Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Idea

High-ranking military men in Washington were reluctant to approve the further use of Indian languages for combat communication, being concerned that accuracy might be hampered by static and combat noise. Furthermore, Indian vocabularies did not have military and technical terms. They believed that an unbreakable code was impossible, convinced that creating new codes based on the English language was the best way to go.

The US might have missed an important strategic advantage if not for a World War I veteran named Philip Johnston who convinced some high-ranking marines in San Diego that the use of one certain Indian language could create an unbreakable code. Johnston, the son of missionaries, had grown up on the Navajo reservation with only Navajo children for playmates, and quickly learned the difficult language.

After reading about military maneuvers in Louisiana where Indians from tribes in Wisconsin and Michigan were being used as "code transmitters he came up with a unique idea. In San Diego he contacted the area signal officer, Lt. Col. James E. Jones and asked him how he would like a device that would assure complete secrecy in battlefield messages. The colonel assured Johnston that no code or cipher had ever been completely secure in the history of warfare.

Johnston persisted. Suppose an Indian language was used as the basis for the code, always used orally, by radio or telephone, and never written down. The colonel explained that the idea had been tried and proved to be impractical,but Johnston persevered. His idea, he said, was not to merely transmit messages in an Indian language but to build a code based on Indian words.

He finally had the colonel's full attention after speaking a sentence in Navajo and asking him if he honestly believed that anyone but a Navajo could understand what he had said. He pressed his advantage and invited the colonel to repeat a Navajo word he uttered syllable by syllable. The absolute inability of Jones to comply convinced him of the possibilities of the complex language. He asked Johnston to arrange a meeting. 

Next: The Testing Begins

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