The Broken Seal

Title:                  The Broken Seal

Author:                  Ladislas Farago

Farago, Ladislas (1969). The Broken Seal: the Story of Operation Magic and the Secret Road to Pearl Harbor. London: Mayflower

LCCN:    70518382

D742.U5 F3 1969


Date Updated:                     June 10, 2016

I first read The Broken Seal when it was a selection in Vol. 2, Spring, 1967, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. The Broken Seal remains an excellent study after all these years. I have also read the complete multivolume report of the congressional investigation of Pearl Harbor. By far, Farago presents a much clearer report, even if limited by facts not in evidence until some years later.

On July 16, 1941, there was a drastic change in the Japanese cabinet, with the Japanese foreign minister Yosuke Matsuo replaced by Teijiro Toyoda, and Japan then took over all of French Indochina by July 24. Apparently Toyoda took more seriously the German warning that their codes had been compromised, and began to severely limit the content of coded radio messages sent to Japanese overseas embassies, such as the one in Berlin. After July 1941, American code-breakers no longer had access to high-level, secret policy decisions made in Tokyo.

Another cabinet shift in Japan in October placed the more militaristic General Hideki Tojo as prime minister, and Shigenori Togo as foreign minister. Like his predecessor, Toyoda, Toga tended not to send any messages by “Purple” that would embarrass the Japanese government.

Even so, Cordell Hull and Franklin Roosevelt were aware in November from Magic transcripts that if negotiations to reach a settlement with Japan were not reached by November 25, 1941, the Japanese were prepared to take some form of drastic action. In an official intelligence estimate of November 27, about 10 days before the attack, General George C. Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark warned that if the final negotiations broke down, Japan would immediately attack somewhere in the Far East, listing possible targets as Burma, Thailand, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, or China. The records of these days indicate that although the U. S. intelligence establishment relied on Magic transcriptions, the U.S. officers could get no precise understanding of Japanese plans.

Ladislas Farago, the author, served in the Special Warfare Branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). His study has much to say about ONI as well as its U.S. Army counterpart. Neither branch scores high points in Farago’s study of the intercept activities on the road to Pearl Harbor. Between the two agencies they in effect closed out the White House for Magic information garnered by the American code-breakers. Note that President Roosevelt was only allowed viewing a certain few Magic intercepts, and never allowed to keep hard copies. He and others felt war was imminent, yet did not know when or where, with many feeling the Japanese would never attack the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. In this, decision makers totally underestimated the Japanese desire, strength, and intended targets.

By January, 1941, the intercepts were “opened up” to be provided to both the White House and State Department, yet much material was still withheld because “they did not consider the New Dealers either properly cleared or prudent.” For example, “The total number of intercepts the President was finally permitted to read between November 12 and December 7 totaled sixty-four out of some eighteen hundred processed during this same period.” Those few messages allowed both FDR and Cordell Hull an idea that war could be coming, but both the U.S. and Japan at the time had peace negotiations ongoing. FDR did not want the U.S. to strike the first blow should war eventually come.

Beyond, and in addition to closing FDR out from continual reading of the Magic intercepts, “the U.S. Navy refused to share the secret of its own code-breaking activities with the U.S. Army.” Further, “decoded messages which actually pinpointed Pearl Harbor as the target for attack were neglected until it was too late.” Some messages read after the war can be seen to give clear indication not only that war was coming on December 8th Japan time, December 7th Hawaii time, and that Pearl Harbor was the intended target. This is not completely clear in the intercepted traffic unless, with hindsight, one cherry picks the messages.

Even after the attack, Japan was unaware of the magnitude of the damage inflicted. Yamamoto was aware that Japan had kicked a hornets’ nest and that pulling the fleet back to the homeland was more important than continuing the attack. He knew, for example, there there were no carriers at Pearl, and he understood naval warfare well enough to know that while the damage was serious, it was far from fatal. In total more than 2,400 Americans were killed, 8 battleships, 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers and 4 auxiliary vessels were sunk or damaged, plus 177 aircraft were destroyed. As is often the case, decision makers were unwilling to accept that the Japanese were going to move against us.

I agree with the author in his statement “no villains and no knaves – but a lot of fools” contributed to the Pearl Harbor disaster. No evidence has been presented since 1941 that the attack was invited, or that clear indications were suppressed. Conspiracy freaks want this to be the case, but in fact, no smoking gun I indicating an attack of large proportions has been produced.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

Admiral Zacharias in Secret Missions described Farago’s work in U.S. naval intelligence in World War II. It involved planning and research in psychological warfare but was not related directly to cryptanalysis. This fact may partly explain the quality attributed to this work by experts. David Shulman in An Annotated Bibliography of Cryptography[2] is very dissatisfied with it, saying it contains many errors. David Kahn in The Codebreakers[3] and in a review of the book shares Shulman’s opinion. They find unacceptable Farago’s charge that H. 0. Yardley, the great U.S. cryptologist, sold out to the Japanese in 1928. Walter Millis in his review in the American Historical Review found the book’s jacket claims outrageous, Farago’s picture of Yardley’s contribution to the Washington Conference exaggerated, and the book as a whole lacking in credibility. In quality it comes nowhere near Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor, Warning and Decision[4]; the reader should check the many interesting revelations of the poor security of cipher systems, of their handling and distribution, and of their compromise with the work of other authorities because the indefatigable Farago picked up much good and accurate material along with the bad. Note in this regard his uncovering of the British possession of an Enigma machine by 1941 by capture of U-boats and raids; only the details of this story need checking because the central fact he gives is true. There is also a wealth of background on Japanese intelligence preparations for war. Experts have found the book unreliable as cryptological and intelligence history.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[5]

Another treatment of the events leading up to Pearl Harbor. The author’s Reference Notes are particularly interesting as are his final comments on recent “developments” which shed “new light” on the attack. Otherwise, this volume does not approach the value or scholarship of the Wohlstetter book [note 4].

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[6]

In a book filled with incidents and characters, an accomplished chronicler of intelligence hi story portrays the operations of both American and Japanese code-breaking operations from 1921 to December 7, 1941. Of special interest is chapter 21, which describes how the Japanese disguised their fleet movements prior to sailing to Pearl Harbor by changing communications call signs, sending dummy messages to foil traffic analysis, and by having fleet radio operators whose ‘“fingerprints” were known to U.S. intercepters send messages from the homeland as if they were with the fleet. A useful bibliography and notes on sources provide rich material on both cryptologic and the usual espionage activities associated with Pearl Harbor.


[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 181

[2] Shulman, David (1976). An Annotated Bibliography of Cryptography. New York: Garland Publishing Co.

[3] Kahn, David (1967). The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: Macmillan

[4] Wohlstetter, Roberta (1962). Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press

[5] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, D.C. : Defense Intelligence School, p. 23

[6] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 124


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5 Responses to The Broken Seal

  1. Pingback: Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage And Covert Operations | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: The American Black Chamber | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  3. Pingback: Secret Missions | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  4. Pingback: Communications and Electronic Intelligence, Chapter 11 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  5. Pingback: Blackstock Selected Bibliography of Fifty Titles | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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