Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Codebreaker and the Book: Hoosier Herbert O. Yardley

As American retailers prepared for a grim holiday shopping season in December 1930 during the early economic trials of the Great Depression, David Laurance Chambers, editor at the Bobbs-Merrill Company, an Indianapolis publishing firm, received a letter from a New York literary agent about a novice author with an “important story” to tell. The correspondence from George T. Bye, who represented such distinguished Americans as Charles Lindbergh, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and General John T. Pershing, caused Chambers to send a telegram indicating that the letter had “excited my wildest curiosity” and imploring Bye to let him know the name of the mysterious writer.

Bye’s new discovery turned out to be a former Hoosier named Herbert O. Yardley. Born and raised in Worthington, Indiana, Yardley, who had been a star athlete and an expert in the game of poker, had served as head of one of the federal government’s first secret decoding departments, known as the American Cryptographic Bureau or the “Black Chamber.” During its twelve years of existence from its office in New York City, the bureau, which received funding from the U.S. State and War Departments, had specialists working around the clock to decipher the codes of the governments of England, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. The bureau’s sophisticated decoding of intercepted diplomatic messages aided the U.S. government in winning vital concessions from Japan during a 1921 naval disarmament conference.

Yardley’s proposal to write about his days with the Black Chamber caused considerable excitement and concern at Bobbs-Merrill. Chambers expressed his gratitude to Bye for putting George Shively of the firm’s New York editorial department in touch with Yardley and awaited Shively’s report, he wrote Bye, “with the liveliest interest. This sounds very much like the big book you promised me, and I hope it proves as much.” At first, Shively expressed some trepidation about the publishing firm’s involvement with such sensitive government material. “The thing is startling,” Shively wrote to Chambers. “Maybe we’d all be charged with treason and shot at sunrise.” Shively seemed impressed, however, after his meeting with Yardley and when he reviewed an outline of the proposed manuscript. “It is full of dynamite,” Shively said in a memo to Chambers, “but if we can escape the charge of treason or some such thundering offense of that kind, we could have lots of fun with the book. It ought to be first page news in a good many cities of the world.”

Shively’s memo proved to be on the mark. Released to the reading public in early June 1931, Yardley’s The American Black Chamber received nationwide media attention and attracted front-page coverage in every daily newspaper in Washington, D.C. Fueled in part by a series of articles written by Yardley for the Saturday Evening Post, sales of the book soared, and it became a top seller in a number of New York bookstores, as well as in such major cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. Famous Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette called Yardley’s work “the most important book of the year.” Foreign editions also did well, particularly in Japan, where more than 30,000 copies were sold. Today, Yardley’s book remains a classic in the field and, according to code-breaking historian and writer David Kahn, is “the most famous book on cryptology ever published.”

Born on April 13, 1889, in Worthington, Yardley had shown promise at an early age, winning praise for his intelligence and becoming known as a voracious reader. He also won acclaim as an athlete, playing quarterback on the high school football team and serving as its captain. Yardley described himself as a “fair student with a definite flair for mathematics.” Writing about his life, Yardley said his mother, Mary Emma Osborn, died when he was thirteen years old “and thereafter I did pretty much as I pleased.”

With $200 he inherited from his mother and money from odd jobs, he began to play poker at a local saloon Yardley called Monty’s Place, where, according to Yardley, “everyone came to lose their money.” Those who frequented the saloon, he added, included “itinerant trainmen, barbers, magicians, actors, jugglers, owners of shows, drummers, coal operators, land speculators, farmers, poultrymen, cattlemn, liverymen. And of course there were the usual town bastards, drug addicts, idiots, drunkards, not to mention the bankers, small businessmen, preachers, atheists, and old soldiers.” The only exceptions were women, including the town’s prostitutes, who were banned so “men could tell a dirty story without fear of offending feminine ears.” Yardley soon won the friendship of the bar’s owner, James Montgomery, who backed him financially and taught him the intricacies of the game of poker. “Set him up with a bluff,” Montgomery advised the young man. “Then knock him [the opponent] down with the winning hand.” Yardley learned enough to boast that he had won consistently at poker all his life, having “never lost at over three consecutive sittings.”

After graduating from high school, Yardley followed in his father’s footsteps and earned a living as a railroad telegrapher. He successfully passed a civil service examination in 1912 and earned a position as a telegraph operator in the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., working in the code room at the State-War-Navy Building (today the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) that overlooked the White House. “By lifting my eyes from my work,” Yardley noted, “I could see a tennis game in progress where a few years earlier President [Theodore] Roosevelt and his tennis Cabinet had played every day.” Although he said an “air of good-fellowship” existed in the office, Yardley was bewildered by the casual attitude displayed by his fellow code clerks about the work they undertook for the government. “Daily history passed through their hands in one lone steady stream,” he said, “and they thought less of it than of the baseball scores.”

Shifted to night duty, Yardley passed the time by reading old diplomatic telegrams. He soon began wondering if the country’s diplomatic codes were safe from the prying eyes of foreign governments, and wondered why America had no department devoted to such endeavors. “As I asked myself this question,” he said, “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.”

Yardley set out to prepare himself for his new mission, reading all the books on cryptography he could find in the Library of Congress, searching through Edgar Allan Poe’s letters for hidden puzzles, and reading an army pamphlet on solving military secret messages. The only problem with the army pamphlet was that the types of ciphers it examined were “so simple that any bright schoolboy could solve them without a book of instructions,” he noted. It became obvious to Yardley that he would have to “do my own pioneer work.” Through his connections in Washington, Yardley also obtained copies of code and cipher communications from various foreign embassies. “I knew most of the telegraph operators in Washington,” he said, “and got some of them to steal a few coded diplomatic messages of various governments; these I practiced on.” Yardley solved some, while others were far tougher to crack. “But I was learning a new science, with no beaten path to follow,” he noted.

One of the coded telegrams Yardley worked on in his spare time included a five-hundred-word message to President Woodrow Wilson from one of his most trusted advisers, Colonel Edward House. Yardley believed that the communication would prove to be useful to decode, as “surely the President and his trusted agent would be using a difficult code.” A shocked Yardley, however, discovered he could decipher the message in less than two hours. He next turned his attention to solving the American diplomatic code, which “progressed slowly but surely.” After working two years on the diplomatic code, Yardley produced a hundred-page memorandum outlining his solution and turned it over to his superior, David A. Salmon, who called it “a masterly piece of analysis” and instituted a new method for encoding government dispatches.

With the United States’s entry into World War I, Yardley sought release from his State Department duties for service as a cryptologist with the army. With the assistance of Major Ralph H. Van Deman, who earned distinction as the “Father of American Intelligence,” the twenty-seven-year-old Yardley received a commission as a lieutenant with the Signal Corps and became head of military intelligence branch, section 8 (MI-8), with offices at the U.S. Army War College in Washington, D.C.

During the war, MI-8 had at its disposal a staff of twenty-five dedicated cryptanalysts, many with doctoral degrees in such subjects as English, Latin, and Spanish. The staff pored over a host of diplomatic telegrams from counties in South America, as well as Germany and Mexico. During an eighteen-month period, the section’s cryptographers reviewed 11,000 messages in 579 different code systems. MI-8’s greatest triumph came when it solved a cipher letter taken from a suspected German spy, Lothar Witzke. The decrypted letter implicated Witzke in the destruction in 1916 of American ammunition supplies located at Jersey City, New Jersey, that were intended for the Allied cause, and Witzke received a death sentence for his crimes (President Woodrow Wilson commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and the United States deported Witzke to Germany in 1923).  

With the war’s end, Yardley, who had traveled to Europe during the conflict to learn all he could about code work in England and France, returned determined to continue the bureau’s work and to create a “permanent organization for code and cipher investigation and attack.” He wrangled financial support for what became the American Black Chamber from the State and War Departments and eventually set up shop with a staff of twenty in a four-story brownstone at 141 East Thirty-Seventh Street in New York City. “Practically all contact with the government was now broken,” said Yardley. “All the employees, including myself, were now civilians on secret pay-roll. The rent, telephone, lights, heat, office supplies—everything was paid for secretly so that no connection could be traced to the government.”

As a cover for the bureau’s work, Yardley formed the Code Compiling Company, which produced successful commercial codebooks. According to Yardley, who received a $7,5000 yearly salary, in just twelve years (1917 to 1929) the Black Chamber decoded more than 45,000 coded telegrams from the governments of such major powers as Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, China, and the Soviet Union, as well as a host of other countries. The agency’s greatest success came when it broke the Japanese diplomatic code. Knowing in advance what their opposite numbers were saying, American negotiators were able to win favorable terms from Japan at a 1921–22 naval disarmament conference in Washington, D.C. “The Black Chamber, bolted, hidden, guarded,” Yardley later boasted, “sees all, hears all. . . . Its sensitive ears catch the faintest whisperings in the foreign capitals of the world.”

The constant, focused work took its toll on the staff. As Yardley noted, cryptography is something that “steals into the blood stream and does curious things to people.” Mentally exhausted from his efforts, he had to spend four months in Arizona recuperating from the stress. Other Black Chamber staff members were close to nervous breakdowns themselves, with one dreaming constantly that a bulldog was loose in her room. For hour upon hour she chased the dog around the room and when she finally caught it, the dog had the word “code” written on its side. Another staff member dreamed every night of “walking along a lonely beach, weighed down by an enormous sackful of pebbles,” Yardley recalled. She could only take a pebble from the bag when she found its exact duplicate. “This was her only method of lightening the burden that weighed so heavily upon her shoulders,” said Yardley.

There were some rewards. Not long after he returned from Arizona, Yardley received a Distinguished Service Medal, the army’s highest honor for noncombat service, directly from Secretary of War John W. Weeks, a firm supporter of the Black Chamber. “I felt rather silly standing before the Secretary of War, as he read my citation that seemed to have very little to do with the breaking of codes of foreign governments, but I was relieved,” Yardley recalled, “when he pinned the medal on my lapel, for with a twinkle in his eye he winked at me. That wink pleased me immensely.”

A new presidential administration in Washington, however, spelled doom for Yardley and the Black Chamber. Faced with dwindling financial and staff support, Yardley decided to force matters by presenting a memorandum outlining the Black Chamber’s history “and the necessary steps that must be taken if the Government had hoped to take full advantage of the skill of its cryptographers” for the new president, Herbert Hoover. It was another government official, Henry L. Stimson, Hoover’s Secretary of State, however, who shut down the Black Chamber. Receiving a set of messages decoded by the agency, Stimson expressed shock at its activities, calling them “highly unethical” for the United States to be reading the confidential messages of “our diplomatic guests.” Later, when interviewed for his memoirs, Stimson simply said: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” The Black Chamber officially ceased operations on October 31, 1929.

Finding himself expelled from the job he loved, Yardley returned to Worthington, Indiana, with his wife, Hazel, and young son, Jack. His financial affairs in difficulty because of the worsening economy following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Yardley attempted and failed to obtain a $2,500 loan from an old friend from his days at MI-8, John M. Manly. “I’m not at all certain of what I shall do,” Yardley wrote Manly. Hoping to make some money from his cryptography experiences, Yardley first tried to find a ghostwriter, but, with encouragement from Bye, decided to write the story of the Black Chamber himself. Yardley described how he tackled the task in a letter to Manly. Yardley wrote:

I sat for days before a typewriter, helpless. Oh, I pecked away a bit, and gradually under the encouragement of Bye I got a bit of confidence. . . . . I began to work in shifts, working a few hours, sleeping a few hours, going out of my room only to buy some eggs, bread, coffee and cans of tomato juice. Jesus, the stuff I turned out. Sometimes only a thousand words, but often as many as 10,000 a day. As the chapters appeared I took them to Bye who read them and offered criticism. Anyway I completed the book and boiled down parts of it for the articles all in 7 weeks.

Yardley sometimes strayed from the facts in writing his manuscript, something he later admitted. “To write saleable stuff one must dramatise,” he said. “Things don’t happen in dramatic fashion. There is therefore nothing to do but either dramatise or not write at all.”

Ecstatic about what he read, Bye congratulated Yardley on his achievement calling the manuscript “magnificent” and praising it as “ten times better than my most optimistic expectations.” Before agreeing to publish Yardley’s book, however, Bobbs-Merrill officials sent the manuscript for review by its lawyer, Richard V. Sipe. On January 8, 1931, Sipe sent a memo to Chambers with the opinion that there should be “no criminal liability attached to the publication of this manuscript. I do not feel that it comes under the statutes defining treason, sedition, or espionage.” Sipe said that Yardley might very well be “guilty of dishonorable conduct and the violation of the oath of his office, but I do not see where this would let the Bobbs-Merrill Company in for liability under the criminal laws of the country.” The publishing house accepted the manuscript and on February 23 sent its author a $500 royalty advance. In addition, the Curtiss Publishing Company of Philadelphia paid Yardley $2,250 for three articles based on the book to appear in issues of its popular periodical, the Saturday Evening Post.

Released on June 1, The American Black Chamber received positive reviews from critics and sparked controversy from the start. Some of Yardley’s cryptography colleagues bristled at his revelations about their secret work, finding it unpatriotic, possibly treasonous, and certainly dishonorable, while government officials did their best to discredit his story. Bristling at the backlash, Yardley wrote a letter to the editor in the New York Post defending his work, saying the way to stop the practice of reading other nation’s messages would be to air the matter in public. “It seems to me that my book may possibly render a real public service in at least pointing out the conditions existing as the first step toward achieving their remedy,” he said. The book certainly caused a stir in Japan, which had been so deftly outmaneuvered at the naval conference years before. W. Cameron Forbes, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, told his superiors in the State Department that Yardley’s publication had “evidently made a great impression in Japan. I often hear reference made to it in conversation with various classes of Japanese.”

To help promote the book, Yardley signed on with W. Colston Leigh, Inc., a New York lecture bureau, to give a series of talks on the Black Chamber and his espionage experiences. He postponed his tour, however, when RKO Pathe Studios wanted to turn his book into a film and offered him a guaranteed $500 a week for five weeks of work. Having his author enmeshed in Hollywood worried Bye, especially when his work there threatened the cancellation of some planned lectures. “I am terribly afraid you are getting deeper and deeper into some kind of a bad muddle,” Bye wrote Yardley. He reminded him that the lecture tour “will help sell more books, and it would keep you in the public eye. In Hollywood you are buried deeper than you will be when you solve the greatest cryptogram of all time.” Chambers agreed with Bye’s assessment and Yardley abandoned Hollywood for talks in such cities as Grand Rapids, Michigan; Evanston, Illinois; South Bend and Indianapolis, Indiana; Bloomington and Chicago, Illinois; and Denver, Colorado.

For his next project, Yardley, with the assistance of an amateur writer named Marie Stuart Klooz, decided to tell the story of how the Black Chamber had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes for the naval disarmament conference, using copies of the actual intercepted messages. He produced a massive 900-page manuscript, but Bobbs-Merrill balked at taking on such a project, with Chambers telling Yardley his company did not believe such a book would have any “widespread popular interest.” Yardley sent the manuscript to the Macmillan Company in New York, but federal marshals seized the work on February 20, 1933. Following up on a request by the State Department, Congress passed a bill making it a crime for government employees to publish material from official diplomatic codes. President Roosevelt signed the bill into law (Public Law 37) on June 10.

Yardley tried to maintain his writing career, publishing two adventure novels, The Blonde Countess and The Red Sun of Nippon (both 1934). Both novels featured a main character named Nathaniel Greenleaf patterned after himself, and he also based some of the book’s other characters and events on his time with the Black Chamber. The books received generally positive reviews, with the Saturday Review of Literature noting, “Mr. Yardley knows his spy stuff and can tell a good story, though there are a few rough edges.” The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio paid Yardley $7,500 for the rights to The American Black Chamber and The Blonde Countess, which it turned into a World War I spy movie set in Washington, D.C., titled Rendezvous (1935). The film starred William Powell, fresh off of his renowned performance the year before in The Thin Man as Bill Gordon, a cryptographer, and Rosalind Russell in her first starring role as Joel Carter, a flighty socialite who manages to get herself into trouble with a German spy ring. A mix of intrigue and comedy, the film, although it had little to do with Yardley’s experiences with the Black Chamber, received generally positive reviews, with one critic calling it “freshly inspired entertainment.”  

In 1938 Yardley returned to cryptography when Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese government hired him to help break the codes of the invading Japanese army at a salary of $10,000. Using the pseudonym Herbert Osborn, supposedly an exporter of hides, Yardley began his duties in China. He impressed a young Harvard graduate who had obtained a job with the Chinese Ministry of Information in Chungking. Theodore H. White, later known for his Making of the President series of books, recalled that during his time in China Yardley “took a fancy to me” and tried to instruct him in his main enthusiasms—drinking, poker, and women. The most valuable advice, however, White gleaned from Yardley came in how to behave during an air raid. “The chief danger of an air raid, he [Yardley] said, was splintered glass from windows,” White said. “Thus, when one hears the siren, one should get a drink, lie down on a couch and put two pillows over oneself—one pillow over the eyes and the other over the groin. Splintered glass could hurt those vital organs, and if the eyes or the groin were injured, life was not worth living. It was good advice for any groundling in the age before atom bombs; and I took it.” Another writer, Emily Hahn of The New Yorker, had a far different opinion. She described Yardley as an “American with a loud manner of talking” who everyone knew was a “secret agent.”

Returning to the United States in 1940, Yardley worked for a time for a Canadian signals intelligence unit before returning to America for a job as an enforcement officer with the Office of Price Administration. Back in Washington, D.C., Yardley bought and managed a restaurant he named Rideau after the Canadian lake country, but sold it for a loss in December 1942. He continued to try his hand at writing, producing another novel, Crows Are Black Everywhere (1945), with his friend, Carl Grabo, an English professor at the University of Chicago, and authoring a manuscript about his days in China, later published as The Chinese Black Chamber.

Yardley’s most enduring success, however, came in 1957 with the publication of his book The Education of a Poker Player, which had such a great initial demand that its publisher, Simon and Schuster, issued twelve printings of the deluxe hardcover edition. White called the book “a major contribution to the American folk culture,” adding it was as important to educating young poker players “as a sex manual is to a college freshman.” In a 1997 article in Poker magazine, a writer said that Yardley’s book “belongs in every poker player’s library simply because it is a true classic,” and discerning viewers can see a copy of Education of a Poker Player on the bookshelf of the character Mike McDermott (played by Matt Damon) in the 1998 movie Rounders.

Shortly before his book on poker appeared, Yardley suffered a stroke. He died at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on August 7, 1958, at the age of sixty-nine. Just a few days after his death, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Although sometimes credited as the “father of cryptography in America,” Yardley can be more accurately seen as the person responsible for bringing a profession often cloaked in secrecy into the light of day, delighting readers for many years with his breathless tales of adventures and intrigue.
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