My Cousin the Code-Breaker

by Patrick J. Buchanan- August 26, 2002

He died at 89, unknown to most Americans. Yet, he was an authentic hero to whom all Americans owe a debt – for our freedom and victory in the Cold War.

Meredith Knox Gardner was the greatest code-breaker of his age, a bird of paradise. A graduate of the University of Texas, he earned a master’s in languages from Wisconsin and became fluent in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Lithuanian, Sanskrit, Old High German, Middle High German and old church Slavonic.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army brought him to Washington to work on German ciphers. Gardner amazed colleagues here by learning Japanese in three months, and decrypting messages from Japanese commanders and military attaches to the Tokyo General Staff.

At war’s end, Gardner was moved to the Russian desk, where he began to study out-of-date Russian codebooks, picked up in the “black-bag jobs” of Hoover’s men. Gardner’s triumph came with his decryption of a wartime message from the Soviet consulate in New York that referred to a project called “Enormoz” – KGB code for the Los Alamos project to build the American atom bomb.

Gardner soon began decrypting messages containing dozens of cover names, such as “Stanley, “Hicks,” “Homer,” “Charles” and “Liberal.” The first three turned out to be the code names of that infamous trio of British spies, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. The last two proved to be the code names of Klaus Fuchs and Julius Rosenberg. Gardner had peeled the cover off the greatest spy ring in history. His patient labors sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair, though Gardner opposed their execution.

The Venona project, in which he was a pivotal figure, remained unknown until 1987, when MI5′s Peter Wright identified Gardner in his memoirs as the American who had deciphered the Russian codes from a charred codebook picked up on the Finnish front. Even Harry Truman had not been told of Gardner’s work.

In his obituary, the Washington Post wrote of him, “Within the intelligence community, Mr. Gardner was said to have been a living legend.” (The Post obituary re-tells the story that Kim Philby used to drop by Gardner’s office to glance over his shoulder at his work, though Gardner contended that he encountered Philby but once, and then smoothly managed to avoid shaking the traitor’s hand.)

Gardner’s full role in Venona did not become public until 1996. Then it was that the espionage and treason by Americans in wartime was revealed to have been far more extensive than any had imagined. But even when his monumental achievements became known, this quiet man declined to claim credit. He spent his retirement doing the most difficult crossword puzzles he could find, in the London Times and Scottish newspapers, and teaching Latin to friends.

Many of the spies and traitors unearthed by Meredith Gardner were never prosecuted. To have brought them to trial might have forced the disclosure that he was spending his days deciphering and reading the wartime messages Stalin was receiving from his agents in the United States.

Gardner’s partner was Robert Lamphere, the FBI man who ran down the spies Gardner’s work unearthed. As Lamphere told the Post, “I would bring Meredith some material, and he would print in a new word over a group of numbers, then he would give a little smile of satisfaction. He was a brilliant cryptanalyst.”

America never had a better pair of patriots working to root out treason than Gardner and Lamphere in those years when the future of the republic seemed very much in the balance, and to his credit, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan saw to it that both men were honored for their contributions to America’s security.

In addition to working crossword puzzles, Gardner spent long hours tracing his Scottish genealogy – not with a computer, but with pencil and paper. He relished discovering the names of the famous and infamous hidden in the branches of the family tree.

Fifteen years ago, after I had written a memoir of growing up in Washington during the war and postwar, which traced my father’s roots back to Okolona, Miss., and from there to Northern Ireland and Scotland, I received a note from Meredith Gardner.

He, too, he said, had been born in Okolona, and he informed me that we were cousins. The great counter-spy added that he now lived in the same condominium where I had lived in the early 1970s. It is to my eternal regret that I did not drive over to Connecticut Avenue to meet this American hero of the Cold War.