It sometimes seems that we live in a brave new world without a private corner to hide in, all of our secrets in constant danger of being exposed by hackers, leakers and exhibitionists. But the recent headlines about NSA eavesdropping, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden are just the latest cases of espionage in an American tradition that reaches back to George Washington, our first spymaster, and Thomas Jefferson, the inventor of an ingenious cipher used to encode confidential messages—a valuable piece of spyware in a time when the authorities routinely opened and read letters sent from the United States to other countries.
Here at the Smithsonian, we’ve been known to keep a few secrets of our own. For instance, you may not know that there is a hidden camera in “Electronic Superhighway,” Nam June Paik’s famous video map of America at the American Art Museum, which can record your face as you admire it. (If you’re ready for your close-up, look at the area on the map around Washington, D.C.) Or that we possess in our collection hard evidence that a nuclear missile was secretly fired by a U.S. Navy submarine at our own country in 1959. (It was a cold war-era demonstration designed to show the Soviet Union that the U.S. military could strike with such pinpoint accuracy that it could deliver the mail; the missile’s warhead contained two specially crafted mailboxes, one of which will go on exhibition at the National Postal Museum on September 22, that carried letters addressed to top officials, including President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon and the Secretary of the Smithsonian.)
One of my favorite underground tales concerns a distinguished early 20th-century Smithsonian scientist, H.G. Dyar. By day he was a world-renowned expert on insects and butterflies. In the evenings, however, he indulged in a hobby straight out of a Dan Brown novel: Dyar dug a tunnel system under his Dupont Circle home three stories deep and more than a quarter of a mile long, lined with concrete and iron pipe ladders. Years later, a truck’s wheels cracked the ceiling of his subterranean labyrinth, sparking fevered newspaper speculation that it was a World War I spy lair, a bootlegger’s storeroom or a secret laboratory for mad scientists. Dyar finally admitted it was his creation, explaining, “I did it for exercise. There’s really nothing mysterious about it.”
In our second annual Secrets of American History issue, we unearth a few new secrets, including the discovery of a rare Abraham Lincoln image hiding in plain sight (“The New Lincoln”), a never-before-published drawing by Norman Rockwell (“American Enigma”), a previously unknown FBI counterintelligence investigation (“Mole Hunt”) and a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of animals trained to be CIA agents (“Animal Intelligence”).
Michael Caruso, Editor in Chief