Code-Breaker and the G-Man
messages to decipher threats to our national
security from outside sources and finding
the dangers already here, living insidiously
among us: these endeavors now make up the
headlines of our daily lives. Meredith Gardner
and Joseph Sullivan were heroes of these kinds
of battles, but their work did not involve
modern-day terrorists. Instead, one fought
enemies from without in the 1940s; the other,
a generation later, fought enemies within.
Both died during the same week in August.
Gardner and Joseph Sullivan used their UW education
to expose Soviet spies and bring criminals to justice.
Candice Gaukel Andrews '77
secret codes, and a highly protected anonymity: it's
the stuff of a John Le Carré novel. Although
there are no movies that chronicle the intriguing career
of Meredith Knox Gardner MAx'40, he pulled off one of
the greatest U.S. counterintelligence coups of the last
native of Okolona, Mississippi, Gardner attended graduate
classes in the German department at the University of
Wisconsin and was a TA between 1938 and 1940. An exceptional
linguist, he was fluent in German, Old High German,
Middle High German, Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Lithuanian,
Slavonic, Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian. He
moved to Washington, D.C., early in World War II to
work as a civilian for the Army Signal Intelligence
Service (ASIS), a predecessor of the National Security
Agency (NSA). He was first assigned to decode intercepted
German telegrams, but then amazed his colleagues when
he also mastered Japanese in a few months.
Blanche Hatfield went to work for the agency that
employed Meredith Gardner, she introduced herself
to the linguistic legend. They were married a few
the same time that Gardner was beginning his career
at ASIS, a young UW-Madison graduate student named Blanche
Hatfield MA'42 was hearing about Gardner's expert reputation
in her German classes. After graduating, she, too, went
to work for ASIS to help decode German messages. Gardner's
son and daughter say that their mother knew Gardner
worked there, sought him out, and promptly approached
him with what she thought was a clever pickup line
"Ich dachte, Sie wären eine Legende!"
("I thought you were just a legend!") They
married in 1943.
same year, Gardner received a surprising order: he was
reassigned to examine telegraphic traffic involving
the Soviet Union, America's ally. The U.S. government,
concerned that Stalin might make a deal with Hitler
and get out of the war, began to monitor Soviet diplomatic
communications. The Soviets were aware of the situation,
but because their cables were in code, security did
not concern them.
began his task by studying out-of-date Soviet code books,
probably stolen by FBI agents, to try to figure out
the current codes. In the fall of 1946, he made an important
breakthrough. He determined the ciphers used for English
letters, allowing him to spell out proper names.
a telegraphic message sent two years earlier, Gardner
found a list of names: Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Enrico
Fermi, Edward Teller, and others the scientists who
worked on the atomic bomb inside America's most secret
location, Los Alamos, New Mexico. The message was the
first hint that there might be Soviet spies working
at the atomic weapons plant. It was time to call in
few months later, Gardner came upon a reference to an
agent in six separate messages with the code name "Liberal."
The only clue to his identity lay in the name of his
twenty-nine-year-old wife. Gardner determined that the
name contained three groups of letters, the first representing
E and the third L. "I had never come
across a three-letter meaning in the spell code,"
he later recalled, according to an obituary in the London
Telegraph. "Then I said, 'Ah, but they anticipate
sending a lot of English text, and the most common word
in the English language is the."
name of Liberal's wife was "Ethel," one of
the key clues that led to the uncovering of Julius and
Ethel Rosenberg, who were arrested in the summer of
1950 and were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage.
At their trial, the prosecutor implied that they had
stolen the secret of the atom bomb and given it to the
fact, while the Rosenberg trial was unfolding, Gardner
broke into the most explicit message he would ever read.
It pointed to two Los Alamos physicists as the ones
who had given away the blueprints for the bomb: nineteen-year-old
Harvard graduate Theodore Hall and a refugee from Hitler,
Klaus Fuchs. Neither knew the other was a Russian spy.
evidence was kept out of court, however, because it
would have revealed the fact that the United States
had managed to break the Soviet code.
had supported the death penalty for Julius, but not
for Ethel. Unbeknownst to the court, Gardner had decoded
another KGB message that indicated that Ethel was not
a spy like Julius. Gardner said, in an interview broadcast
on NOVA in February 2002, "[The message
said] she knows about her husband's work. In view of
her delicate health, does not work." The word work
was KGB jargon for espionage, which would explain
why Ethel was not given a cover name.
and Ethel were executed in the electric chair at Sing
Sing Prison on June 19, 1953. Michael Meeropol PhD'73,
one of the Rosenbergs' two sons, says that "Mr.
Gardner was convinced that my mother was wrongfully
convicted and executed, but because what he did was
super-secret, he could not speak out. As I understand
it, he expressed tremendous remorse for this."
and the other code breakers ultimately found cover names
for more than three hundred Americans who spied for
the Soviets in World War II. American counterintelligence
was able to identify only about one hundred of these
Soviet agents. But even that accomplishment was remarkable.
There wasn't a single agency of the American government
that the Soviets hadn't infiltrated.
1972, Gardner retired from the NSA, and his work remained
unknown for years. According to his son, Arthur Gardner
MA'70, "I had no idea of his job when I was growing
up. He took his promise of secrecy very seriously. I
didn't know until much later what he did." Word
got out in 1987, when former agent Peter Wright referred
to Gardner in his autobiography, Spycatcher.
no one paid much attention. It wasn't until 1996 that
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as chair of a U.S.
commission on government secrecy, became aware of the
cryptography and campaigned for it to be revealed. Fifty
years after their labors, Gardner and his colleagues
were honored at a formal ceremony in Washington sponsored
by the NSA, the CIA, and the Center for Democracy. Senator
Moynihan introduced Meredith Gardner as an unsung hero
of the Cold War.
told the Washington Post in 1996 that he attributed
his success to his logic, linguistic skills, and "a
sort of magpie attitude to facts, the habit of storing
things away that did not seem to have any connection
at all." Son Arthur says, "He had a love of
detail and a love of knowledge in general."
Fischer, who works at the UW-Madison Division of Continuing
Studies, is the sister of Gardner's daughter-in-law
and met Gardner in his later years. "If he heard
a word pronounced differently," she says, "he'd
trace the roots of the word and how the different pronunciation
came about. He had an endless curiosity and a quick
spent his retirement doing the most difficult crossword
puzzles he could find, in the London Times, and
traced his Scottish ancestry "almost back to the
Bible," says Fischer. He died on August 9, 2002,
in Chevy Chase, Maryland. In his obituary, the Washington
Post gave him the credit he so long deserved when
it stated, "Within the intelligence community,
Mr. Gardner was said to have been a living legend."
Read the latest news from campus.
Find a story in On Wisconsin's archives.