American Black Chamber

American Black Chamber

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by Herbert O. Yardley

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Throughout the 1920's, Yardley (1899-1958) directed The Cryptographic Bureau, funded by the US Army and the Department of State, and the predecessor of the National Security Agency. His 1931 account of its work, published by Bobbs-Merrill, set off a controversy about the right to freedom of expression versus national security. It is reproduced in facsimile. There is…  See more details below


Throughout the 1920's, Yardley (1899-1958) directed The Cryptographic Bureau, funded by the US Army and the Department of State, and the predecessor of the National Security Agency. His 1931 account of its work, published by Bobbs-Merrill, set off a controversy about the right to freedom of expression versus national security. It is reproduced in facsimile. There is no index or bibliography. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

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Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Espionage/Intelligence Library

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Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 1931 Herbert O. Yardley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59114-989-4

Chapter One

The State Department Code Room

The secret activities of the American Black Chamber, which I directed, ceased in 1929, sixteen years after I arrived at the Department of State as a young telegraph operator. At that time I knew exactly nothing about the solution of the diplomatic codes and ciphers of foreign nations. No one else in this country knew much.

Washington in 1913 seemed a quiet prosaic city, but I was soon to learn that the Code Room held pages of history rivaling the great intrigues of the past. This spacious room with its high ceiling overlooked the southern White House grounds. By lifting my eyes from my work I could see a tennis game in progress where a few years earlier President Roosevelt and his tennis Cabinet had played each day.

Along one side of the room ran a long oak telegraph table with its stuttering resonators and sounders; cabinets containing copies of current telegrams almost blocked the entrance. In the center sprawled two enormous flat-topped desks shoved together, about which a few code clerks thumbed code books and scribbled rapidly, pausing now and then to light cigarettes. The pounding of typewriters specially constructed to make fifteen copies of a telegram mingled with the muffled click of the telegraph instruments. The walls were covered with old-fashioned closed cupboards filled with bound copies of telegrams from and to consular and diplomatic posts throughout the world. In the corner stood a huge safe, its thick doors slightly ajar.

There was an air of good-fellowship in the room and I was soon at home. However, I was mystified at the casual attitudes of these overworked code clerks. Daily history passed through their hands in one long stream and they thought less of it than of the baseball scores. The murder of Madero, the shelling of Vera Cruz, the rumblings of a threatening World War-these merely meant more telegrams, longer hours-nothing else.

But when I was shifted to night duty I found myself in a different atmosphere. Minor officials and sometimes the Secretary himself made the Code Room a loafing-place. Many officials, including members of our diplomatic corps, the specialists on South American, European, Near Eastern and Far Eastern affairs, often dropped in to look over the telegrams, and now and then, when wine had flowed freely at some diplomatic function, to argue for hours about the Secretary's "damn fool" policies. One in particular, the hardest-drinking but the shrewdest of the lot, always came in to read the latest dispatches from Mexico City before going home. Having finished, he never failed, in his solemn way, to ask me whether a certain word was spelled with a c or a k.

Seeing the cut of their smart clothes and hearing tales of their amorous experiences in foreign capitals impressed my country mind, but I detected no signs of greatness in any of them and in my lowly place of code clerk and telegraph operator, I held them in amused contempt. Later, when I was to meet them as an equal, my early impressions were confirmed: good-natured, jolly, smartly dressed pigmies, strutting around with affected European mannerisms.

The Chief of the Latin American Division was an entirely different type, neither a politician nor a member of the diplomatic corps. He had received his training by hard knocks in South America instead of in the drawing-rooms of European courts. He seemed little interested in drawing-rooms and in amorous intrigues. Instead he preferred to hold the strings that made the armies, generals and presidents of South and Central America dance at his bidding. Whether he was wise or not, I do not know, but he was a strong man and the author of American "dollar diplomacy." Bryan, when he was appointed Secretary of State, kicked him out for this policy, From that day I never heard the words "dollar diplomacy," nor on the other hand did I observe any change in policy, although I read a great deal about it in the newspapers.

This man, when at leisure, loved to think aloud. I cultivated his friendship and looked forward to his next tale of intrigue. He gave me approximate dates, and when he had gone I pulled down the dusty bound volumes of copies of telegrams to read there the authentic record of his machinations. There too I found the thrilling stories of the seizure of the Panama Canal, the Venezuelan incident when America was on the verge of war with England, and other great moments of American nationalism. I was again sitting on a flour barrel in the village bakery, listening to intrigues of the vivid past as recited by the baker, an exiled German nobleman,

Were our diplomatic codes safe from prying eyes? Who knew? From the pages of history I had had glimpses of the decipherer who could unravel military and diplomatic cipher telegrams. Other countries must have cryptographers. Why did America have no bureau for the reading of secret diplomatic code and cipher telegrams of foreign governments?

As I asked myself this question 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, like the foreign cryptographer, could open the secrets of the capitals of the world. I now began a methodical plan to prepare myself.

I quickly devoured all the books on cryptography that could be found in the Congressional Library. These were interesting but of no practical value. Next I searched Edgar Allan Poe's letters for a glimpse of the scientific treatment of cryptography. These were full of vague boasts of his skill-nothing more. To-day, looking at cryptography from a scientific point of view, for the American Black Chamber has never had an equal, I know that Poe merely floundered around in the dark and did not understand the great underlying principles.

At last I found the American Army pamphlet on the solution of military ciphers. This pamphlet was used as a text-book for a course in cipher solution at the Signal Corps School at Fort Leavenworth. The book was full of methods for the solution of various types. The only trouble was that the types of cipher it explained were so simple that any bright schoolboy could solve them without a book of instructions. I was at the end of the trail.

It was obvious I would have to do my own pioneer work. I began at once. Due to friendly connections previously established, I had no difficulty in obtaining copies of code and cipher communications dispatched by various embassies in Washington. Progress was slow, for the clerical work incidental to the solution of messages is enormous. (Later I was to have fifty typists busy making elaborate frequency tables.) Some I solved and some I did not. But I was learning a new science, with no beaten path to follow.

One night, business being quiet, I was working on the solution of a cipher when I heard the cable office in New York tall the White House telegraph operator (we used the same wire to New York) that he had five hundred code words from Colonel House to the President. As the telegram flashed over the wire I made a copy. This would be good material to work on, for surely the President and his trusted agent would be using a difficult code.

Imagine my amazement when I was able to solve the message in less than two hours! I had little respect for the doings of the great-I dealt with them every day and was too close for worship-but this was incredible. Colonel House was in Germany. He had just seen the Emperor. This message had passed over British cables and we already knew that a copy of every cable went to the Code Bureau in the British Navy.

Colonel House must be the Allies' best informant! No need to send spies into Germany when they have Colonel House's reports of interviews with the Emperor, Princes, Generals, leading industrial leaders. And movements for peace! Is it possible that a man sits in the White House, dreaming, picturing himself a maker of history, an international statesman, a mediator of peace, and sends his agents out with schoolboy ciphers? Is this the cause of his failures?

I am trembling with my great secret but what can I do with it? I can inform my superiors. But what then? The President holds advice in contempt. Besides, this would put him in a very bad light, and adverse criticism he will not tolerate. He would have some one's head and that head would be mine for presuming to read his secret dispatches. I have other uses for my head. I touched a match to the sheets of paper and destroyed the ashes. Let the President and his confidential agent continue their comedy.

The President seems to have had a penchant for schoolboy ciphers. While I was organizing the American Black Chamber, directly after America entered the World War, the President sent a mission into Russia, headed by another of his favorites, George Creel. By this time all code messages filed with the cable companies came to me in a routine manner, and so simple to solve were the American Mission's secret dispatches that they were used as elementary examples in the training of student cryptographers.

For months now, I had been working on the solution of the American diplomatic code, which progressed slowly but surely. The clerical work incidental to its solution was uninspiring but unfortunately necessary. Aside from this I was making notes as I slowly chiseled out words here and there, for it was my aim to write an exhaustive treatise on this problem and hand it to my superior. I shall not explain my methods. To do so would reveal the character of the State Department code book which of course can not be done. Further on we shall follow the scientific analysis and solution of the codes and ciphers of foreign governments.

During these years from 1913 to 1917 many faces passed before me. Among them Mr. Lansing, who was later Secretary of State, stands out vividly. Immaculately dressed, gray hair, a short mustache, and the blank face of a faro dealer. In a deuces-wild poker game, I mused, he should hold his own with even Mont Mull, or at least with Salty East, our two village poker sharks. Had Secretary Lansing not been tied to a tyrant schoolmaster and represented in London by an Anglophile, history might well have been changed.

It is not my aim to write the musings of a mouse as he gazes at his King and his King's noblemen, but having mentioned Ambassador Page, I must continue for a few more lines. A favorite argument of the historians of the late war, in absolving Germany of any guilt, is that nowhere in the German archives have they found incriminating documents. Does this prove that they did not exist? Not at all. I am satisfied that Secretary Bryan's tailor had at one time a small portion of the American diplomatic archives, for the Secretary's favorite habit was to stuff original telegrams into the tail of his coat and forget them. Years later I was to hear of thousands of documents being destroyed. I have myself, at the orders of my immediate superior, who received his instructions direct from the Secretary of State, destroyed all trace of many of Ambassador Page's secret dispatches. These were not even seen by the President. Later, while in London, I learned that some of the Ambassador's ravings were too hot even to leave the Embassy and were destroyed by a member of the staff instead of being dispatched to Washington. Had one of these telegrams reached the President there would have been no Life and Letters of Walter H. Page. So much for history and state papers.

Secretary Bryan came in often at night and I grew to look forward to these moments. His deep resonant voice charmed me, and his good nature was infectious, though I, like all others, laughed at the ridiculous figure he made as Secretary of State. Now and then he would dictate an answer to an urgent message and the next day sign another with directly opposite instructions. If the spirit moved him he would stop at a telegraph office and file a message to some ambassador not in code but in plain language. The next day an inquiry would come in, reading: "Just received uncoded undated telegram signed Bryan. Advise if authentic." He sent a telegram of congratulation to Henry Lane Wilson, American Minister to Mexico. President Wilson was not on the best of terms with Minister Wilson, and when he saw the telegram he was outraged. The next day Secretary Bryan cabled that the message was an error and must be canceled. He was the despair of the whole State Department but his kindness made everybody love him, even though they laughed behind his back.

One writer who should know better, accuses him of referring to the Japanese Ambassador in some such words as "show that little monkey in." Heywood Broun wrote that this seemed unbelievable. And so it is. It was not Bryan, but a tactless secretary who said this; a youngster who while in college led a demonstration of applause when it looked as if Bryan might be hissed off the platform. Such are the steps to greatness.

Other notables frequented the Code Room of the Department of State. One night half of the Cabinet came in. They wished to witness the deciphering of the message which would tell us whether Mexico would salute our flag. This argument was later to lead to the shelling of Vera Cruz. Zero hour was seven P.M. With such a distinguished audience present, I requested, in the name of the State Department, that the wire from Galveston, Texas, the cable from Galveston to Vera Cruz, the telegraph wire from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, be held open. A few minutes after seven the operator at Galveston said, "Here you are, forty words from Mexico City."

"What is it?" demanded Daniels.

"The message you are waiting for," I replied and turned to my typewriter, beginning to copy.

As the sounder spelled out the code words, Secretary Daniels began in a solemn voice, "Gentlemen, we are now receiving the most vital message ever confronted by this Administration."

I deciphered the message and handed it to them. Mexico refused. They actually turned pale, but had the good sense to run to the President.

All this time my work on the decipherment of the American diplomatic code was slowly progressing. At last I laid some one hundred pages of typewritten exposition before my immediate superior.

"What's this ?" he asked.

"Exposition on the 'Solution of American Diplomatic Codes,'" I replied.

"You wrote it?"


"You mean to say our codes are not safe?" He turned to me. "I don't believe it."

"Very well," I answered. "This memorandum represents over one thousand hours of concentrated analysis and tedious detailed labor. It has taken me nearly two years. I merely ask that you read it."

As I left him he gave me a queer desperate glance, for he had compiled this code and the responsibility of secret communications rested upon his shoulders.


Excerpted from THE AMERICAN BLACK CHAMBER by HERBERT O. YARDLEY Copyright © 1931 by Herbert O. Yardley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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