Parker Hitt: The Father of American Military Cryptology by Rohaly Smoot. University Press of Kentucky, 2022, 290 pp.
Author Betsy Rohaly Smoot defines cryptology as “the work required to extract information from secret or hidden communications or to protect the same” (x).
Parker Hitt: The Father of American Military Cryptology is a biography of a founder of modern US military cryptology. Smoot, a historian who retired from the National Security Agency Center for Cryptologic History, specializes in cryptology and communications history and is well-qualified to write Hitt's biography.
But the book is more than a biography; it also tells the story of the development and growth of the cryptology field, largely at the nurturing of Hitt and his peers. It is also the story of a small, tight-knit military family as they lived their lives immersed in the Army culture of the first half of the twentieth century. Hitt’s career progressed in tandem with the evolution of military cryptology.
Hitt dropped out of Purdue University in his senior year to enlist in the Army for service in the Spanish-American War in 1898. After occupation duty in Cuba, he secured a commission in the infantry, thanks in part to influential family connections. As a young officer in the Philippines, Hitt displayed bravery and the remarkable resourcefulness that was to be a hallmark of his career.
Though an infantry officer for his entire career, Hitt spent comparatively little time with troops in the field. Instead, his interests and assignments led to multiple tours as an instructor and a staff officer with the Signal Corps. In these duties, Hitt’s intelligence, inventiveness, creativity, and drive served him well. Smoot argues that Hitt’s lack of a formal guiding mentor inhibited his progression in rank although he did retire as a colonel. Also, Smoot posits that Hitt might have achieved even more and possibly attained flag officer rank if he had transferred to the Signal Corps early in his career. This seems valid, given Hitt’s wide-ranging work as well as his technical knowledge combined with a keen sense of how best to conduct Army communications and a thorough understanding of organizational structure.
Hitt served from 1898–1928 when he retired and took a civilian job in the communications industry. He served on active duty again from 1940 to 1944 when he again retired from the Army. His assignments took him to Cuba, the Philippines, Alaska, the Mexican border, France, and throughout the United States. Throughout, Smoot describes Hitt’s contributions to both military and civilian communications and security, including his various inventions and publications that impacted and shaped the growth of signals intelligence and cryptology.
Smoot also brings to light the part played by women in cryptology and in early military communications. Most applicable to this story is Genevieve Hitt, Parker’s wife, who worked on codes during World War I and gave her husband incalculable support during his work. Their daughter and only child Mary Lue followed in her parents’ footsteps and worked as a “confidential clerk and teleprinter operator” (184) for the military during World War II.
In many ways, this book is a tribute to not only Genevieve Hitt but also the many military wives of the era who bore the brunt of their husbands’ long and frequent absences, the disruption of family routines brought on by moves, and the strain of keeping things running during less-than-ideal conditions. Throughout the narrative, Smoot incorporates Hitt’s relationships with his immediate family as well as his own and Genevieve’s families. In this way, Smoot shows us the influences and concerns that impacted Hitt as he progressed in his career.
While Smoot’s treatment of Hitt is largely sympathetic, she is careful to point out faults common to human nature. Hitt could be brash; he received a formal chastisement by Major General James Franklin Bell in 1914 for failing to follow a directive. According to Smoot, “Hitt survived this brush with authority, and while his propensity for speaking his mind in official channels may have been curbed by the incident, it never disappeared” (64). Overall, Hitt was a loyal and extremely competent officer who followed orders to the best of his ability.
While Smoot includes some basic technical descriptions, this book is not a treatise on the methods and machines involved with cryptology. It is well-written, and Smoot made good use of the primary sources, including public and private archives. It succeeds well as a biography of a capable Army officer who helped to shape US military communications. As such, this book fills a void in the historiography of American intelligence and cryptology. It is also a welcome addition to studies of early twentieth century US military history.
Major Peter L. Belmonte, USAF, Retired