Salmon, David Aden (1879-?)

A long-time high official at the U.S. Department of State, who was its chief archivist for many years and a renowned cipher expert.

David Salmon was born in 1879 in Connecticut. In 1896, he became a clerk at the War Department and was instrumental in setting its archives in order, working from 1899 on under Secretary of War Elihu Root. Root became Secretary of State in 1905, and in 1906 he recruited Salmon to modernize the State Department’s archival system following the model of the reorganization Salmon had been part of at the Department of War. Salmon was put in charge of instituting the system of numerical subject classification and filing for State Department documents, which began to be implemented in 1909. This reform proved so useful that Salmon remained in charge of the departmental files and in 1916 was elevated to the rank of Chief of the Bureau of Indexes and Archives. 1

Salmon was to work as the Department of State’s chief archivist for more than three decades. In that capacity, he had general supervision over the department’s code room, which was initially part of the Bureau of Indexes and Archives, and was a renowned cipher expert. Among other things, he was in charge of cipher communication at the major international conferences of the period, traveling overseas as part of official U.S. delegations. 2 When the Bureau of Indexes and Archives was converted into the Division of Communications and Records in 1931, Salmon became its chief. Staffed by more than 150 employees, the Division was the largest departmental agency at the time. 3

By the early 1940s, Salmon – described in Time magazine as the “astute, dapper, pipe-loving David A. Salmon” – became the head of the State Department’s Code Department. 4 He retired some time after the World War II.

At the height of the Hiss-Chambers case, on December 8, 1948, Salmon testified to the grand jury about the copies of State Department cables, known as the Baltimore Documents, which Whittaker Chambers produced to support his accusations against Alger Hiss. 5

In 2009, David Salmon was misidentified by two American espionage historians, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, as an important Soviet source at the Department of State in the 1930s, code-named “Willie,” who was said to have provided copies of top-secret State Department cables for a generous monthly “stipend” of $500. This misidentification was based on an incomplete set of notes about the story of a Soviet agent code-named “Leo” (who was the former Communist and freelance journalist, Ludwig Lore), which appeared in a circumstantially related KGB foreign intelligence file. These notes were made in the early 1990s by a former KGB foreign intelligence officer turned journalist named Alexander Vassiliev. Vassiliev was doing research in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) archive for a collaborative Russian-American book project; his notes later became the basis for The Haunted Wood, a 1999 book that he co-authored with Allen Weinstein. David Salmon was publicly misidentified in a new rewrite of Vassiliev’s research that was published by the Yale University Press in May 2009. 6

Click here to read more about the misidentification of David Salmon as a Soviet agent named “Willie.”

  1. Elmer Plischke, U.S. Department of State: A Reference History. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, p. 204.
  2. See, for instance, The New York Times, June 7, 1927, December 15, and 29, 1929, and January 9, 1930.
  3. Elmer Plischke, Op. Cit., p. 293.
  4. Time, March 3, 1941
  5. Transcripts of Grand Jury Testimony in the Alger Hiss Case, December 8, 1948.
  6. See chapter 4: “Infiltration of the U.S. Government,” in SPIES: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev. Yale University Press, 2009.