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Decoding the Great War

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The First World War is referred to by many names: World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the Chemist's War, and the Forgotten War. It was known for trench warfare and advancements in weapons and weapons systems, such as the machine gun, tanks, hand-held flame throwers, mortars, and artillery. It saw the first use of chemical warfare, reconnaissance and weaponized aircraft, and also saw advancements in submarines, or U-boats, and torpedo design.

But while many can associate these tools of war with WWI, less is known about the role of cryptology and intelligence collection during that time, which was largely responsible for the United States entering the war in April 1917. The National Cryptologic Museum recently hosted a panel discussion for a room of WWI enthusiasts to discuss these lesser known topics. The program, "Decoding the Great War," included talks on the art of intelligence collection and cryptology.

U.S. Cyber Command Historian Dr. Michael Warner gave a broad overview of intelligence collection during the war. He explained how new technology and methods of waging war resulted in an unprecedented evolution in intelligence. A field once discounted by commanders became a major part of tactical and strategic decision making. Warner also explained that by the war's end, none of the major combatants ran their intelligence functions as they had when the war began.

Mrs. Betsy Rohaly Smoot, NSA's top WWI history expert, discussed the important role radio intelligence played in U.S. military operations. She referenced the use of communications intelligence work and code making by sharing stories of the perilous challenges men faced keeping their listening stations operating, sometimes working behind enemy lines to get the critical information allied commanders needed. The recollection of the cryptologic efforts of U.S. and Allied forces brings to life the dangers of a soldier serving "close to heaven" on a WWI battlefield says Smoot.

Retired NSA Research Analyst Dr. Steve Huffman also talked about the extraordinary contribution and service of Native Americans, who provided the first secure voice communications on the battlefield. While it had been previously thought the Choctaw Nation provided the first code talkers, Huffman said he found evidence supporting the Cherokees serving in this role just days before their Choctaw brothers. The capabilities Native American code talkers delivered to the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and Allies were instrumental in achieving final victory against the Central Powers.

To learn more about cryptologic efforts during WWI and throughout American history, plan a trip to the National Cryptologic Museum or visit the National Cryptologic Museum section of NSA.gov.