This arti­cle is part 2 of 8 in the series War Plans

In Washington, on the top floor of a non­de­script four-sto­ry brick build­ing about a quar­ter-mile from the nation’s Capitol build­ing, crypt­an­a­lysts were busy decod­ing incom­ing mes­sages from around the world.  The work of these spe­cial­ists had recent­ly been inten­si­fied due to the amount of mes­sag­ing being inter­cept­ed and work was going on day-round on a week­ly basis.

The only thing which dis­tin­guished the build­ing from most of its neigh­bors was the array of anten­nae on its roof, anten­nae which gath­ered radio traf­fic from all around the globe.

Because of recent changes made by the ene­my to many of its codes, the work was more fren­zied than ever and spe­cial­ists in the ene­my lan­guage were being called on inces­sant­ly to lend their exper­tise to high­ly nuanced phras­es which could only be prop­er­ly inter­pret­ed by those who had been immersed in the lan­guage for years.

Both diplo­mat­ic and mil­i­tary mes­sages were being decod­ed here, but since the var­i­ous ene­my mil­i­tary ser­vices each had their own spe­cial code require­ments, work on these was also under­way at numer­ous loca­tions around the world and the resul­tant decrypts were then trans­mit­ted to this one location.

As mes­sages were decod­ed, they were deliv­ered to high­er ech­e­lon civil­ian staff or mil­i­tary offi­cers for eval­u­a­tion and deci­sions about who should be made recip­i­ents of each, some going only to mil­i­tary high­er-ups, some to civil­ian super­vi­sors, and some to both.  Inevitably, vir­tu­al­ly all mes­sages wound up either with those close to the President or to the chief of staff of the Army or Navy.

When a mes­sage was deter­mined to be of a high­ly crit­i­cal nature, the final recip­i­ent would be the President him­self, who then had to make a deci­sion for a response, some­times on the spur of the moment.

It was vital­ly impor­tant dur­ing this time of ten­sion that appro­pri­ate mes­sages be sent out to all mil­i­tary com­mands, to cou­ple with those being decod­ed by each of those com­mands so that a clear pic­ture could be devel­oped about pos­si­ble ene­my intentions.

Fortunately for the U.S. SIGINT (sig­nal intel­li­gence) peo­ple, they had many years pre­vi­ous­ly deter­mined that mil­i­tary mes­sage decod­ing must be cou­pled with diplo­mat­ic mes­sage decod­ing in order to ful­ly real­ize the intent of for­eign governments.

Of course, the final recip­i­ent of each mes­sage in Washington had the mon­u­men­tal task of decid­ing which com­mand should receive which mes­sage.  Omitting some cru­cial piece of infor­ma­tion could prove dis­as­trous should a com­mand some­where on the oth­er side of the globe be caught by sur­prise because it did not receive the right data at the right time.

It was also nec­es­sary to assure that trans­mit­tal of deci­phered mes­sages did not alert the ene­my that their codes had been bro­ken and their com­mu­ni­ca­tions were being mon­i­tored, just as the U.S con­tin­u­al­ly worked to keep its own codes secret and unbro­ken by poten­tial enemies.

Whenever code break­ers encoun­tered sud­den changes in codes, it was almost uni­ver­sal­ly a sign that some­thing was up, either diplo­mat­i­cal­ly or mil­i­tar­i­ly and these changes would inevitably increase the work­load of the code break­ers as they scram­bled to find the new keys which would keep them con­nect­ed to the activ­i­ties of those being monitored.

On this par­tic­u­lar day, a diplo­mat­ic mes­sage to a Washington embassy was being decrypt­ed and the con­tent of the mes­sage indi­cat­ed that there was like­ly to be a split in diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with the United States, and pos­si­bly some­time in the very near future.


It was for­tu­nate that the U.S. decrypters had all the keys to the diplo­mat­ic code and this allowed them to read these cod­ed mes­sages in quick time, some­times more quick­ly than even the intend­ed recip­i­ent because it was a well-known fact that the typ­ists at the embassy were not par­tic­u­lar­ly adept and some­times con­sumed hours pro­vid­ing a clear transcript.

The mes­sage was hur­ried­ly typed up and rushed off the depart­ment super­vi­sor who quick­ly sensed its impor­tance and direct­ed that it be hand-deliv­ered imme­di­ate­ly to the Secretary of State.

When the Secretary read the decrypt­ed edit of the mes­sage, he direct­ed the mes­sen­ger to return and noti­fy the decod­ing group to trans­mit the mes­sage to the mil­i­tary com­mands and he head­ed down the hall of the White House to the Oval Office, break­ing into a ses­sion between the President and one of his pos­si­ble appointees to an appeals court.

Offering his apolo­gies, the Secretary informed the President that he had a mes­sage of some impor­tance where­upon the President polite­ly sug­gest­ed to his vis­i­tor that their con­ver­sa­tion was over, ush­ered him to the door with a firm hand­shake, and returned to his desk and the offered mes­sage from the Secretary.

As the President read through the mes­sage, he asked of the Secretary, “Could there be any mis­take in the translation?”

“No, Mr. President.  The decoders thor­ough­ly vet­ted the recep­tion and the trans­la­tion.  There is vir­tu­al­ly no room for doubt about the content.”

“Well, we shall have to keep a close watch on this and the embassy.  It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that this is a pre­lude to a dec­la­ra­tion of war.

“Have the appro­pri­ate mil­i­tary com­mands been apprised of this information?”

“Yes, sir.  I went ahead and made sure that they were noti­fied as I was sure that would be your direc­tion as well.”

“Good, good.  Thanks for stay­ing on top of this.  I may want to talk direct­ly with the Admiral and General at some point, in which case we’ll use the secure tele­phone line.  I don’t want any delays in com­mu­ni­ca­tion if this reach­es a crit­i­cal point.”

“Yes, sir.  Anything else I can do for the moment?”

“Nothing I can think of right now.  Let’s just all keep our ears open for any pos­si­ble eventuality.”

The Secretary gave a brief nod, turned, and head­ed to the door as the President pen­sive­ly rubbed his chin, won­der­ing what his poten­tial bel­liger­en­t’s next step might be.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.

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