Military cryptanalysts: Interrogatories of 1954

Header picture: Erwin Panofsky (left); William Friedman (right). Photo sources linked,

Two posts previous:

I’ve decided to treat the background in some depth because Panofsky is the most learned historian of art to have commented on the manuscript, and because there is a marked discrepancy between the tone, content and  style of responses he made to a ‘quiz’ sent him by William Friedman in 1954, and what we would normally think characteristic of Panofsky’s approach to correspondence, to art and to manuscripts, whether during his German- or his American period.

This post and the next looks at the circumstances leading up to Erwin Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman in 1954, after which that ‘quiz’ was sent to him and his responses returned by post.

There is also another surprising discrepancy:  between these answers of 1954 and an  opinion Panofsky had earlier given, freely and in private, to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill in 1930/31 – the only time he saw the manuscript though we learn from the correspondence that Panofsky had a photocopy (or xerox copy) of the manuscript by 1952 and possibly from as early as 1931. Since Panofsky was acquainted – in Hamburg and in America – with a scholar having expertise in palaeography (Richard Salomon), it is possible that the later opinion reflects information gained after 1931.

  • Jim Reeds speaks of what may be another, and a written evaluation by Panofsky.  Reporting to his mailing list (13 Jul 94) the results of a visit to Yale’s Beinecke library, Reeds mentioned seeing:  “A report on the VMS from Panofsky to Voynich ca. 1930, with different conclusions from his 1950’s report to Friedman“. The account of Panofsky’s opinion as given by Anne Nill in a letter to Herbert Garland – put online by Santacoloma in 2013 –  was found (in 2008) in Box #5 at the Grolier Club archives. While  waiting on the Beinecke to send me copy of their document , I’ll compare the responses of 1954 with Nill’s letter.

Unless we are able to explain the marked discrepancy in content and in tone between the assessment of 1931 and Panofsky’s responses to Friedman’s  ‘quiz’ in 1954,  the researcher must be left uncertain as to whether they do better to seek comparable imagery and/or informing texts though sixteenth century German art or  Jewish art of pre-fifteenth century ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ (or neither) though no-one acquainted with Panofsky’s writings on art – as the cryptanalysts evidently were not – can do what they did and merely presume that the later document contains the better information.

What Friedman and his cryptanalysts clearly failed to appreciate is that a specialist’s opinion is formed out of the evidence not from a ‘theory’, and it is formed by reference to a mass of prior study which contextualises the example to hand.   That evidence, practical experience and comparative material cannot be willed out of existence;  a person of Panofsky’s ability and experience does not as a rule assess a work one day as evincing the characteristics of  pre-fifteenth century southern (Sephardi) Jewish art with Arabic influence, and then without seeing the original again, twenty years later decide that it is  sixteenth-century and German. His first opinion was already that of the mature scholar, whose Studies in Iconology would appear in print eight years later, in 1939.

Explaining the paradox (and Panofsky’s curiously uncharacteristic tone and style in 1954)  means considering the context in which the later responses were written: not just America’s political climate during the 1950s –   outlined in the previous post – but  a meeting which occurred immediately before Friedman sent his ‘quiz’.

Between Friedman’s first seeking an introduction to Panofsky, and that meeting, there intervenes two years’ correspondence. We have a record of it thanks to  Jim Reeds,  who in 1994 went to the archives at the George C. Marshall Foundation, had xerox copies made at his own expense, and shared the information with other members of his mailing list.

The rest of this post summarises and adds references and comments for that correspondence. It  makes this post rather long, but will be helpful I hope.

The next post considers the situations of each of the four participants in the meeting which eventually took place: Friedman, Tiltman, Panofsky and von Neumann.

Later posts will turn to Friedman’s Questions; then look in detail at Panofsky’s responses; and finally see what the military cryptanalysts did with the information they had. It was this last which had such stong impact  later on the nature, assumptions and direction of the manuscript’s study.

Organising the ‘sit down’.. (March 1952 – March 1954)

The ‘questionnaire’ might never have been presented, and Panofsky might never have heard of Friedman, had not John von Neumann, in writing to ask Friedman for Mrs. Voynich’s address, mentioned that a colleague had some interest in the manuscript.

Friedman began pushing to meet that colleague – without even knowing the man’s name.  The way he broached the subject is revealing.  He did not ask von Neumann to see if his colleague was willing to meet, but in a footnote wrote:  “You might let me have his name, as it is quite possible he and I could get together for a discussion of the problem.” That the person might not wish to be named, or might refuse to meet Friedman doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, and Friedman’s  insensitivity becomes one of the most noticeable aspects of his character to infuse the record of his connection to this manuscript.  Similarly, his inability to consider both sides of a question once he had taken his own position would mar his efforts to understand it  – and so magnify Wilfrid’s errors and further distort the manuscript’s study, as we’ll see later.

After an initially cordial response, von Neumann’s correspondence soon shifts to refusals – expressed urbanely, as deferments – but though these ‘deferments’ continue for two full years (March 1952-March 1954) Friedman seemed oblivious.  During that time,  von Neumann’s letters never once encourage Friedman to contact Panofsky directly; nor is there any suggestion that Panofsky wished direct contact with Friedman.  But Friedman simply wasn’t the sort of person who takes ‘no’ for an answer – a character-trait doubtless helpful in his cryptographic work – and in March 1954, he finally did get to meet Panofsky – who after that meeting and having filled out Friedman’s ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’ had nothing more to do with Friedman or with Tiltman, so far as I know.

Again – it is due to Jim Reeds’ generosity that we can reconstruct the events.  Before visiting the George C. Marshall archives, he asked  members of his Voynich mailing list (31 March 1994) if there was anything  they’d like him to look for in particular while he was there.  Karl Kluge suggested, “‘The correspondence with Panofsky re: the Voynich.”

So, in addition to the research he intended to pursue*,   Reeds spent the time needed to find the ‘Panofsky’ letter file;  to make a summary of the many letters it contained;  to summarise Friedman’s questions and  to transcribe Panofsky’s replies in full.

  • *and which he soon shared. [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (7th. September 1994).
  • Jim Reeds’  Voynich mailing list (also described as the ‘first mailing list’) was run through  -x-voynich@rand.org.
  • The earlier archives (1991- 2001) are available zip files, ordered by year, at http://voynich.net/reeds/vmail.html
  • Archives for 2000-2005  are still up as webpages, ordered by year, month and thread (or date). Index at  http://www.voynich.net/Arch/
Voynich.net  is maintained – so I’m told –  by Rich Santacoloma who ran the second mailing list. That second list died some time ago  but for one reason and another, its files are not yet available to researchers online.  Santacoloma has promised to see to it  soon. Let’s hope nothing interferes.
Some years later, Zandbergen would copy Reeds’ summary of the questions and Reeds’  transcription of the answers to his own website, voynich.nu, though at present those pages lack full details of the sources  made use of.

Correspondence 1952-1954

Reeds’ summary of the  correspondence begins with a letter from Friedman to von Neumann:

  1. “Here is Mrs Voynich’s address. “…you may wish to communicate it to  your colleague* who is interested in that rather remarkable mystery. [Footnote] You might let me have his name, as it is quite possible he and I could get together for a discussion of the problem.” “With cordial greetings and best wishes for the New Year, I am, Sincerely…”[William F. Friedman]

Soon, von Neumann  does give Panofsky’s name or initials (Reeds reduced the chief names to initials in his summaries):

2.  JvN to WFF (24 Dec 1951) Thanks for Mrs Voynich’s address. I’ll tell it to EP, whom I talked with about the VMS. He has a photocopy. The subject is certainly very interesting and     intriguing. I hope you can visit EP and me.

Note – Reeds mentions that in the same file there is “A complete bound set of photostats of the VMS, printed, I think, from negatives made by Voynich in the early 1920’s. These are labeled with “page numbers” which are the same as the page numbers found in rand.org:/pub/voynich/voynich.orig“.    (Is it Panofsky’s copy?  Among the six original copies made by Voynich – as far as d’Imperio knew – was one given ” to a scholar whom Mrs. Voynich did not identify”, while in another place she notes that  “:.. The copies used by Friedman, Tiltman, Krisher, and Currier, and the copy available to me, all derive ultimately from a photocopy made by Father Petersen of Catholic University on April 29. 1931  from a set of photostats provided by Mrs. Voynich.” Elegant Enigma p. 31; p.21.

-Apparently an appointment was offered Friedman for March 7th. ?by phone? because…

3. WFF to JvN (22 Feb 1952) Alas, 7 March is out. How about after 15 March? Hope to bring my friend JT, “who has taken a considerable avocational interest in the Voynich  manuscript.”

Friedman would not realise, I think,  that he has caused alarm as well as been impolite. Impolite first, in rejecting the date offered him by Panofsky;  secondly in doing it so abruptly  without even a token apology for possible inconvenience and thirdly by announcing that he will bring a third person to be introduced to Panofsky. ‘Hope’ here is more likely to mean that he hopes ‘JT’ is free than that he hopes Panofsky will not object to the imposition.

Friedman’s suddenly including  ‘JT’ (Brigadier John Tiltman)  might well have alarmed von Neumann once he knew who Tiltman was:  namely, the senior British liaison officer between the British and the American military intelligence agencies.

The correspondence between von Neumann and Friedman, initially amiable, now changes tone from March 1952.  von Neumann maintains an impression of friendliness and willingness, while putting Friedman off  for two full years.  In my estimate, this was not due to personal concern on von Neumann’s part so much as to the realisation that his own position at Los Alamos, and  Panofsky’s position as a German Jew made it perhaps a bad idea: for him to meet in a private setting the representative of a foreign government, and for Panofsky to endure any sort of questioning by two men connected to military intelligence.  Panofsky left Germany in 1933, but bad experiences are slow to fade.

At the time, tensions existed not only among McCarthyists and others; they were also high between the American and British military-intelligence organisations, each of whom wanted frank disclosure from the other on matters military, while being very unwilling to give it.

Tiltman is also likely to have been sensitive to the unwisdom of meeting von Neumann in private.  Whatever the reason, mention of Tiltman is soon met by stonewalling from von Neumann, and then both of them –  first the one and then the other – make their excuses until 1954, the year Tiltman formally retired from British GCHQ.

  1. JvN to WFF 25 Feb 1952.. Thanks for yours of 22 Feb. Sorry we (?) cannot get together on 2 March. Lets plan on a later get-together with you and JT.
  2. JvN to WFF. 29 Feb 1952. Please excuse delay in answering yours of 25 Jan. Would have liked to come before 12/13 March. “I talked with my friend and colleague, Professor Panofsky, about the Voynich manuscript, and he is very much looking forward to making your acquaintance. Could you name a period during which a  get-together with him would suit you?”
  3. WFF to JvN. 20 March 1952. Thanks for the phone call. JT and I were planning to come up on 26 March, but JT just said  it was impractical. How about 4 April, 11 April, 25 April or 2 May? “Still hopeful of making our visit in the not too distant future and looking forward to it, I am, Sincerely,…”
  4. JvN to WFF. 21 March 1952. Thanks for yours of 20 March. Sorry to postpone, but I’ve got to go to Los Alamos and Las Vegas. [I/we?] Free on April 26, also on May 2 and 3.
  5.  WFF to JvN. 29 Aug 1952.”With the coming of Labor Day and the  ending of the summer vacation period, my thoughts turn once again in your direction and to the idea of making a visit to Princeton for the purpose of taking with Professor E. Panovsky [sic] and you about the Voynich manuscript.” A weekend after 13 Sept would be best for me and JT.
  6.  JvN to WFF. 8 Sept. 1952.Thanks for yours of 29 August. I am away to Cambridge, Mass, and then out West. I will call EP. Hope [sic] that I  can meet you and JT; so is EP.
  7. JvN to WFF. 15 June 1953. Excuse delay in answering yours of 29 May; I was away from Princeton. I will be in Santa Monica 25 June-25 July, EP will leave Princeton for Maine from 6 July through August; maybe we can meet in September?
  8. WFF to JvN. 25 Feb 1954.  Can JT and I see EP in March or April? PS: JT says April bad; how about March?

Then suddenly, in March 1954, the four men have met, apparently one evening  somewhere in Princeton. Von Neumann and Tiltman were both present at what Friedman describes as a ‘a conference’.

The file continues:

  1. Questions for Prof. E. Panofsky as a result of Conference with him and Prof. John von Neumann at Princeton on 9 March 1954. By List of 15 numbered questions by WFF. Q15 was what did EP think of the artificial language theory.  9 March 1954.
  2. WFF to EP. Thanks for spending evening with me & JT, talking about VMS; am enclosing list of questions. JT says hi.  16 March 1954.
  3. WFF to JvN. FYI, copy of previous letter & enclosure. 16 March 1954.
  4. JvN to WFF.  Thanks for yours of 12 March, and for copy of your letter to EP.  Nice sitting in on meeting between WFF, JT and EP.  Will see you on 20-21 April.  Tell JT that I didn’t attend Linear B lecture after all. (note that von Neumann doesn’t agree that he was active in the ‘Conference’.) 19 March 1954.
  5. EP to WFF. Thanks for the letter of 16 March; here are the answers to your questions. 19 March 1954.
  6. WFF to EP. Thanks for yours of 19 March, answering my questions. Am sending copy to JT. 23 March 1954.
  7. WFF to JvN.  Thanks for yours of 9 March; I’ve sent a copy to JT.  Come to my house for drinks on 20-21 April.  29 March 1954.

And that was that.

It would be good to have a photocopy of the first document from that group of seven.

The perfunctory tone of the single letter in this file from Panofsky to Friedman is most unusual.

Thanks for the letter of 16 March; here are the answers to your questions.

It contrasts markedly  with what we know, from numerous accounts, was  Panofsky’s usual practice of responding with civility  – and more:

“Anything that arrived by mail – an inquiry, an offprint, a casual greeting – would bring a prompt and delightful response; the inquiry had started a train of thought, the offprint had been read with genuine interest, the greeting had evoked memories. Often, a more personal note would be added, a comment on the current state of the world or a discourse-in-brief on some scholarly  problem that Panofsky was pursuing at the moment, and always as well-phrased, as full of wit and insight as his published writings. Such letters asked to be saved. Most  of them have been (there must be many thousands)

Keenan, quoting Stechow (among several others)  on this matter.  pp.19-20

  • Daniel Keenan,  Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America. (PhD thesis) University of Glasgow, (2014)
  • Panofsky’s correspondence is in various archives and personal collections, including Archives of American Art which hold letters written between 1920 and 1968.

 

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