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Volume 5, Number 1
Summer 2005


David Kahn, The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 368 pp., ISBN: 0300098464, $32.50

Herbert O. Yardley and David Kahn remarkably share similar experiences. In 1931 following his publication of The American Black Chamber, exposing America’s codebreaking organization, Yardley was called a traitor by some, and ostracized for life by the American intelligence organization. He had revealed that America was breaking codes!
Kahn, speaking to an audience at the National Security Agency (NSA) on the occasion of its 50th anniversary on 1 November 2002, noted, "...when my book The Codebreakers was published in 1967 ... it became the subject of a ban on the part of the National Security Agency. ... Its author was anathema at the NSA. He revealed that America was breaking codes!"

Yardley, despite his troubles with the U.S. government, was among the first eight cryptologists selected for the NSA Hall of Honor, created in 1999. In 1995 Kahn was named visiting "scholar in residence" by the National Security Agency and provided support for this book.
Yardley, who established the United States codebreaking organization during World War I, could have no better biographer that Kahn, the ultimate historian of cryptology.
Kahn meticulously traces the life of Yardley. The timeline includes his boyhood in Indiana, employment as a telegrapher at the Department of State, commissioning and transfer to US Army Military Intelligence to head a new codebreaking unit, MI-8, and dismissal when Henry L. Stimson, the new Secretary of State, dissolved the unit in 1929.
Kahn provides anecdotes that describe the successes of MI-8 during its existence. These included events during WWI and its role during the Washington Disarmament Conference in 1921-22. (This supported the successful U.S. negotiations leading to Japanese acceptance of a reduced naval ratio of heavy combatant ships.)
Kahn develops an intimate composite personality of Stimson, drawing from his personal diary and comments from friends, which led to his famous statement "Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail" in 1929. When the Black Chamber was closed, Yardley refused employment at a lesser salary with the army. William F. Friedman, often called the father of American cryptology, remained with a small codebreaking unit in army intelligence.
Following the closure of MI-8, a new life and timeline began for Yardley. Frustrated in finding employment during the depression, and near destitution, he published the secrets of MI-8 in the classical American Black Chamber (commonly referred to as the ABC) in 1931. Kahn details the steps taken by the publisher to avoid legal action, leading to eventual publication. Kahn’s discussion of the impact of the book on the code systems of Japan is one of the key issues in the book.
With the ABC, a new era began for Yardley, who was unable to find employment in the U.S. government for an action that some considered treasonable. Kahn develops the frustration that plagued Yardley during these depression years, detailing various business ventures that all ended in failure, including writing screenplays and fiction.
In 1933 Yardley attempted to publish another book, ghost written by Marie Stuart Klooz, Japanese Diplomatic Secrets. The book detailed the work of MI-8 during the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921-22. It was seized by the Department of Justice before publication, and remained hidden in the Department of Justice archives until found based on a request by Kahn to the National Archives.
Intimate details of Yardley’s employment in 1938-1940 by the Chinese government and his life in Chungking is drawn from private letters mailed to his family and friends in the U.S. It portrays another side of Yardley, his drinking, gambling and sexual habits, particularly in China.
As Yardley reported directly to the head of Chinese intelligence, Dai Li, who reported directly to Chiang Kia-Shek, this period was a mixture of both pride and frustration. Yardley created one of several code breaking units working under Dai Li, which were eventually combined. Kahn documents several of the successes of the units against Japanese codes.
Yardley returned to the U.S. in 1940, hoping to gain employment again in the field of cryptology, but the ABC publication blacklisted him for any sensitive work in the government. He was, however, recruited by the Canadian government, and quickly established their cryptologic unit, showing some immediate successes. When the British cryptologic group learned of his employment, they insisted he be dismissed with the threat of severing cooperation. Yardley was fired. Returning to Washington, DC, a frustrated Yardley again sought cryptologic employment, but was rebuked and ended the war in the Office of Price Administration.
Yardley died in 1958 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Ironically, his last book, The Education of a Poker Player, which was written in 1957, had 14 printings and sold over 100,000 copies (and perhaps more as the book is still in print).
Kahn’s reexamines several key historical issues related to Yardley.
The first is the impact of ABC on codebreaking. Kahn notes that many researchers, authors and cryptologist (including William F. Friedman, this reviewer, an NSA discussion of Yardley ( 00004.cfm), and Kahn himself in the Codebreakers) stated that ABC caused countries to change their codes. Kahn presents two graphs showing that the number of decrypts by the British and Germans did not decrease for the two years following this publication. Although the British may have been equal to the task of unmasking any new systems developed in response to the ABC, Kahn’s additional research on the total number of Japanese diplomatic messages received from embassies and legations during the period 1929-1933 shows that the percentage of solutions seemed to increase with increases in message traffic.
A related key issue is than Kahn asserts ABC actually helped American codebreaking, citing Frank Rowlett, another pioneer in U.S. cryptology, who stated the book "…promoted U.S. cryptanalysis." (As did Kahn’s book The Codebreakers.)
The second issue is Kahn’s discussion of Japanese Diplomatic Secrets. Robin Denniston attributes the work directly to Yardley. Kahn, through details of Yardley’s writing style, concludes that Marie Stuart Klooz was the author. However, the book could not have been written without Washington Naval Conference material Yardley removed from MI-8.
The reason for the seizure was political, not national security. Charles Evans Hughes, who was Secretary of State during the Washington Disarmament Conference, was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1933, when Japanese Diplomatic Secrets was seized. His activities in 1921-22 could have been seen by some as illegal (interception of foreign communications). Kahn states the manuscript had 970 pages, which is true, but it also includes and additional 12 Appendices of 60 pages.
The Ladislas Farago disclosure that Yardley sold secrets to the Japanese is another key issue. This claim has been discussed and debated in the literature since it was first made by Farago in his book The Broken Seal: The Story of ‘Operation Magic’ and the Pearl Harbor Disaster in 1967. Kahn (unfortunately in a long endnote) discusses the investigation by an American Japanese linguist, Fred C. Woodrough Jr., for Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in 1967, which concluded that Yardley did sell secrets to the Japanese. This was based on a memorandum in Japanese archives stating Yardley sold solved Japanese messages to the Ambassador in Washington for $7,000. However, research conducted by Japanese historians in the Foreign Ministry archives failed to find the cited documents and Kahn concludes the charges are false.
Kahn expands his argument citing comments by Cryptologia co-editor Louis Kruh, who stated "...a smoking gun (the cited Japanese document), if one exists, has not been found." Kruh was commenting on the Denniston article cited above, which also concluded that Yardley had sold secrets to the Japanese.

This reviewer was a member of a composite military cryptologic reserve unit at the National Security Agency when the Farago book was published. At the weekly meeting of the unit, a researcher (name long forgotten) presented his research, concluding that Farago was wrong and Yardley had not sold secrets, based on his inability to find the material cited by Farago. Compounding the issue is an undated 23-page monograph "Pioneers in U.S. Cryptology," published by the NSA Center for Cryptologic History, which states, "Independent investigations indicate that although much of Farago’s description of the transaction was undocumented or wrong (e.g., the date) the basic claim was true." The questionable Japanese Foreign Ministry memorandum is then cited! It is for the reader to decide this issue.
The book is much more than the story of Yardley. Periodically, Kahn presents the various interfaces between Yardley and Friedman, contrasting their personalities, skills and weaknesses. He also shows the relationships Yardley had with other early U.S. cryptologist, most now forgotten. It is a must read for those interested in this history. Extensive endnotes and lists of core and published sources will be invaluable for those who wish to pursue this interest.

Emil Levine


Daniele Ganser. NATO’s Secret Armies:Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe. London: Frank Cass, 2005. 315 pp, ISBN 0714685003, £22.99

Ever since the former CIA-director William Colby published his book "Honorable Men – My Life in the CIA" in 1978, the ‘Stay Behind’ phenomena has puzzled the research communities and the media world for years. With the Italian Gladio incident in 1990, Stay Behind came out in public. The left wing activists have had an easy play misusing the information on the Stay Behind, mainly because most Western European governments still had Stay Behind forces under arms and therefore were unable to comment on the subject in a comprehensive manner. Ganser’s book is part of the new wave of "conspiracy" literature that has hit the markets after 9/11. Strangely enough, the 9/11 attacks are mentioned in the book and the Stay Behind phenomena are put into such a conspiracy thinking. There are no doubt more to the Gladio and stay behind story than meets the eye, but some times one get the feeling that Ganser have written his book with both eyes closed.
The enormous problem with the book is of course that people - who have no knowledge of the cold war and the secret activities between intelligence services – will "buy" Ganser’s accusations, because his work seems convincing. But with a little knowledge on Stay Behind in different countries, his work starts to look a bit odd. The book is – said with a Danish term – neither fish nor bird. It is something else in the middle. If one should try to characterize the book it is a journalistic book with a big spoonful of conspiracy theories. The critical and methodical approach used in historical research seems to have played a minor role in Ganser’s work with the subject and the few primary sources. If a book on such a controversial subject should be taken seriously as a piece of scientific research, it should contain a chapter on the used sources, articles and material, just as the methods used in the research process should be presented to the reader. When the critical reader is not given the possibility of studying the methods used by Ganser, the authors sometimes "out of this world" claims becomes even more fantastic.
The book is a mosaic of descriptions regarding each NATO country and its relationship with the Stay Behind phenomena. A large portion of Ganser’s main material is newspaper articles and what I would call political publications. In order to keep disinformation apart from serious research one would have to have a very deep look into the political landscape and make wide studies into the material in each country. Ganser fails to do so – at least regarding some countries. This will be discussed later on in this review.
The conclusion of the book is that USA, CIA, MI6, NATO and the western countries were all wounded up in a conspiracy. On page 1 the reader is told that "In each country, leading members of the executive, including Prime Ministers, Presidents, Interior Ministers, Defence Ministers, were involved in the conspiracy". In the conclusion we hear that "on a lower level in the hierarchy citizens and military officers in numerous countries of Western Europe shared this assessment (that a secret resistance network should be establish in peacetime, ed.), joined the conspiracy and secretly trained for the emergency". Ganser fails to present proof of and an in-depth explanation of the claimed conspiracy between USA, CIA, NATO and the European countries. The first thing that comes to one’s mind is of course that there was no conspiracy. The paradox grows because during the book Ganser quotes several high ranking officers who admits to have been a part of the NATO Stay Behind system but their stories leave no reason for Ganser to conclude that there where a big conspiracy behind it all. On the contrary! The officers paint a picture of a secret organization – because of the nature of the activities – where the Ganser’s conspirators – US and British intelligence – had nothing to say. CIA was present at the meetings in NATO’s Coordination and Planning Committee, but "they had no voting right and were from the CIA headquarter of the capital in which the meeting took place". Other American military were present but also without the right to vote. Ganser tell us that the leading forces in the conspiracy – the American CIA – had no voting right within on of NATO’s Stay Behind organization. Sadly enough Ganser gives no explanation on how that can be, and therefore his conclusion about the big conspiracy falls flat.
One of the important documents that Ganser bases his claim of the big conspiracy on is an American field manual. The story of this field manual should have been presented to the reader. In Denmark this field manual popped up on several occasions together with different KGB forgeries. It was first presented in the late 1960’s during the situation in Greece and also several times during the 1970’s. Every time the goal seems to have been to discredit the USA and NATO. According to an analysis made by the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (DDIS) in 1976, this field manual was part of a KGB disinformation campaign and was spread all over Europe in the late 1960’s and 1970’s with different KGB forgeries. The original American document was handed over to the Soviets in 1962 by an American sergeant, Robert Lee Johnson who in 1965 was arrested for working for the KGB. The DDIS analyzed the material and it showed a different contend than the one portrayed in the KGB disinformation campaign. The original document had indeed contained ideas and thoughts about resistance groups in Europe during a Warsaw Pact invasion but not in the disfigured form presented by the KGB. Although big efforts were made to the disclose the KGB operation the field manual surfaced again in 1979 together with several KGB forgeries – this time as part of the Soviet campaign against the renewal of the NATO nuclear forces in Europe. During the Gladio affair, the field manual was once more being presented to the public but not all were convinced. Even the Danish leftwing organization DEMOS questioned if the field manual was real. Such information about key documents must of course be presented to the reader.
One of Ganser’s other big lacks are explaining how NATO for example was able to organize the Norwegian Stay Behind network, which was started in 1948? Olav Riste’s portrait of the Norwegian military intelligence organization and its Stay Behind network comes up with different conclusions than Ganser – this despite Ganser uses Riste’s important work as his key source to describe Stay behind in Norway. In Sweden, the same precautions started in 1949 – apparently on a strict Swedish basis. In Denmark the first steps for a Danish ‘sleeping’ resistance movement were taken years before the signing of the Atlantic treaty in April 1949. In fact, a leader of the Danish resistance got a visit from an American diplomat who wanted to now how the Danish resistance would react to a Soviet invasion. Would the Danes be ready to fight the Russians? The answer was clear: They would! The visit took place in 1946. Another story tells about secret private meetings between foreign intelligence officers and Danish resistance leaders, influential citizens and politicians – four of the attendants would later on become Danish Prime Ministers. One of the subjects discussed at these meeting were the Stay Behind problems. In 1948 Danish military leaders cooperated with their Swedish colleagues in order to arm the Danish Stay Behind forces – the sleeping resistance. These facts are not mentioned in Gansers book. Instead he holds on to one of many, many stories that surfaced in Danish newspapers October-December 1990. Many of these stories were well researched while other stories were written under time pressure. According to one Danish newspaper the organization Absalon were the Danish "wing" of Gladio. Absalon came out publicly and took part of the political debate in the 1970’s – a fact that in it self must exclude the organization as a valid Stay Behind organization, since secrecy is the core necessity for such an organization in order for it to survive during a enemy occupation. There are much more to the Absalon story than Ganser presents to the reader of his book. I can say that with some certainty because I have interviewed the articles only source "Q" as well as the officer he attacked. A wrong analysis on a very narrow material and attempts to compare incomparable sizes leads Ganser to his wrong conclusions.
The case is of course that the Western European countries took their precautions because of the Soviet threat building up in East. The coup in Prague February 1948, the Soviet pressure on Finland and rumors of Soviet invasion plans in Scandinavia became the final blow. Not only a deep look into the experiences made by the Americans and the British during WW2 but also a thorough analysis of the east-west conflict and its impact on the western European countries is needed in order to understand why the countries in Europe reacted like they did – with or with American or/and British help.
Daniele Ganser’s book should be read with very critical eyes and seen as an example on how things could be blown out of proportions if one is not aware of the character of the used material. When one looks at the articles from 1990 put out by the Danish communist newspaper Land og Folk (Country and People) and the Ganser rhetoric, one discovers a similar stigmatizing and branding of the Stay Behind forces as terrorists. Ganser is branding everyone who was ready to stay behind in the occupied countries and help their government in exile as terrorists! In some countries crimes were committed – no doubt about that. But as mentioned in the beginning Stay Behind contains more than meet the eye. And committed crimes shouldn’t be blamed on the Stay Behind forces but on the state of the democracy in the different countries.
If one should follow Gansers logic, every Muslim would be considered as a terrorist and part of a conspiracy because of Al Qaeda. That of course does not make any sense!

Peer Henrik Hansen


Katherine A. S. Sibley. Red Spies In America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004. 370 pp., ISBN 070061351X, $39.95.

Katherine Sibley’s fascinating book overturns much of the common perceptions of the beginnings of the Cold War. Many historians date the origin of the conflict to the years just after World War II when the U.S. became alarmed with Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. However, she shows that it truly had its start with the uncovering of Soviet espionage in the United States during the war.
With the publication of Richard Hirsch’s The Soviet Spies: The Story of Russian Espionage in North America (1947) the notion that has held sway was that little effective counterintelligence occurred in the United States during the war and that a more robust system came about after it. His view was upheld by the more recent scholarship of David Caute’s The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (1978) and Leonard Leshuk’s U.S. Intelligence Perceptions of Soviet Power, 1921-1946 (2003). But Sibley argues that "what was not known [to the public] is the work of a small but active coterie of American officials ... who recognized the infiltration of Soviet spies before the Cold War and… pioneered efforts to stop them (1)."
The book, in the words of the author, makes three main arguments: first, it suggests that the Soviet espionage was recognized, even if only in its dimmest outlines, by American officials well before the Cold War; second, it argues that this understanding significantly influenced the mindset and actions of counterintelligence agents in World War II and left a legacy for U.S.-Russian relations that shaped the early Cold War and continues to reverberate down to the present day; and, third, the book more closely examines Soviet military-industrial espionage and its targets during and after the war, a topic that has not received focused treatment in previous scholarship (5).
The scholarly tendency to downplay the events of World War II in shaping postwar U.S. military and political institutions is especially fascinating. Walter Kimball, in his article "The Incredible Shrinking War: The Second World War, Not (Just) the Origins of the Cold War" Diplomatic History 25 (Summer 2001), argues that scholars need to reexamine the war to discover how actions during that time forged the consensus that eventually became U.S. policy during the Cold War. Sibley’s book helps to confirm Kimball’s lucid contentions.
After detailing Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1930s, Sibley gets to the heart of her argument by documenting effective U.S. counterintelligence during the war. In her chapter "Penetration of Wartime Military-Industrial Targets," she argues that while U.S. authorities missed some of the industrial espionage transpiring, by 1943 the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) impeded many Soviet agents such as Semyon Semyonov, Leonid Kvasnikov, and Alexandr Fomin. They each complained repeatedly to their superiors in Moscow of the constant shadowing they endured. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI head, wanted to put more resources into the Soviet espionage threat and if not for the priority given to German counterespionage, would have done so. One can only conclude how much more effective the FBI’s work would have been if Hoover had been given more money and agents to throw at the effort.
U.S. officials wariness of Soviet intentions were solidified in its monitoring of Soviet attempts to gain information on the U.S. Atomic Program. As Sibley writes, "[Soviet] atomic espionage had a galvanizing effect of American officials’ approach to the Soviet Union and its agents and greatly increased their suspicions of that country and its potential dangers well before the Cold War (133)." The breakthrough for the U.S. came in 1943 when it was uncovered that Soviet-directed spying was taking place at the University of California-Berkeley’s Atomic Radiation Laboratory. Sibley recounts the story of Lieutenant Colonel John Lansdale, a military intelligence officer who went undercover as a student and overheard professors talking about their "top secret" atomic research to colleagues who had no ties to the program. This caused officials to tighten security, which hampered Soviet efforts but did not stop them. By 1944, General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, came to the conclusion that the Soviets were the greatest threat to the program.
In 1946, with the cracking of the Soviet Diplomatic Code "Venona" and human sources such as Elizabeth Bentley, Harry Gold, and Igor Gouzenko, a even more vast Soviet wartime intelligence network was uncovered. This helped, in Sibley’s words, to stiffen "the American intelligence community’s already hostile stance toward the Soviet Union and quickly heightened suspicions in other government agencies as well (175)." This in turn led to the convictions of Americans working as Soviet spies including Steve Nelson, Judith Coplon, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Sibley’s unstated implication is that the actions of U.S. officials might not have been as swift or severe if not for the work these same officials had done during the war in stopping Soviet espionage.
Sibley concludes her book with a brief examination of the more recent spy cases of John Walker Jr., Aldrich Ames, and Robert Hanssen to demonstrate how Russian efforts to obtain U.S. secrets continues.
Sibley’s scholarship is impressive, drawing upon multi-archival research in the United States and Russia. Her research at the Russian State Archive of the Economy and the Archive of Social and Political History (both in Moscow) is especially enlightening given her criticism of previous works that relied on United States and Allied archives only to form the basis for judging the effectiveness of wartime counterespionage. She also conducted exhaustive research in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Files (among others) to bolster her case.
Her work is balanced and perceptive and is a compelling and authoritative treatment of Soviet spying and the actions the United States took to counter it.

Robert O. Kirkland
Claremont, CA




The Journal of Intelligence History is published by the International Intelligence History Association, founded in 1993 to promote scholarly research on intelligence organizations and their impact on historical development and international relations.

Last update 7 March 2006 by Michael Wala