“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, April 24, 2005

the adventures of Herbert O. Yardley

At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyers hears out Huck’s plan to free Jim. Huck's plan is plain. It is a routine escape plan. It will probably work. Huck asks if the plan wouldn’t work. This is what Tom says:

"WORK? Why, cert'nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it's too blame' simple; there ain't nothing TO it. What's the good of a plan that ain't no more trouble than that? It's as mild as goose-milk. Why, Huck, it wouldn't make no more talk than breaking into a soap factory."

I never said nothing, because I warn't expecting nothing different; but I knowed mighty well that whenever he got HIS plan ready it wouldn't have none of them objections to it. And it didn't. He told me what it was, and I see in a minute it wasworth fifteen of mine for style, and would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied, and said we would waltz in on it. I needn't tell what it was here, because I knowed it wouldn't stay the way, it was. I knowed he would be changing it around every which way as we went along, and heaving in new bullinesses wherever he got a chance. And that is what he done.”

That about encapsulates the spirit of the CIA. It is an organization of Tom Sawyers, Tom Sawyer writ large, Tom Sawyer with a salary and pension plan.

The way a country spies says deep, deep things about the country's cultural values. One reason to keep an eye on spies. Another reason is, of course, that they are ridiculously melodramatic.

Anybody who is truly interested in the art of spying is aware of The Codebreakers. This is the decrypter’s Ars Magna – David Kahn’s masterpiece, one part encyclopedia, one part Poe. Kahn has now written another book. This one is a biography of Herbert O. Yardley. Thomas Powers (the author of one of the great 70s CIA books, Richard Helms: The Man who kept the secrets) reviews it in the NYRB. Here’s a graf:

“Yardley is one of the remarkable men in American history. He is known primarily for his summary dismissal in 1929 by incoming Secretary of State Henry Stimson, a patrician Wall Street lawyer who closed down the Ci-pher Bureau with the casual observation that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail"—a remark, interestingly, which is the only thing remembered about either man. It is often cited as marking the high-water mark of American starched-collar idealism before the downhill slide into great-power realism. But what made Yardley famous is not the thing that makes him interesting. The son of a railroad telegrapher, a man with a lively Jazz Age interest in money, good-looking women, and drinks at five, Yardley not only taught his country how to read other people's mail but wrote two of the enduring American books—the best single intelligence memoir, The American Black Chamber (1931), and perhaps the greatest book in any language on playing cards for money, The Education of a Poker Player (1957).”

The fakery about shrinking big government begins, probably, with spying – which elicits supportive hardons from the same people who don’t want big government poking its nose into, say, worker safety issues (say, there is enough poking in that sentence to create a mini-Freudian meltdown. But let us soldier on…)

Yardley is one of those impossible men who should have been fictitious – a character in a radio series, or Li’l Orphan Annie:

“But Yardley remains the great figure of American codebreaking and it was probably inevitable that David Kahn, the great historian of American codebreaking, would set out to write his biography. From the outset he was challenged by the second major barrier to writing Yardley's life—lack of materials. When Yardley speaks in his books—there is a third covering his adventures in China in the 1930s—all is illuminated, but where the books stop the life grows dim. At his death, Yardley left no papers—odd for a writer—but when intelligence figures die it is not uncommon for personable men to arrive promptly at the widow's door with an offer to help. Typically the visit ends with every scrap of paper going out the door before the sun goes down. Kahn offers no guess about the fate of Yardley's missing papers, and repaired the deficiency in the only way—by scouring every plausible archive, talking to the bare handful of survivors, and trusting to luck. His big finds were the files of Yardley's literary agent, George Bye, preserved in the library of Columbia University, and the letters Yardley sent home from China during the year and a half he worked for the legendary chief of Kuomintang intelligence, Dai Li.
The man who emerges in Kahn's briskly paced portrait is gifted, complex, resourceful, and often disappointed. Yardley's life included more periods of drinking than not, some interesting women, and many spurned efforts to resume the work he knew and liked best. He bounced back from the loss of his codebreaking job with The American Black Chamber, hung around Hollywood long enough to earn $10,000 for doing nothing, wrote some forgettable novels, did some radio work, dabbled in real estate, and finally got back into the great game, attacking Japanese codes for officials in China. During after-hours in the Chungking Hostel he taught the young reporter Theodore White two useful survival arts—how to play poker and how to ride out an air raid…”

As for my own after-hours time at the Chungking Hostel… well, that’s another story for another time.

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