Before the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Herbert Yardley was just a code clerk for the state department, spending his evenings registering incoming cables and distributing them to the correct recipients. Little did Yardley know that he would go on to establish America’s groundbreaking cipher bureau. Take a quiz to uncover fascinating facts about the history and accomplishments of this influential intelligence organization.

The Power of the COde

The boredom of the night shift combined with his curiosity to test his own skills against the encoded messages. Despite his lack of professional training, Yardley experimented with breaking the United States’ own codes and quickly learned that even President Wilson was sending messages using old codes that Yardley himself could crack in just two hours with a pen and paper.

Yardley was worried about America’s ability to retain its secret communication, and when America finally entered the war, Major Ralph Van Deman, head of military intelligence, put Yardley in charge of the new code section of MI-8.

Cipher Bureau Created

In May of 1919, after WWI was over, a new department called the Cipher Bureau was created. Despite his young age, Yardley was appointed as head of the bureau.

The bureau went on to break the codes of over two dozen foreign nations (at least, according to Yardley), including breaking Japan’s code during the Washington Conference of 1921-1922.

End of an Era

After the bureau was disbanded in 1929, Yardley found himself with no work and no prospects as the impending doom of the Great Depression shadowed the land. He wrote a series of articles for The Saturday Evening Post detailing his work with the Cipher Bureau. These articles were later turned into a book called The American Black Chamber. While some were appalled at the lack of discretion in the book, Yardley claimed that he was purely motivated by preserving the national interest and sharing the United States’ potential cryptological weaknesses.

Though it only lasted a decade, the Cipher Bureau was the first national, civilian intelligence organization to operate in peacetime.


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Brynn Mahnke is a freelance writer specializing in researching, writing, and ghostwriting for clients in the career, finance, SaaS, and B2B/B2C niches. She focuses on writing case studies, whitepapers, ebooks, and articles showcasing the value her clients bring to their customers. When she isn't writing, you can find her running, cycling, or wrangling children. She can be reached through her website or at