Please provide a pipin' hot welcome for Michael, our newest human.
By the summer of 1944, the Mount Washington Hotel had been mothballed for two years. Nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains, the sprawling resort was once a favorite getaway for wealthy New Englanders. But in the wake of the Great Depression and the second war to end all wars, the end appeared nigh for this silent relic of America’s Gilded Age.
Then the US Treasury department offered its owners a staggering $300,000 if they would host a conference—to start in less than a month. An army of hotel workers and hastily recruited townspeople got to work. On the first of July, 730 delegates from 44 countries checked in and proceeded to conduct one of the most influential economic conferences of all time, carving into history the name of the sylvan outpost where it was held: Bretton Woods.
Known officially as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, the Bretton Woods talks focused primarily on foreign exchange rates (the price of US dollars, say, in British pounds) and other tedious minutia of monetary policy. With the world engulfed in war, few in those days were giving much thought to topics as arcane as these. But some people were giving it quite a lot of thought. One was US Treasury advisor Harry Dexter White, who had been toiling in relative obscurity to forge an exchange rate policy that all nations on earth would agree to. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before.
Now the technocrat from humble roots was about to pull it off, earning recognition and his first official government title: Assistant Secretary to the US Treasury. Harry White would soon experience recognition of another sort, with his name splashed across newspaper headlines—but for reasons having nothing to do with exchange rates, economics, or Bretton Woods.
One of the outcomes of World War 1 was, quite unfortunately, the setting of political and economic conditions that led to World War 2. There were many factors at play, but the isolationist policies of the United States—such as its refusal to join the League of Nations—certainly didn’t help. After the second world war the US would play a far more active political role on the world stage as a key member of the United Nations. Lesser known is how the US propelled itself into the economic center of the post-war world and indeed came to dominate global finance. The man chiefly responsible for this turnabout was a most unlikely fellow.
In 1885, an author named James B. Ward published a pamphlet telling of a long-lost treasure available to anyone clever enough to solve the puzzle associated with it. Ward reported that around 1817, a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale had been the leader of an expedition to the American Southwest primarily concerned with hunting buffalo and/or bears. Beale’s group had instead stumbled upon gold and silver deposits in what is now Colorado. Agreeing to keep it all a secret, Beale’s team had spent the better part of two years quietly mining, then had taken the metals to Virginia by wagon and buried them in a vault underground between 1819 and 1821. Beale had written three notes explaining where the treasure was and who had legal rights to shares in it, encrypting each of these using a different text. However, Beale had vanished after leaving the notes with a friend. Eventually, the second of the three texts was deciphered using a slightly altered version of the Declaration of Independence. It specified which county in Virginia the treasure was hidden in, and referred the reader to the first of the notes for details.
But the first—and the third—notes remained stubbornly undeciphered. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor any other ciphertext source produced a readable message out of the first note. Beale had done far too good a job of encrypting his texts.
Or had he? Even as the field of cryptography advanced, and modern computers were invented and directed at the ciphers, the content remained frustratingly out of reach. The tantalizing mystery of where in Virginia there might be an enormous cache of treasure has turned into a broader question: Did Thomas J. Beale even exist, or was James B. Ward playing an enormous practical joke? The problem with the second interpretation is that Ward was not known to be a prankster. Could his pamphlet have been motivated by something stranger still?
This piece was intended primarily as an audio experience, there is an adio player embedded in the episode page.
Transcript of audio:
It was the middle of a cool September night in Munich, Germany. The year was 1939. In an otherwise unoccupied auditorium, a man knelt on hands and knees chiseling a square hole into a large stone pillar. The lights were all turned out, but a small flashlight dimmed with a handkerchief provided a pallid puddle of light. The man had wrapped his chisel in cloth to quiet his hammer strikes. Whenever there was some unexpected sound, he froze. Whenever a truck rumbled past the building, he seized the opportunity to chisel more vigorously. It was exceedingly tedious and slow work. The man working there was a 36-year-old German handyman named Georg Elser. But “handyman” isn’t exactly the right word. In his three and a half decades he had cultivated many skills, including clock making, cabinet building, master carpentry, and stone quarrying. And the task at hand required all of his diverse expertise.
Please give an uncomfortably warm welcome to our newest author, Gustaf Hildebrand.
The meeting had not gone well, the man gloomily reflected as he was driven out of East Berlin. His head was still heavy after a few too many snifters of cognac. The American’s ambitious scheme to build a life and career in Moscow had sputtered to an unforeseen halt not unlike a Trabant’s two-stroke engine; the only concession the Russians had made was to invite him back for another meeting in two weeks’ time. The three KGB representatives he had talked to didn’t seem very enthusiastic about his offer to defect from the US Army.
The date was 22 February 1953. It was George Washington’s Birthday, a holiday for all American troops stationed in Berlin. The drunken man being shuttled out of East Berlin in a Soviet car was Robert Lee Johnson, a 31-year-old sergeant in the United States Army. Most competent intelligence services would have considered the Army clerk useless, dismissing him as an embittered bureaucrat with a grossly inflated sense of self-worth. Nine years later he would, through a combination of luck and circumstance, become one of the most destructive spies the KGB had ever implanted into the US military.
In late 1863, the ongoing War Between the States was not going well for either the Union or the Confederacy. Two years of armed hostility had led to a stalemate, with mounting casualties on both sides. Protests were widespread, some of which even turned into riots. In order to quell opposition and further the war effort, President Lincoln had suspended certain civil liberties. Congress was bitterly divided along party lines, with a significant faction calling for a peaceful settlement. The partisanship had spread to the press and state governments, each side viciously attacking the other. The governor of Indiana went so far as to dissolve the state legislature and run the state as a military dictatorship. The upcoming Presidential election was looking to be a real corker, with the prospects for Lincoln’s re-election looking very dim.
Seeing an opportunity to turn the tide in their favor, Confederate leaders recruited sympathizers and infiltrators to engage upon a campaign of guerrilla warfare. Millions of dollars were set aside to finance the plan, with bonuses to be given to saboteurs in proportion to the damage they wrought. A good portion of those funds was specifically designated for cross-border operations from Canada, where a number of Confederate officers and prominent sympathizers had fled. At the very least, they hoped to cause an uprising of sufficient proportions that some Union troops would have to be redeployed away from the Confederate front. This was the start of what would become known as the Northwest Conspiracy.
In the closing weeks of 1964, the US Central Intelligence Agency was gripped by anxiety in the wake of troubling news. On October 16th, a great mushroom cloud had been spotted towering over the remote Chinese missile-testing range at Lop Nur. All evidence had indicated that Chinese scientists were at least a year away from squeezing the destructive secrets from the mighty atom, but this bombshell underscored the agency’s dangerously feeble espionage efforts in the Far East.
Details regarding the twenty-two kiloton device were scarce, but the US regarded the development as an unwelcome wrinkle in the already precarious Cold War. Officials from India were also distressed, having felt the business end of China’s military during a recent border dispute. In the interest of self-preservation, the two nations made a secret pact to combine their China-watching efforts. Photo reconnaissance satellites were still too primitive for practical spying, and high-flying surveillance planes were too conspicuous, but there was one alternative vantage point. The intelligence agencies hatched a nefarious scheme to keep a sharp eye on China’s weapons tests from atop India’s Nanda Devi, one of the tallest mountains of the imposing Himalayan mountain range. It offered an unobstructed view of China’s distant test site, assuming one could manage to hoist a sufficiently powerful electronic eye to its summit.
On 19 November 1942, a pair of Royal Air Force Halifax bombers shouldered their way through thick winter clouds over Norway with troop-carrying assault gliders in tow. Inside each glider a payload of professional saboteurs from the 1st British Airborne Division weathered a rough ride as the planes approached their intended landing site on frozen lake Møsvatn. Somewhere in the snow-encased hills below, a team of Norwegian commandos vigilantly awaited their arrival.
The ultimate objective of the joint mission was to penetrate and incapacitate the Vemork hydroelectric plant, a fortified Nazi facility nestled high in the mountains of Norway. Though the plant’s original purpose had been the production of electricity and fertilizer, the German occupiers were capitalizing on the facility’s ability to collect large amounts of heavy-water— a key ingredient in the Nazi effort to develop an atomic bomb.