For 75 years, the CIA Cartography Center has been making vital contributions to national security, providing policymakers with crucial insights that simply cannot be conveyed through words alone.
The Center’s roots stretch way back even before the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—all the way to the OSS’ predecessor, William Donovan’s Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), according to a CIA release.
On July 11, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the United States’ first peacetime, non-departmental intelligence organization, the Office of the Coordinator of Information, and authorized it to collect and analyze all information and data relevant to national security. COI, headed by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, reported directly to the President.
The CIA’s long, proud history of mapping services to the Intelligence Community, began with one geographer, Arthur Robinson, who in 1941 began creatively drafting maps to convey intelligence stories for policymakers.
Demand for Robinson’s pioneering work was intense and immediate, leading to the creation of a unit to provide customized mapping services to support US national security interests, the CIA said.
At that time, there were no cartographers as we know them today—so Robinson recruited the brightest and best geographers from universities with an interest in mapping—and they learned on the job.
Although, customized mapping was a new concept at the time, within a year, a large group of geographers gathered together and refined this budding art and science—figuring out how best to depict information concisely for policymakers and the US military—which leads us to talk about the first female intelligence cartographer.
One of the first cartographers in that initial group was Marion Frieswyk, who embodies the diligence, determination, and innovative spirit that is essential in any new venture.
In 1942, Marion was a 21-year-old graduate student at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, when Arthur Robinson recruited her for the OSS. This would prove to be a crucial development in Marion’s life—and not only because Robinson also had the good sense to recruit Marion’s future husband, Henry Frieswyk.
Marion was a true pioneer, the CIA said. Although other women worked in the Map Division, CIA records indicate Marion was the first woman in the Map Division’s Cartography Section. It was a place where she thrived.
As an OSS cartographer, she and her colleagues developed a unique system of map production and evolved it rapidly to improve map quality and production efficiency.
During World War II, Marion produced customized maps and three-dimensional topographic models. It was painstaking work. In March 1943, the Topographic Models Section was added, and the three sections—Cartography, Map Information, and Topographic Models—formed the new Map Division. Geographers and cartographers amassed what would be the largest collection of maps in the world and produced strategic maps and 3D plaster terrain models in support of strategic studies and military operational plans for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of Naval Intelligence, OSS, War Department, and the Aliies.
The CIA said the Map Division was intimately involved in the planning strategy of the Allied invasion of North Africa and Italy. It also assessed the economic and topographic conditions in other areas vital to the conduct of the war, including in the Asia-Pacific theater, the CIA said. The Joint Chiefs depended on cartographers for much of their secret security work concerning operations and valued cartographers for their support at the Allied conferences.
At the end of the war, Marion displayed a true commitment to her craft during turbulent times. After OSS dissolved in 1945, she remained as part of the core group of cartographers who stayed with the unit. Ultimately, she would work in CIA’s Cartography Division until 1958, according to the release.
Marion recognized early on that geography is deeply inherent to intelligence work. Her passion and spirit represent timeless qualities that define the Cartography Center to this day.
Like Marion, cartographers and analysts today are passionate about their mission. They produce a full range of maps, geographic analysis, and research in support of the CIA, the White House, senior policymakers, and the IC at large. The Center’s chief objectives are to analyze geospatial information, extract intelligence-related geodata, and present the information visually in creative and effective ways for maximum understanding by intelligence consumers.
Today’s CIA cartographers and analysts stand on the shoulders of Marion Frieswyk, and her dedicated colleagues, who developed groundbreaking intelligence models in support of national security when America desperately needed trailblazers to win the war.
Want to Know More?
Read: “The Mapmaker’s Craft: A History of Cartography at CIA”
Interested in working in the Cartography Center? Check out Cartographer and Interactive Designer positions.
Visit the CIA’s Flickr page to view cartography maps from 1941 through the present.
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