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The American Black Chamber (Bluejacket Books) Paperback – January 15, 2013


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Product Details

  • Series: Bluejacket Books
  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press; First Printing edition (January 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591149894
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591149897
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #139,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Herbert O. Yardley, one of the greatest authorities on secret codes and ciphers in the 1920s, was inducted into the NSA Hall of Honor posthumously in 1999. He is also the author of The Chinese Black Chamber.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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See all 25 customer reviews
I read this book some 50 years ago, having borrowed it from a friend.
Alm Torbjörn
The book is fascinating, well written and filled with stories of stealing code books, beautiful female spies.
John Matlock
Yardley provides many examples of real codes and his own experiences with spies.
L. Romero

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on September 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
It's great to see this classic book back in print. Yardley was, as they say, accustomed to luxury, and when fired in 1929 wrote this book on the breaking of foreign codes by the United States. (His firing is another story, when Hoover's secretary of state refused to continue the funding of the Black Chamber with the comment, Gentlemen do not read other people's mail.) Yardley had found a loophole in the law so that he couldn't be prosecuted, but boy did it annoy the Government. The book was a best seller, and started him or a career as an author. He wrote another four or five books on codes and another best seller called The Education of a Poker Player.

The book is fascinating, well written and filled with stories of stealing code books, beautiful female spies. And better descriptions of how to break codes that I've seen in any of the other books on the history of code breaking (maybe because the codes in the 1920's were simpler minded than later Enigma machines).

This book ties in very well with the new book The Reader of Gentlemens Mail.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Walt Howe on July 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
I read this book first about 40 years ago. Yardley published it after SecState Stimson withdrew funds with the famous "Gentlemen do not read other people's mail." It revealed, the details of breaking Japanese ciphers while they were still in use and caused a political furor. It led to legislation against revealing state secrets, and the book itself was prohibited from re-publication by Act of Congress, apparently now expired.
Yardley was an egotist, and never hesitated to take first person credit for work actually performed by subordinates, according to people who knew him. In any case, it makes a great read!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By kmj@canada.com on July 1, 1998
Format: Paperback
Anyone interested in the inner workings of ANY cryptoanalyst needs to read this book. Told in the first person Yardley reveals the amazing amount of genius and hard work cryptography required before the days of calculators and computers. It really is a great read.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By M. Burroughs on August 14, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I first heard of this book in 1967 while undergoing Air Force cryptologic training; unfortunately, it was out of print at that time. In 1975, I found a copy in an Air Force secure-area library and was able to read it there, but only during my lunch hours. Since it was a rare, out-of-print book, the librarian wouldn't let it leave the library, and I can't say that I blame her.

Because of security restrictions, Maj Yardley wasn't able to publish his book in the US legally, so his work-around was to have it published in the United Kingdom in 1931. When I learned that it had been republished and was available through Amazon, I immediately ordered a copy and read it again 30 years later.

This book gives insight into the fledgling cryptologic effort, referred to as the American Black Chamber, begun by the US in World War I. The effort literally started from scratch and existed on a shoestring budget, with Maj Yardley and a handful of others usually working very long hours. By 1929, after years of hard work, the "Chamber" had developed into a relatively sophisticated, successful operation.

Regrettably, naivete ruled the day when President Hoover's new Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson (This effort was a State Department function back then.), upon learning of the existence of the Chamber, was horrified that we would even think of "spying" on someone else ("Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."). He summarily had the Chamber abolished, so all that work went down the tubes until later on when it had to be rebuilt for the effort of World War II.

It is an ironic footnote in history that by the time Mr. Secretary Stimson became Secretary of War during World War II, his views of the importance of cryptologics had changed--as did those of others in the military and diplomatic spheres of influence.

Read all about it. This is excellent reading, and it brings to life the difficulties and accomplishments of the American Black Chamber.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By James D. Crabtree VINE VOICE on December 7, 2007
Format: Paperback
Aside from the subject of codes and ciphers, which this book does very well, The American Black Chamber also discusses how U.S. codebreaking affected the post-WWI naval disarmament conference which led to the famous 5-5-3 ratio of heavy warships amongst the British, American and Japanese navies. American negotiators knew in advance what the Japanese and British were willing to settle for and managed to get the best deal possible for the U.S.

Very much an eye-opener.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Wm B. Hackett III on April 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
Our American government? Diplomacy? Non-fiction? 20th century era to 1931? I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Very informative (for me). When you get to the end, you may smile at this question: Do you (can you) really believe the part about gentlemen not reading other people's mail? :-) The sort of book I'd say to thoughtful friends, "If you don't enjoy this one, I'll give you your money back". The sort of book that makes you wish you could have met the author...
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By L. Romero VINE VOICE on July 20, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book was highly recommended to me and I must say I enjoyed reading it. If you like spy novels, breaking codes, etc, you will like this book. It goes into the beginnings of the NSA, describing the efforts the US went to listen and decode messages. How much of it was done by hand. It also touches on the politics of breaking codes. For instance, when Yardley found out that the president's code was weak (by breaking it), he had to decide whether to tell the president or just to keep quiet and avoid being asked why he was listening to those conversations. Yardley provides many examples of real codes and his own experiences with spies. Codes are not just encoded messages on a piece of paper. They can be invisible inks that require the correct chemical to develop them. This is a very good book to read.
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