Unfamiliar versions

A few ‘new’ episodes of Passing Parade have recently entered the OTR distribution. They’re not in the free material at Archive.org yet. (Everything ends up at Archive sooner or later.)

One episode from 1949 deals with espionage and code breakers.

The main theme is highly unconventional, especially after 1946: There has always been a Deepstate. America pretends to be innocent and constitutional, and claims to be bamboozled by the byzantine convolutions of Old World countries. In fact we always have our own convoluters who ignore morality and laws.

The first part of the episode tells the familiar story of Yardley and his Black Chamber in a familiar way.

Toward the end the narrator tells two unfamiliar versions of familiar events. I don’t know if these are forgotten facts or abandoned lies or just confusions. The first one feels like a confusion; the second one feels like a forgotten fact.

= = = = =

1. Again in the late 30s, just before the world blew up again, our country was infested with enemy spies. And yet somehow we had invented a code machine for sending our own messages, which the immense intelligence forces of Hitler failed to figure out. That machine, still I believe a secret, is said to be a sort of thinking machine based upon the human brain.

= = = = =

‘Electronic brain’ usually meant a digital computer. The conventional story (which seems reliable) is that we weren’t using digital computers in any active way during the war. Atanasoff was trying to use digital for ballistic calculations, but this wasn’t useful yet. Every plane and ship had ANALOG computers for bombsights and autopilots. Computers were being tried for decrypting late in the Enigma project, but the vast majority of the Enigma work was done by brute-force automatic code wheels. I don’t think anyone would describe the code-wheel devices as ‘thinking like a brain’. Both sides had been using wheel machines since 1920, contrary to the usual story that the Enigma was a total mystery until Turing magically understood it.

= = = = =

2. It was widely believed during the last two years of the war that we were having a most difficult time in breaking the Japanese code. We had very few agents well trained in the Japanese language. That was the story. Hidden behind this is the encouraging fact that a couple of young Yankee inventors had already perfected a radio decoding machine by the time Pearl Harbor occurred. And there was hardly a minute in the entire war that the American machine wasn’t smashing the Japanese code as fast as it was changed.

= = = = =

This differs radically from the familiar ‘Midway Mistake’ story. There’s also a hidden inference: If we were decoding everything before Pearl Harbor, we knew what was coming.