Military cryptanalysts: the ‘Art-Group Four’

Header Picture: public domain image of Princeton, IAS, Huld hall

Two prior posts:

Military cryptanalysts – Prelude (
Military cryptanalysts: Interrogatories of 1954 (

After his first, brief survey of the Friedman-von Neumann letter-file, Jim Reeds told other list-members (9th. April 1994):

…A[p]parently Friedman and John v. Neumann had a chat with Panofsky and wrote down a list of questions, and Panofsky wrote a letter answering them. I will summarize their contents when I get the xeroxes..

Closer inspection showed otherwise:   Von Neumann was Panofsky’s colleague who for two years (March 1952-March 1954) effectively stood between Panofsky and the somewhat importunate Friedman.  von Neumann later made a point of saying  that he just ‘sat in’ on their eventual meeting in March 1954.

Reeds’ entry  in his  Voynich Bibliography:

  • Panofsky, Erwin. “Answers to Questions for Prof. E. Panofsky.” Letter to William F. Friedman, March 19, 1954. Correspondence between Friedman, Panofsky, and J. v. Neumann. Letters from Richard Salomon to Erwin Panofsky and Gertrud Bing. WFF 1614.  (i.e.: George Marshall Foundation (library?) William F. Friedman Collection,  file no. 1614.)

Though Bauer (2017 p.558) also mentions this correspondence between Salomon and Panofsky, it is not referred to by Sheldon

It is interesting to imagine how news of the planned meeting might have affected members of the FBI or HUAC.  The  ‘ciphertext’ had been touted by the late Wilfrid Voynich as of value to the military; its present owner, his widow,  was known to have lived in Russia and sympathised with revolutionaries.  Wilfrid’s BOI file presumably became an FBI file in 1938, and the FBI had already had reason to ‘chat’ with Panofsky, in 1950.

Add to this the fact that Friedman had a history of instability, that Tiltman represented a foreign government, and that von Neumann worked on America’s nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos, and you can see why the thought of their meeting would have raised hair on the neck of the good FBI man.  Some surely doubted that they were intending to meet only to chat about  medieval art.

Hostility towards Jewish academics did not come only from external agencies; some otherwise intelligent men and academics were bigots too.  It has been pointed out to me that  in the early 1950s, Revilo Oliver attempted to renew an early acquaintance with Friedman

George David Birkhoff – another of similar mind – headed the maths department at Harvard through the first and second world war (1912 to 1944). Birkhoff’s anti-Semitic views and remarks are well-documented but not unequivocal. Siegmund-Schultze discovered a letter of 1928 which shows that Birkhoff interviewed von Neumann in Paris in 1928. (see excerpt below). Birkhoff was interested in astronomy, as was Van der Waerden.

And while Panofsky was the last man in the world to be paranoid,  it is understandable that he should prefer to keep to the world of colleagues students and the IAS, having as little as possible to do with bureaucrats. men in fedoras, and military chaps of the spies-and-ciphers sort.

We are  looking into this to understand why, in writing responses to a ‘quiz’ framed by Friedman, Panofsky’s replies are so derivative and laconic.

If we take those responses  at face value, we must suppose Panofsky considered the manuscript the work of a sixteenth-century  German;  it not, we must return to the privately-given opinion of 1931 1932 and suppose Panofsky’s opinion to be that the manuscript was  Jewish and from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.   A southern locus better agrees with the orthography of the month-names; on the other hand some of the marginal inscriptions have been interpreted as German.  (How much later they were added is uncertain).

“The Group of Four”

William Friedman was employed by the National Security Agency (See prior post, ‘Prelude’.)

Though a fine cryptographer he also had a history of instability. I’ll illustrate with a couple of quotations, the first describing an early incident involving John Tiltman.

 [During Tiltman’s voyage to America by sea in 1942] he was made party to what amounted to a breach of security by the communications officer of the ship. Knowing something of Tiltman’s mission (the officer handled enciphered messages), he took it upon himself to show Tiltman the secure communications gear he was responsible for. Tiltman promised himself to cover the officer’s well-intentioned indiscretion by acting as if he had never seen the gear when he would be shown it officially. Upon his arrival in the U.S., both the Navy (in the person of Joseph Wenger) and the Army (through William Friedman) demonstrated the gear for him, each independently of the other. As it turned out, Wenger had received authorization for his actions. Friedman, much like the naval officer aboard ship, discussed the equipment on his own authority. This, according to Tiltman, led to a confrontation between Friedman and General Strong, the staff intelligence officer (G-2) for General Marshall, which may have led to one of Friedman’s breakdowns. (p.45)

There can be no doubt about that instability; most modern accounts of Friedman’s life speak of it, e.g.

Friedman’s life-long mental problems, particularly his depression, insomnia, and alcoholism, are summarized in a letter to his biographer, Ronald Clark, written by Friedman’s last psychiatrist (he’d consulted at least three for varying periods over the years), Zigmond M. Lebensohn, dated 10 May 1976. (Papers of Elizebeth S. Friedman, Box 13, File 30, George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia). Lebensohn’s letter notes that Friedman had been hospitalized with mental illness five separate times beginning in 1940. His last hospitalization was in late 1963.

  • [pdf] Colin MacKinnon, ‘William Friedman’s Bletchley Park Diary: A New Source for the History of Anglo-American Intelligence Cooperation’, Intelligence and National Security, (December 2005) note 9, pp.4-5.

In 1952 John Tiltman was still a member of CGHQ.  The meeting with Panofsky was continually deferred by him, or by von Neumann until March 1954 – about the time Tiltman retired from GCHQ though still  based at the British Embassy in Washington and still the senior British (UK) liaison officer to the United States.

Tiltman’s work in America was chiefly to assist the sharing of sensitive military intelligence between two of the three war-time allies, America and Britain,  at a time when neither side  felt  complete confidence in the other…

The third participant was the true civilian, Erwin Panofsky.  For those without previous knowledge of Panofsky’s work, I add a passage about perspective – in more senses than one – from a paper which he wrote in 1932, the same year he saw the Voynich manuscript.

  • Erwin Panofsky,‘ZumProblemder Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung von Werken der bildenden Kunst’, Logos 21 (1932): 103–19;
  • above paper, translated by Jas´ Elsner and Katharina Lorenz under the title ‘On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’, Critical Inquiry 38 (Spring 2012): 467–82.

[For Lucian] to have been unambiguous would have been to have understood the work of art not from the vantage point of the second century AD but from that of the fifth century BC. He would also have needed to bring to mind identical comparable cases and thus to have been aware of changes in the possibilities of spatial expression over the period.  In short, he would have to have modeled his description not on the immediate perception of a given object within the picture but on the knowledge of general principles of depiction, that include an understanding of style which only a historical consciousness could have provided.

In my work (both here, and in general), when I speak of ‘stylistics’ I’m referring to those things bolded in the quotation above.

  • A lecture by Panofsky: “The Value of Error in the History of Art” (youtube)
  • Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876-1980. p.239 (note 165). A very interesting footnote shedding light on how Carl Neumann and Panofsky each regarded  Dürer’s view of the Jews – when both men were in Germany and  Hitler was coming to power.

John von Neumann, was Panofsky’s colleague and friend  should not be confused with Carl Neumann.

Los Alamos identification badge for John von Neumann. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory. via Alex Wellerstein’s blog.

Leaving Germany in the 1930s he had come to work, as Panofsky had done from 1933, at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.  One difference between them was that in 1943, von Neumann was personally invited by Oppenheimer to participate in the Manhattan Project. By 1952,  von Neumann had effectively two sets of ‘colleagues’.

Still more likely to create a frisson among the McCarthyists and others if they heard of the meeting was that  John von Neumann shared  rights with Karl Fuchs for the patent on a top secret nuclear mechanism which Fuchs had certainly shared with America’s other (and now even more distrusted) war-time ally, Communist Russia!   Fuchs had been convicted of spying just two years before Friedman started pushing to meet von Neumann’s ‘colleague’.

Given their  positions, their eminence, their specialisations and the atmosphere of the time, one cannot suppose that  any outsider – or that most of the insiders – could quite believe that none of the four had motives other than a desire to ‘have a chat’ about art.

Mutual uncertainty  about motives might also explain why, for those two years, any proposed meeting date was found impossible either by von Neumann or by Tiltman. A disinclination for further involvement with Friedman (or Tiltman) and awareness for the need for care and discretion might do much to explain Panofsky’s  responses, both to Friedman and to his ‘quiz’, which we’ll now turn to consider in the next two posts.

After Friedman informed von Neumann that he wanted to include ‘JT’ in the proposed meeting – or rather once  von Neumann had time to learn  ‘JT’s’ “avocation’ – the tone of the Friedman-von Neumann correspondence changes suddenly: from March 1952.

What fun! 

 

 

I am not implying any conspiracy between the four to exchange military secrets, but describing the context within which Friedman framed, and Panofsky responded to,  the ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’.

 

see also:

  • [pdf] Daniel Keenan, Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America, (PhD thesis), Glasgow University, 2014.

For insight into von Neumann’s presence at Los Alamos see e.g.

A recent and revealing study of Fuch’s activity:

  • Michael S. Goodman, ‘The grandfather of the hydrogen bomb?: Anglo-American intelligence and Klaus Fuchs’, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences , Vol. 34, No. 1 (2003), pp. 1-22.

 

Next post:  The ‘quiz’.

 

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