A Pearl Harbor Conspiracy?

November 29, 2010

If you’re a history buff like me, a good historical mystery or controversy can make for excellent reading, even if you have doubts as to how mysterious or controversial the subject is. For example, did the American Government and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt have advance information about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and was this fact later suppressed, either to conceal incompetence or because the President wanted an act of aggression to force American into war with the Axis Powers?

One of the most written-about pieces of this historical puzzle is the so-called “West Wind Execute” message, Japan’s code phrase to advise its diplomats abroad that an attack on America was imminent. In West Wind Clear: Cryptology and the Winds Message Controversy – a Documentary History, the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History has tackled the complex history of this message, when it was sent, and why its existence or non-existence has exercised the imaginations of academics, amateur historians, and conspiracy buffs since the 1940s. Crucially, it includes many key documents, some never before published, dealing with the voluminous Japanese signals traffic leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack and the timing of signals interception and decoding.

The thrust of West Wind Clear, which is backed up by meticulous and extensive research and documentation, is that the Winds messages did exist, but they were only one string among many Japanese communications instructing diplomats to burn their code books and take other 11th hour measures to prepare for war. In fact, the actual West Wind Execute message was broadcast after the attack began. The authors state that the main source of continuing debate over the “who knew and when” question resulted from a number of contradictory statements by a well-respected American cryptographer, Captain Laurence Safford, USN, whose reliability as a witness was undermined during the hearings of the 1946  Joint Congressional Committee investigation of the Pearl Harbor debacle. He was unable to produce any documentary evidence and was shown to have changed his story of a pre-December 7 West Wind Execute message numerous times.

Despite these findings from a committee whose members included some who gladly would have found neglect or malfeasance at the root of the Roosevelt Administration’s handling of the run-up to war, the West Wind controversy has persisted in popular accounts that lent credibility to the stories of Safford and Ralph Briggs, a radio operator who many years after the fact claimed to recollect a West Wind Execute message before the attack.

West Wind Clear makes a strong and well-documented case against a suppressed warning of war. For conspiracy theorists, who tend to operate within a closed intellectual system, no evidence is convincing enough, but to me, this story of bureaucratic confusion, stress, and misunderstanding seems much more authentic (and common) as an explanation for “the fog of war” surrounding the Winds messages. You can read this book here, order your own copy here, or find it in a library.


Secret Codes and the Founding Fathers

November 5, 2010

Never say “never.” I recently blogged about Thomas Jefferson’s Library, a reprint of our third President’s library catalogue as recreated by his secretary, Nicholas P. Trist. I’ve always been intrigued by Trist’s subsequent checkered diplomatic career, so I added, “Trist later had a controversial career as a diplomat – if I ever find a Government publication concerning him, you’ll hear all about it,” assuming that the chances of finding a book like that were practically nil. Meanwhile, I had requested copies of a number of publications from the Center for Cryptologic History at the National Security Agency to blog about. After they arrived, I began thumbing through Masked Dispatches: Cryptograms and Cryptology in American History, 1775-1900. Of course, the title of Chapter 15 is “Nicholas Trist Code.”  That’s why I decided to discuss this book first.

Masked Dispatches presents some of the Founding fathers as active participants in spycraft. America’s first espionage code was devised by Benjamin Tallmadge, General George Washington’s director of secret service, for use by a spy ring set up in New York in 1778. Another chapter discusses Washington’s supplying of invisible ink to Tallmadge. What would Parson Weems have thought?

Not surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to the world of codes and ciphers was a mechanical device – a wheel cylinder. Although not much came of this invention, which was developed some time before 1802, in 1922 the Army adopted a similar device, bearing out President John F. Kennedy’s White House remarks to a roomful of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Even less surprisingly, Aaron Burr, that brilliant and ever-controversial character, appears in Masked Dispatches, as does John Quincy Adams in his role as America’s representative at the Prussian court. While in Berlin, he developed a sliding strip cipher – apparently not the easiest device to use, but another tribute to early American ingenuity and aptitude for secrecy.

The book includes much more – a chapter on Civil War ciphers, the use of codes during the 1876 Tilden-Hayes Presidential election scandal, and several descriptions of State Department codes. Particularly intriguing are the many reproductions of the various codes and ciphers, so  puzzle lovers and would-be spies can spend hours encoding and decoding.

Masked Dispatches and other publications on the history of cryptology can be ordered from the Center for Cryptologic History area of the National Security Agency’s web site, or you can find it in a library. I’ll be blogging about some more of these excellent books in the near future.

Oh, wait, Nicholas Trist! According to Masked Dispatches, when he was Chief Clerk of the State Department, President James K. Polk sent him to Mexico as a secret agent in an effort to end the Mexican War. From Mexico, Trist wrote to Secretary of State James Buchanan and explained his design for a code. It was a book code, but the title of the particular book he used was a mystery until the 1980’s, when shrewd scholarly detective work revealed that it was an obscure book on the Spanish language (Verdaderos principios de la lengua castellana by Joseph Borras). Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, but only after ignoring his recall by Polk. The President accepted the treaty but fired his emissary – and Trist didn’t even get paid for his time in Mexico!


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