NINETY YEARS AGO TODAY, Cecil Phillips was born in Asheville, North Carolina. He began his cryptanalysis (the study and deciphering of codes) career at eighteen and was soon assigned, with a handful of others, to work on “the Russian Problem” — the U.S. government suspected the Soviets of trying to steal military secrets. The code-breaking enterprise known as “the Venona project” was so hush-hush that only a select few working in wartime intelligence knew of its existence.
In November of 1944 Phillips, nineteen, made a key breakthrough in solving the code used by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, to disguise the true content of messages sent to and from the U.S. It took about two more years for some of the encrypted Soviet dispatches to be deciphered enough to reveal that about 200 American-based spies had been employed by the Soviets. A U.S. ally against Germany in World War II, the Soviet Union had been searching for secret information on the construction of the first atomic bombs, which were completed in 1945.
The most publicized spies revealed by the Venona project were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a husband-and-wife team convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets and executed in 1953.