Aleksandr Zhitomirsky

During the Second World War, when it still seemed like the Germans might capture Moscow, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote a list of Soviet propagandists who were to be killed upon capture. Number one was the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Number two was chief Radio Moscow announcer Iurii Levitan. Number three was Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the designer and artist of one of the Red Army’s chief illustrated propaganda magazines.

That, at least, was the story, one which is mentioned – with appropriate skepticism – by Erika Wolf in the catalogue to a major exhibit of artist Aleksandr Zhitomirsky’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. A talented designer and illustrator whose most striking works were the satirical, even grotesque, photomontages that he created in the early years of the Cold War, Zhitomirsky’s work pilloried capitalism and the United States, often with allusions to the Nazi threat against which Zhitomirsky had cut his teeth propagandizing. While his main employment from 1953 to 1991 was as chief artist for Soviet Union (Sovietskii Soiuz), a glossy magazine aimed at readers in Eastern Europe and Asia, his illustrations appeared in the Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaia gazeta), official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers; Red Fleet (Krasnyi flot); Rising Generation (Smena); the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile), and even occasionally in more exalted venues such as Truth (Pravda), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and News (Izvestiia), official paper of the Soviet government. Those works attracted attention not just at home, where he was part of a major photomontage exhibit in East Berlin in 1961/2 and had his own retrospective in Moscow, but even in the US, where some of his photomontages from the Literary Gazette drew comment in the New York Times.

On balance it’s the postwar art, not just the illustrations mentioned above but also the book covers and occasional poster, that is the focus of Wolf’s Aleksandr Zhitomirsky: Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2016). For me, though, it’s Zhitomirsky’s wartime work on Front Illustrated (Frontovaia illiustratsiia) and its complementary German-language edition aimed at enemy soldiers (Front Illustrated for German Soldiers / Front-Illustrierte für den deutschen Soldaten) that’s more captivating. The postwar designs are hardly subtle. How often can one look at a monkey-like Goebbels ventriloquizing through some American symbol?

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky CoverFront Illustrated for German Soldiers, which existed to sow unease and dissension in the German ranks, had to be more indirect. For his cover designs and leaflets, Zhitomirsky mixed captured German photographs and new photography (often with himself as the model) with images borrowed for his vast trove of reference photos, often airbrushed together to the point that they became impossible to distinguish. With one leaflet, Choose! Like This or Like That!, Wolf shows how what appears to be a single photograph of dead Germans lying on the ground was actually a composite of seven different photographs, layered together, photographed, then retouched to create a seamless image. With others, she shows how Zhitomirsky mixed background photography with physical objects (like reproduced letters and snapshots) in trompe-l’œil arrangements. Taking advantage of Zhitomirsky’s personal archive, Wolf can demonstrates just how impressive his work was.

Tides of War, Part One

The best-known story about environmental science and D-Day has to be that of the last-minute forecast that let the invasion go ahead. That prediction, though, was only one of many contributions by Allied environmental scientists to the success of the invasion. Another was the secretive preparation of mundane but vital preparations for the assault: calculating the tides for D-Day.

The theoretical basis for tide prediction was the work of Newton, Daniel Bernoulli, and Pierre Simon Laplace, the third of whom was the first to outline the equations that describe the rise and fall of the tides. Laplace’s equations were too complex to use in practice, but in the mid-nineteenth century the British scientist William Thomson (later ennobled as Lord Kelvin) demonstrated that, given enough tidal measurements, one could use harmonic analysis to divide the tide-generating forces for a particular shoreline into a series of waves of known frequencies and amplitudes (the tidal constituents). That same process, carried out in reverse, would let one predict the tides along that shore. Unfortunately, making those calculations was was time-consuming the point of impracticality. However, Thomson also demonstrated that it was possible to construct an analog machine that would do the necessary work automatically.

Thomson’s machine drew a curve representing the height of the tide with a pen that was attached to the end of a long wire. The wire ran over top of a series of pulleys, which were raised and lowered by gears which reflected the the frequency and amplitude of the tidal constituents. As each pulley rose or fell, it affected the length of the wire’s path and thus the position of the pen. Altogether, they reflected the combined effect of the tidal constituents being simulated.

Thomson's design sketch for the third tide-predicting machine, 1879. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Thomson’s design sketch for the third tide-predicting machine, 1879. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

The first machine, built in 1872, had gears for only ten constituents, but later machines could represent many more. Machines of his design, many of them built in Great Britain, were also used in other countries to create the necessary tide tables for their ports. In the United States, a different mechanical approach developed by William Ferrel was used to build similar machines. Altogether, though, tide-predicting were specialized, expensive, and rare. According to a modern inventory, only thirty-three were ever built – twenty-five of them in London, Glasgow, or Liverpool.

During the Second World War, the Admiralty Hydrographic Office relied on two tide-predicting machines operated by Arthur Thomas Doodson at the Liverpool Tidal Institute to do all their tidal calculations. One was Thomson’s original machine, refitted to handle twenty-six constituents. The other was a machine designed by Edward Roberts in 1906 and equipped for forty constituents.

Both Doodson and the Tidal Institute had their own unique histories of military collaboration. Doodson, despite being a conscientious objector, had worked on anti-aircraft ballistics for the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War. The Institute, established in 1919 with corporate and philanthropic support, had an important connection with the Admiralty’s own Hydrographic Department. Though the Hydrographic Department did not provide any direct funding until 1923, after that it made the Institute the Admiralty’s exclusive supplier of tide calculations. At the same time, the Hydrographic Department began appointing a representative to the Institute’s governing board.

Though they were the basis for only some of the Institute’s Admiralty work during the war, the tide-predicting machines in Liverpool were busy creating tide tables for Allied ports. According to historian Anna Carlsson-Hyslop’s research, the number of tidal predictions being performed doubled from 77 for 1938, the last pre-war year, to 154 for 1945. (Carlsson-Hyslop’s research is focused on areas of the Institute’s work other than the creation of tide tables, but much of it sheds light on its relationship with the Royal Navy and state patronage.)

In 1943 the Admiralty Hydrographic Office requested calculations to create tide tables for the invasion beaches to be used on D-Day in Normandy. Since the landing zone remained top secret, Commander William Ian Farquharson was responsible for establishing the constituents and providing them (anonymized under the codename “Point Z”) to Doodson in Liverpool. Unfortunately, there were no existing calculations for the area of the beaches. Nor, because tidal constituents were sensitive to local conditions, could he just extrapolate from the data for the ports to the east and west at Le Havre and Cherbourg. Instead, Farquharson combined fragmentary data from some local measurement points near the beaches, clandestine on-the-spot measurements made by Allied beach reconnaissance teams, and guesswork to come up with eleven tidal constituents. Oceanographer Bruce Parker suspects that he began with the Le Havre constituents and then adjusted them to approximate the data he had. The calculations, despite the roughness of the information on which they were based, proved sufficiently accurate for the invasion planner.

In the Pacific, tide tables for amphibious operations were generated by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey’s Tide Predicting Machine No. 2. In both theaters, as well as the Mediterranean, oceanographers supplemented the tide tables for beaches with wind, wave, and surf forecasts. The story of wave forecasting is, if anything, even more cloak and dagger than that of the D-Day tide forecasts, since one of the scientists involved was actively suspected (incorrectly) of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Dr. E. Lester Jones, Chief, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, with the Tide Predicting Machine he built. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1915. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

A US tide predicting machine, probably No.2. The caption from the Library of Congress attributes the machine’s construction to E. Lester Jones, Chief of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1915. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Beyond their civilian and military wartime work, tide-predicting machines had an oblique impact on Second World War cryptanalysis. Those developments would eventually put the machines out of work after the war, but not before the machines would have their final strategic significance.

Forward to Part Two, including Source Notes (soon)


Kiley at Nuremberg

“What I was trying to do was have a unified and orderly and dignified [courtroom] – that’s what the courtroom should be, and it should reflect the scales of justice too.”

— Dan Kiley on the courtroom at Nuremberg

Creating the physical spaces for the war crimes trials at Nuremberg was one of the last tasks performed by the OSS’s Presentation Branch before the service was dissolved and the branch transferred to the State Department. The designer was Dan Kiley, an architect who had been recruited by his friend Eero Saarinen from the Army Corps of Engineers and had replaced Saarinen as chief of design for the branch.

Kiley was something of an odd choice to do the work. Though a trained architect, he had never designed a courtroom and would never design another again. After the war, he became famous as a landscape architect, often doing work for his friend Saarinen. As Kiley himself told it, the job was something of a fluke. The Presentation Branch was already responsible for similar work at the United Nations conference in San Francisco. In compensation for not getting to go to San Francisco, branch chief Hugh Barton offered Kiley the chance to go to Nuremberg instead.

On the other hand, despite the apparent mismatch – why was the Office of Strategic Services designing a courthouse? – the project was a return to the Presentation Branch’s roots. Since its inception, the branch’s mission was to make the presentation of complex information clear, logical, and even captivating. How else would you describe the responsibilities of the international military tribunal at Nuremberg?

In fact, the branch had been created by the OSS’s founder, Bill Donovan, to build a grand automated briefing room for President Roosevelt. Though that project had foundered, it had begat an organization with a broad range of design skills. Kiley himself showed the breath of his talents on the Nuremberg project. He planned the renovations of the entire court building, not just the courtroom but also offices, restaurants, medical clinics, and a shop (the Army PX). His attention to detail included designing furniture for the building to be made from old plywood and putting a gray velvet panel on the chief prosecutor’s lectern so that  his papers wouldn’t fall off.

His arrangement for the courtroom, Joseph Disponzio has explained,  reflected a willingness to break traditional norms to achieve the necessary impact. Instead of positioning the audience of observers and journalists behind the adjudicating parties, with the judges facing both, Kiley positioned the audience perpendicular to the axis of judge–parties, giving them a far better view of the proceedings. A film screen facing the audience allowed for the projection of some of OSS’ other work on the trials, the documentary films.

The Nuremberg courtroom as soon from the press gallery. Note the alignment of the dock and judges’ dais, with lawyers in the foreground and film screen to the back.

Kiley’s work stood in rare company alongside the Ichigaya courtroom, where the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convened, until the 1990s saw the creation of new international criminal courts, bringing their own requirements and sensibilities to the presentation of international justice.

Source Note: In the mid-1990s, Kiley gave an oral history interview to the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. A shortened version was published in the book Witnesses to Nuremberg, edited by Bruce M. Stave and Michele Palmer with Leslie Frank. The description of Kiley’s work at Nuremberg is mostly drawn from that printed text.

Designing War Rooms

Earlier this year, Matt Novak at Paleofuture acquired some of architect Eero Saarinen’s Second World War Office of Stategic Services (OSS) personnel papers through the US Freedom of Information Act. The papers, which Novak has helpfully posted online here, seem mostly connected with his draft deferment, but they do include a summary of his work at the time.

I think Novak’s post puts a little too much intrigue into the mention of “pilot models of new weapons and devices.” Saarinen was working in the OSS’s Presentation Division, so the emphasis in that phrase should probably be on models, not on weapons or devices. For example, when it singles out one project of Saarinen’s for special praise the file picks a “three dimensional organization chart” for presenting “problems of procedure and work-flow through various parts of an organization.”

There’s no contradiction, though, between the fact that Saarinen worked in a division so far from the sharp end of the OSS’s secret war and the fact that his Selective Service papers describe him as “irreplaceable.” Within the OSS’s initial mandate, presenting information and facilitating analysis had practically as much profile as espionage and propaganda. In fact, one aspect of the work that Saarinen oversaw – “design, construction, and equipping situation rooms” — was the brainchild of the OSS’s founder, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, himself.

The idea that a presentation division could be something other than an administrative adjunct was pretty much unprecedented when Donovan sketched out his proposal for the organization that would become the OSS in 1941. President Roosevelt created the title of Coordinator of Information for Donovan in July 1941, before the US had entered the Second World War. As the name suggests, his office was supposed to collect, analyse, and circulate in intelligence, but Donovan happily pushed to extend his mandate. Sketching our early organizational charts for Roosevelt’s approval, Donovan proposed including a visual presentation division as either a major unit of the Research and Analysis Branch or a branch of its own that would generate propaganda movies and oversee the design of a grand war room for the President. (This is described in CIA historian Thomas F. Troy’s monograph Donovan and the CIA: A History Of The Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency [available here], from which I’ve drawn most of the details.)

The grand war room was, despite what you might expect, not a minor part of Donovan’s planned agency. Instead it was presented as one of the COI’s major contributions to the war effort. Operating from the core principle that “most government officials, including the President,” were “suffering from mental fatigue from shuffling a large number of papers.’” (qtd. in Troy), Donovan proposed an entire building (or “War Theatre Building”) that would include a main presentation room, economic room, ultra-secret “inner sanctorium,” and twelve theater rooms. Construction was to be overseen by the impresario who had co-directed and produced King Kong, Merian C. Cooper.

Despite the insane grandiosity of the plan, it had the backing of the president, who approved $2 million of the $3.8 million Donovan requested for it in COI’s first budget. That was more than was budgeted for short wave international broadcasting, research and analysis, or movie production. Only intelligence activities got more, at $2.5 million, while medium wave international broadcasting also received $2 million.

That $2 million budget is ample proof that the President was at least initially enthusiastic about Donovan’s vision. So was Captain Francis C. Denebrink, who evaluated COI’s facilities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). In his report, he considered the war room one of the few projects worth taking over (though its $2 million budget may have been a factor). On the other hand, Walter Bedell Smith, JCS secretary and future CIA director, considered it a “big toy” that would be more or less useless.

When the COI was subordinated to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1942 (after the name-change to OSS), the presentation division switched gears and began buildng a war room for the Chiefs in their building at 19th and Constitution. Its not clear, at least from Troy’s narrative, whether this was intended as a stepping-stone to a grander facility or a scaling-down of Donovan’s grandiose plans, but in the end the idea of a presidental war theatre was abandoned.

Leading designers such as Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Henry Dreyfuss had already been hired as consultants for the presidential room by the OSS. Design historian Barry Katz has described the innovative equipment that they and their colleagues (including the young Saarinen) proposed to include (see my blog post on this for links). There would be “epidiascopes” for projecting opaque images onto a screen, “stereomotographs” (or automated slide projectors), and a “Variable-Speed Statistical Visualizer” that would use electric lights to represent relative quantities. Even the smaller-scale setup for the Joint Chiefs featured one room with a full-wall world map with spotlights, projectors, and magnetic symbols, and a second with a proscenium arch and film, slide, and reflecting projectors. Presentation really was a big deal within the OSS.

Expertise in creating war or situation rooms extended beyond those for the president and Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of the memos in the personnel file mentions that Saarinen “designed and supervised the construction of the OSS PW Room” (PW probably means “political warfare” in this context). One of Saarinen’s colleagues, Paul Childs (the future husband of Julia Childs), designed war rooms for the joint Anglo-American South East Asia Command (SEAC) in Sri Lanka and for US general Albert Wedermeyer in China.

In his memoir, future CIA deputy director Russell Jack Smith recalls being interviewed for a job at OSS in the “OSS presentation room.” This “spectacularly beautiful room … was the scene for top-level OSS briefings, and behind the richly handsome draperies along the walls were floor-to-ceiling sliding panels bearing highly classified maps.” His interviewer, Ray Cline, was the chief of the Current Intelligence Staff (part of R&A) and responsible for maintaining the maps and information.

Cline’s own memoirs flesh out the description a little more. He describes the room, which he says was designed by Saarinen, as

a beautifully decorated, air-conditioned briefing room complete with three layers of sliding map panels, a huge, fluted natural wood colmn as room divider, and a modest briefing theater … Because we stored secret State cables, SI reports, and magnificent rubber and plastic topographic models, and because Donovan and [John] Magruder wanted to impress visitors with our early morning oral briefings for senior OSS officials, we had a uniformed guard at the door to admit people by name only.

The OSS room, at 2430 E Street, sounds more elegant but less technologically impressive than the room built for the Joint Chiefs on Constitution Avenue, but both reflected that Donovan’s keen interest in visual presentation as an important practice.

Nor were the war room projects the only examples of Donovan’s personal fascination with presentation style. He was the driving force behind a set of giant 50” diameter globes that were given to President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The map on the sphere’s surface was prepared by OSS’s Map Division, which belonged not to the Visual Presentation branch but to Research and Analysis, and printed and mounted by the Weber Costello Company in Illinois. The globes themselves were fabricated from cherrywood and mounted on a set of rubber balls designed by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss on behalf of Visual Presentation. (One of the cartographers shared his recollections in an article in Imago Mundi, many years later.)

How significant was the work that Saarinen did during the war. With hindsight, “irreplaceable” seems a little much. But a big war demanded big plans and big spaces to make and interpret them, and Saarinen was part of that process. So were colleagues like Donal McLaughlin, who helped design the spaces and symbols for the conference that established the United Nations, and Dan Kiley, who did the same for the war crimes trials at Nuremberg.

Did Wartime Recycling Destroy More British Heritage than the Blitz?

That’s the startling conclusion from Peter Thorsheim, a historian at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His 2013 article “Salvage and Destruction: The Recycling of Books and Manuscripts in Great Britain during the Second World War” (version of record here; hosted on Thorsheim’s own website here) details how Britons recycled 600 million books in 1943 alone, not to mention letters, ephemera, business records, and historic manuscripts – compared to only about 20 million volumes destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

“Salvage and Destruction” and Thorsheim’s recent book Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War capture the remarkable scope of Britain’s recycling efforts during the war. Steel, iron, and aluminum were the most obvious materials whose conservation were important to the war effort, but in wartime Britain even paper, rubble, and food scraps were saved. The former had plenty of direct uses in military production: as various propaganda pamphlets explained, one envelope could make the wads for fifty rifle cartridges, three comic books could be converted into the cardboard cups for two 25-pounder artillery shells, and a breakfast cereal box could be recycled into two practice targets.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waste into Weapons is how political the recycling process was. In many cases the need to mobilize support led to counter-productive collection efforts, like piles of tin cans whose tin content wasn’t worth the effort of its extraction. The hordes of children who were mobilized for scrap drivers were considered an obstacle and a waste of effort by the professional salvage industry (like prewar rag-and-bone men), who fought against state and volunteer interference in their work for the entirety of the war. Being seen to recycle everything, for example, was important to convincing American agents for Lend-Lease that Britain was fully committed to the war effort. On the other hand, at least two Quaker conscientious objectors ran afoul of the law for refusing to recycle, since they considered that tantamount to aiding the war effort. Whether or not the wartime recycling effort was well managed – and Thorsheim’s book offers a lot of evidence that it was not – the politics of total war made the idea inescapable.

h/t: New Books in History

Subversive Pigeons

The introduction to Jacob Shell’s Transportation and Revolt (my semi-review here) begin with a précis of pigeon paranoia: the shooting of pigeons in occupied Belgium during the First World War, the systematic slaughter of British pigeons at the start of the Second, pigeon registration in the postwar USSR, a ban on carrier pigeon by the Taliban, the temporary prohibition on pigeon racing during the 2012 Communist Party congress in Beijing. Renowned as a tool of smugglers, criminals, and secret agents – in the imagination even more than in reality – the pigeon is the spur to the question that Shell’s book attempts to answer: “What sorts of carrying technologies have political regimes associated with the movement of weapons papers, or people for political subversion and revolt?”

Pigeon paranoia goes well beyond the examples that Shell notes, wide and fascinating as they are. My favorite anti-pigeon countermeasures remain the Second World War efforts to weaponize birds of prey in both Britain and the United States to hunt “enemy” pigeons. Attempts during the same war by the British to distract German pigeons with British ones (and therefore lead them to British lofts) or to poison the enemy’s pigeon supply with friendly birds (who would fly back to Britain rather than to their expected destinations) can only come a close second.

Pigeons have several advantages as a form of clandestine communications. They are easily concealed, have no electronic signature, and can even be hidden in plain sight where civilians keep pigeons themselves. In fact, the homing pigeon is, to some extent, the living equivalent of espionage’s dead drop. In a dead drop, neither user necessarily knows the identity of the other. The separation between them prevents the capture of one user necessarily revealing the identity of the other. The same is true with a homing pigeon, which is trained to fly regardless of circumstances back to its home loft. Depending on how the pigeon was delivered to its sender, the recipient knows nothing about him or her apart from what they themselves disclose. Likewise, the pigeon’s sender has no way of being sure where the bird is heading.

Perhaps the best example is British intelligence program known as COLUMBA. Starting in 1941, a sub-section of army intelligence (known as MI 14(d)) parachuted homing pigeons with which sympathetic French, Belgian, or Dutch individuals could report back to Britain on the German defenses in their area. As the Telegraph describes it, “Each pigeon came with a miniature spying kit: a bakelite tube to put a message in; sheets of ultra-thin paper and a special pencil; detailed instructions in French, Flemish or Dutch on how to fill in a report.” The attached questionnaire asked about preparations for the invasion of English, troops in the area, military movements, enemy morale, German lodgings, and restrictions on the movements of civilians, among other topics. (Jennifer Spangler has posted many documents related to COLUMBA at her blog, World War 2 History and the WW2 Pigeons. Scroll down in this entry to see the questionnaire.)

COLUMBA relied on the faith of the European resistance that its pigeons were heading for England and the faith of British intelligence that the reports received were genuine. There was, after all, no way to be sure it hadn’t been a German soldier who attached the message to a pigeon’s leg.

In December 1943, MI 14(d) summarized its impact in five points:

1.One out of every nine birds returns.
2. Supplies are ample.
3. Enemy fully pigeon minded.
4. Service worth while.
5. Liaison between 21 Army Group, “I” and R.A.F. to be established for coming operations.

By the middle of 1944, the British had sent more than 13,000 pigeons to the continent. 1,373 returned to Britain, 808 of those with messages. That was only 6% of messages sent out but apparently the resulting information was impressive. The staff of COLUMBA cheerfully reported all evidence of Germans reacting to the Allied operation. Reactions included a 2,000 franc reward for turning out a pigeon with equipment and message and occasional reports that the Germans were dropping their own decoy pigeons to sew confusion among potential correspondents. They also concluded that there had been little or no contamination of the intelligence with deliberate German misinformation.

I don’t know exactly what happened to COLUMBA after the invasion of Normandy, but a summary report a month after D-Day said they were ramping up to deliver 2,000 pigeons a month and that mobile lofts were ready to join the 21st Army Group in France.

Several European countries, including Britain, maintained military or intelligence service pigeon operations after the Second World War. The Swiss had 7,000 military-owned birds in 1995 and the French were still maintaining a cadre of 150 in 2012. The fact the Cold War stayed cold meant none of them saw action, but one homing pigeon did find itself unexpectedly drafted into the propaganda war being fought across the Iron Curtain.

I turned out that it was possible – albeit difficult – to “hijack” a homing pigeon en route and use it to deliver an entirely unexpected message. In 1954, a homing pigeon involved in a race from Nuremberg to Munich got lost and crossed the Iron Curtain, landing in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Found by someone who recognized its West German banding, they attached a message for the US-operated Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against Communist aggression, because Communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.
We always listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat Bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.
We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.
– Unbowed Pilsen

The message and pigeon, delivered to RFE by its owner, were an instant propaganda coup. “Leaping Lena” became the symbol of RFE’s 1955 fundraising drive, then retired to US Army Signal Corps pigeon breeding center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (The story appears on the RFE website, but that seems just to repeat what’s in newspaper articles from the time.)

Elizebeth Friedman, Cryptographer: Part Two

The first twenty years of Elizebeth Friedman’s career as a cryptographer took her to a private research lab, the US Army and Navy, and the Department of the Treasury’s many law enforcement agencies. The start of the Second World War in Europe brought new challenges, starting with the preservation of American neutrality.

With the Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cryptanalytic Unit began monitoring messages connected to foreign exchange for the Money Stabilization Board in 1938, watching for signs of imminent hostilities so the Board could freeze the funds of the belligerents. Starting in 1939 they also began picking up coded transmissions connected with the two sides. A presidential memorandum gave responsibility for espionage, counterespionage, and sabotage cases to the FBI, but when the Coast Guard turned their intercepts over to the FBI the FBI asked the Coast Guard cryptanalytic unit to solve the codes. The FBI was a relative latecomer to the code-breaking business, having only hired its full full-time cryptanalyst in October 1939. It leaned on the Coast Guard for cryptographic support. The first chief of its cryptanalytic section, W.G.B. Blackburn, was trained by Elizebeth Friedman.

Once the United States entered the war, cryptanalysis began to look like something of a free for all. In addition to the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and FBI operations, the Office of Censorship, Federal Communications Commission, Weather Bureau, and Office of the Coordinator of Information (the future Office of Strategic Services) all announced that were setting up their own cryptanalysis programs. Thankfully, within about seven months all involved had agreed to centralize code-breaking activities in the Army, Navy (including the Coast Guard), and FBI. The division of labor split clandestine radio messages in the Western Hemisphere between the Navy and FBI and gave the former responsibility for intercepting clandestine communications in the rest of the world. The Coast Guard cryptanalytic unit, now a sub-section of the Navy’s code-breaking division (OP-20-G) continued to focus on these secret messages. It also grew, first to twelve and then to twenty-three people. Elizebeth Friedman was not the commander of the Coast Guard cryptanalytic unit. That role belonged to a commissioned officer, L.T. Jones. After the war she described herself, with perhaps an excess of modesty, as “just one of the workers.”

The ciphers that reached the Coast Guard for decryption came from both individual agents working in secret and substantial radio stations operating out of German embassies. Messages were enciphered using a range of classic ciphers that either replaced (in a substitution cipher) or shifted around (in a transposition cipher) the letters in the message. Most agents were using hand ciphers, in which the message is enciphered using pen and paper rather than a mechanical device. A few used a mechanical device, the Kryha machine, which created a shifting substitution cipher. Agents in Argentina used the same Enigma machine that the German army and navy used to protect their messages (and whose decryption was most recently depicted, with substantial inaccuracies, in The Imitation Game). The Coast Guard was able to use intercepted messages to reverse engineer the wiring that scrambled each letter in the simpler, commercial Enigma machine – those messages turned out to be from the Swiss army. According to NSA historian David P. Mowry this was “the first instance of Enigma wiring recovery in the United States.” Then, with the assistance of British techniques, the Coast Guard team was also able to decrypt messages sent on the Enigma between Argentina and Berlin.

The traffic that the Coast Guard’s code-breaking operation intercepted was never critical to the war effort. Interviewed after the war, Friedman herself suggested that the unit could probably have been better used on other material, rather than working the problem “to the point of overkill” (in her interviewer’s words). Mowry, who wrote a Top Secret history of the topic for the NSA, judged that the US effort to decrypt German clandestine transmissions from the Western Hemisphere had little or no impact on the conduct of the war. Still, American cryptanalysis ensured that nothing snuck up on US operations. Nor was the Coast Guard work Elizebeth Friedman’s only contribution to the war effort. When the Office of the Coordinator of Information was created, she also developed its first code systems.

A Long and Varied Career
Cryptography has such a long history that it’s sometimes hard to remember that large government code-breaking organizations are such a new development. Elizebeth Friedman entered the field at the moment those organizations were being created. Without schools or training programs, cryptographers were few and far between. While her husband spent his career with the Army and the National Security Agency, creating the institutions that would perpetuate the government’s cryptanalytic programs, Elizebeth worked far and wide. Between when she left Riverside Laboratories and when she retired from government service, she worked for or taught at seven of the sixteen members of the current US Intelligence Community (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of the Treasury, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Security Agency). Her career was not only remarkable for its scope but also probably unrepeatable. By the time she retired, these agencies were on their way towards the extensive permanent organizations that exist today. Retirement was also not the end of Elizebeth’s involvement in cryptography. She consulted for the International Monetary Fund on creating that agency’s secure communications and published a book, The Shakespearian Ciphers Examined (with William Friedman), on their work studying Shakespeare’s works for hidden codes.

Source Notes: The NSA’s history office commissioned several relevant histories as part of its Second World War series. One by Robert Louis Benson, The History of U.S. Communication Intelligence during World War II: Policy and Administration, covers the various organizations; two others, both by David P. Mowry, cover German Clandestine Activities in South American in World War II and The Cryptology of the German Intelligence Services (available amalgamated here). Some of Friedman’s own comments in an oral history interview with Benson (online here) were also useful.