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The Code-Breaker and the G-Man


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The Code-Breaker and the G-Man

Meredith Gardner
Meredith Gardner

Joseph Sullivan
Decoding 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.

Meredith Gardner and Joseph Sullivan used their UW education to expose Soviet spies and bring criminals to justice.

By Candice Gaukel Andrews '77

Spies, 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 century.

A 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 and Meredith Gardner
When Blanche Hatfield went to work for the agency that employed Meredith Gardner, she introduced herself to the linguistic legend. They were married a few years later.

At 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.

That 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.

Gardner 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.

In 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 the FBI.

A 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."

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 Russians.

In 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.

This 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.

Gardner 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.

Julius 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."

Gardner 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.

In 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.

But 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.

Gardner 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."

Karen 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 mind."

Gardner 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."

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