Alan Turing, Who Cracked War Code, Receives Posthumous Pardon

Dec 24, 2013
Originally published on December 25, 2013 7:24 am
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The British government has issued a posthumous pardon for a man who helped win World War II for the allies. Alan Turing was a pioneering computer scientist and code breaker who helped crack Nazi Germany's enigma machine. He worked at Britain's legendary military intelligence headquarters at Bletchley Park.

Turing was gay and for that, he was prosecuted by the same country he helped to defend. His punishment? He was forced to take estrogen hormones, and he had his security clearance taken away. That led, at the age of 41, to his suicide. To learn more about efforts to redeem Turing's legacy, we called Ian Stewart, a member of Parliament. Good morning.

IAN STEWART: Good morning.

GREENE: Could you briefly remind us who Alan Turing was, and what makes his story really so tragic?

STEWART: Well, Alan Turning was a national hero in Britain and indeed, for the Western world. His work as a code breaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War - deciphering the German enigma codes - certainly shortened the Second World War and quite possibly, changed its outcome.

He was also one of the pre-eminent founding fathers of the computing age. His work in artificial intelligence is regarded by the academic community as one of the seminal moments in developing the computer systems.

GREENE: But being this war hero did not save him from what became an awful choice. I mean, he had to choose between imprisonment and chemical castration and ultimately, decided suicide. I mean, punished for being gay, which at the time in the country, was not legal.

STEWART: No, you're correct. He was convicted and tried for simply having a relationship with another man. And on his conviction, he had this horrible choice. And he chose the chemical castration, and the evidence is that that led directly to his suicide. I think this is a tragic thing to have happened. It's a stain on our national character, and I'm absolutely delighted that this step has been taken to clear his name.

GREENE: You have actually been among those who have been pushing for a pardon for some time and in 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized to Turing. But now, we've seen this a step further and become an official pardon. Why is this happening now?

STEWART: Well, I think there's been a long-running campaign that I and a good number of others have raised in the British Parliament. There's also been other developments. The last government quite rightly gave an apology, but we've also taken steps to give pardons to other people who've been wronged; for example, British soldiers who were executed in the First World War for desertions when they were suffering from shell shock. So there's been, you know - a number of facts have come together, to lead to this point.

GREENE: Let me ask you: One of the interesting things in this case - there was a motion for a parliamentary pardon last year, which was turned down on the basis of people saying that when he was convicted of this crime, gross indecency - I mean, it was a legitimate criminal offense in the country, at that point. So the fact that he's getting a pardon now, is that an important precedent for gay rights?

STEWART: I think it is. I mean, the British government, a year or two ago, published a new law which means that gay men who are still alive and were convicted of these so-called offenses can apply to have their record cleansed. But it only applies to living people. It can't be applied posthumously. So I think this is an important symbolic step that, you know, the country recognizes that a huge wrong was done. And this is a step to put that right, and to celebrate the immense achievements of Alan Turing.

GREENE: Ian Stewart, thanks so much for talking to us. We appreciate the time.

STEWART: Thank you very much.

GREENE: Ian Stewart is a member of Parliament for Milton Keynes South, in Britain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.