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began to study out-of-date Russian codebooks, picked up in the "black-bag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
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 retells 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
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.