Two important round-number anniversaries passed this month. The first, on June 6, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The second, on June 7, was the 60th anniversary of Alan Turing’s suicide. On June 6, 1944, the final push towards a free Europe and a Nazi-free world was launched; it would not have been possible without Alan Turing.
By late 1938, Turing was a distinguished young mathematician. He was also a part-time code breaker at the British cipher center in Bletchley Park. Meanwhile, the German Anschlüsse were becoming Blitzkriege. The Germans were encoding messages with their Enigma machines, whose system of encryption they believed would never be broken. They had good cause of confidence: The Enigma generated ciphers through a progressive series of substitution wheels; for any output letter, the machine might be in any one of a billion-billion settings. Figuring out which was the challenge. The German Naval Enigma was even more complicated, and with Britain’s reliance on shipping and naval power, it was vitally important. But in 1939, no one at Bletchley Park had started working on it. So Turing decided to give it a try.
By late 1939, he had developed a method for quickly eliminating incorrect wheel patterns. By 1940, Enigma codes were being cracked. By D-Day, the Allies were able to follow German radio traffic for updates on troop movement.
Without the tens of thousands of men who stormed the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, the war might have been lost. And without Alan Turing, it might have been lost. With the 70th anniversary of D-Day, those men who ran up the beaches are au courant. And so is Turing: In December, the Queen exercised her Prerogative of Mercy and pardoned his 1952 conviction for “gross indecency.”
A year after D-Day, less than two months after Germany was defeated, and more than a month before Japan would surrender, Great Britain had a general election. On July 5, 1945, Great Britain threw Winston Churchill out of office. Churchill had just saved the world for democracy; his defeat was an incomprehensible instance of ingratitude. Perhaps it set the tone for Britain’s treatment of Alan Turing.
Eight years after D-Day and twelve after the Enigma was cracked, Turing was chemically castrated by the British government, as punishment for being homosexual. Two years later, he killed himself.
Turing was one of the great men of the 20th century. He laid the theoretical groundwork for the digital computer and artificial intelligence. Had he lived, the history of science would have been very different. We shouldn’t let the 60th anniversary of his virtual murder pass without remembering that.
— Josh Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.