Sweet Briar. She had been a member of its International Relations...

  22. 16 Hollywood
    (pp. 173-186)

    In the spring of 1934, Hollywood summoned Yardley again. The moviemakers wanted fresh ideas (not too fresh, of course). Spy stories had been done. Greta Garbo put her mark onMata Hari.InDishonored,Marlene Dietrich played X-27, a Viennese widow who spies effectively until she falls for a Russian officer. Code, however, was a story that hadn’t been done before—though X-27 had spent a night enciphering Russian war plans into music. And little wonder. Cryptology slowed the action. It was dry. It was boring. It needed explaining. The best it could project onto the screen was a pencil...

  23. 17 China
    (pp. 187-198)

    Japan had invaded China in July 1937, and after several months China’s intelligence chief, Dai Li, wondered whether he might improve his position within the bureaucracy by obtaining help in solving Japanese cryptosystems from a man who had made his reputation by doing just that. The intelligence chief ’s man in America, the assistant military attaché, was instructed to find out whether Herbert Yardley might want to come to China. Despite his knowledge of Yardley’s success, he checked him out. He did not consult Friedman, but Yardley’s old wartime buddy, Ambassador J. Rives Childs, gave him the highest recommendation. On...

  24. 18 Canada
    (pp. 199-215)

    Yardley returned to America in the summer of 1940 with a great desire to be home, to see Edna Ramsaier (she had divorced and resumed her maiden name), and to exploit his information about Japanese military ciphers—greater, he claimed, than that of any other white man. He stayed briefly at Washington’s landmark Cairo Hotel before moving to an apartment on F Street just north of the Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue, though he gave his address as 1789 Lanier Place, in the funky Adams-Morgan section, which was Edna Ramsaier’s apartment.

    He tried to get rehired as a cryptanalyst, but...

  25. 19 A Restaurant of His Own
    (pp. 216-225)

    Though Yardley was out of sight during his tours in China and Canada, he was not out of mind. People remembered him. With a war on in Europe and Asia, the State Department was getting two or three letters a week about him, presumably urging that he be re-employed; the War and Navy Departments may have received such inquiries as well. An FBI newspaper informant reported in February 1941, between Yardley’s time in China and then in Canada, that “The working press in New York City is intensely interested” in him. The informant said that Yardley was working in a...

  26. 20 Playing Poker
    (pp. 226-236)

    Writing—or rather the money to be made from writing—had never been far from Yardley’s thoughts. His film agent Swanson had written to him urgently saying that stories were wanted badly in Hollywood because all the writers had gone off to war. Yardley had several brewing, and sent Swanson the treatment of a script he called “False Passport,” which he thought “a damned good tale.” Swanson held it for a month and a half and then said it was overplotted and not material for the major studios; he would see if a minor studio wanted it. Yardley wondered whether...

  27. 21 The Measure of a Man
    (pp. 237-242)

    Yardley was buried in Grave 429-1, Section 30, of Arlington National Cemetery. He lies on a slope in the company of several fourstar generals. His will left his hunting gear and fishing tackle to his son, Jack, and everything else to Edna. What did he leave the world? Of cryptologic techniques, nothing. In Washington, during World War I, his staffers—mainly Manly—had developed a few minor new methods. In New York, neither he nor his sta devised any original techniques. His triumph, the solution of the Japanese codes, utilized common, well-known methods. For Yardley was not an outstanding cryptanalyst.Friedman...

  28. Notes
    (pp. 243-290)
  29. Bibliography
    (pp. 291-304)
  30. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 305-308)
  31. Index
    (pp. 309-318)