During a full day of activities on April 23 the Marshall Foundation opened its Codebreaking sequence and began the three-year Marshall Legacy Series to make General Marshall’s career and achievements more popularly accessible and to move on from the completion of the Marshall Papers that will occur later this year.
The Foundation received the official papers of one of the foremost codebreakers of the 20th century during the April 23 afternoon event. At that time scholars and experts from the Foundation, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) discussed William Friedman, who is considered to be the leading codebreaking pioneer in the United States in the 20th century.
As head codebreaker for the U.S. War Department, Friedman led a team that broke the Japanese diplomatic code known as PURPLE in 1940 during World War II. General Marshall later described the intelligence provided by Friedman and his cryptologists as “contributing greatly to the victory and tremendously to the saving of American lives…and…the early termination of the war.” Col. Friedman continued his work after the war in government signals intelligence and became the head cryptologist of the NSA. Upon his retirement from NSA in 1955, he donated his personal papers to the Marshall Foundation where they have resided since 1969.
With the addition of Friedman’s official papers in digital form that were transferred by NSA on April 23 to the personal papers already in the Marshall Foundation collections, the Foundation possesses the most complete and comprehensive set of Friedman materials as part of one of the most important private collections of cryptologic material worldwide. “Our Friedman collections put us at the epicenter of cryptology research,” said Dr. Rob Havers, Foundation President.
Speakers during the afternoon session included Dr. Havers and Paul Barron, director for the library and archives at the Foundation; Dr. David Sherman, associate director for policy and records, NSA; Sheryl Shenberger, director of the National Declassification Center, NSA; Betsy Rohaly Smoot, historian, Center for Cryptologic Research, NSA; Sarah Parsons, archivist, NSA; Dr. Rose Mary Sheldon, professor of history, Virginia Military Institute; Dr. Bill Sherman, head of research, Victoria and Albert Museum; Stephen Budiansky, historian and author of Battle of Wits; and Tony Comer, historian, Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ.
During the evening speaking to a full house in the Pogue Auditorium, Dr. Bill Sherman, who is head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the curator of the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition on “Decoding the Renaissance,” talked about codes, codebreaking and ciphers. His talk, titled “From the Cipher Disk to the Enigma Machine: 500 Years of Cryptography,” featured far-reaching connections to the Renaissance, Shakespeare and contemporary cultural and an introduction to pioneering codebreakers William and Elizebeth Friedman.
“I’m going to try and convince you that Shakespeare helped us win World War II,” he said to the chuckling audience. “To connect Shakespeare with World War II codebreaking, we might enlist Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game’ and who will play ‘Hamlet’ in an upcoming production in London.”
The use of codes in writing, he said, can be traced back more than 4,000 years to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The first efforts to develop a system for writing in code appeared in 855 AD in an Arab book that contained several cipher alphabets. The process of written code appeared in western civilization during the Middle Ages and was often used by royalty to secretly converse with their military or other members of the royal family.
In the 1500s, Sir Francis Bacon was intrigued by ciphers and even created a simple “biliteral code,” he said, that could easily codify plain text by using two different letters or symbols. “The incredibly powerful thing [Bacon] came up with…is that this code can signify anything by using anything. Anything that can be broken in two can be an alphabet. It can be colors, pluses and minuses, apples and oranges or even a minor key and major key in music,” he said.
A new exhibition on the Friedmans and Codebreaking, “Partners in Code: William and Elizebeth Friedman,” will be open through July 4.
Coming events include a display of the German Enigma machine and a short talk by Foundation archivist Jeffrey Kozak as well as a showing of “The Imitation Game” on May 20 and a portrayal of Thomas Jefferson Beale and his three codes for treasure that’s supposedly buried in Virginia on June 20. See our website for details.
The Marshall Legacy Series with 12 sequences planned to put Marshall’s legacy into the context of world events his leadership helped to shape promises substantial benefits to many constituencies the Foundation serves including members, children and families, scholars and researchers, historians and history buffs, and museum visitors of all ages.