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“The Woman Who Smashed Codes” – The Unsung Heroine of America’s “Secret War’ Who Decrypted Nazi Spy Messages

Monday, November 13, 2017 14:45
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“[Elizebeth Friedman] was a tireless and talented code breaker who brought down gangsters and Nazi spies…a fascinating swath of American history that begins in Gilded Age Chicago and moves to the inner workings of our intelligence agencies at the close of WWII.” 
Los Angeles Times

I am joining the praise for Jason Fagone’s excellent nonfiction, THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s story is as unlikely as real life and full of surprises–outlandish and entirely plausible. Her impressive achievements were of course co-opted by male authority. An old story but among those men was J. Edgar Hoover, whose gumshoes could track gangsters but what about the rum runners’ boats?  He had no unit skilled at decrypting codes but the coast guard did. Elizebeth’s rare skills and the unit she trained, invisibly brought down the profiteers. Then her group’s work escalated with WW2 and the stakes became more dire. 

Nazis spies and allied cryptologists, the Coast Guard on one side of the Atlantic, colleagues at Bletchley on the other, worked to win the “secret war.” As south America came into play, a beachhead in America for the Third Reich, Elizabeth had to decode the networks and individuals involved, as well as the infernally complex Enigma machines.  She did not just crack an Engima machine’s code, but even figured out the wiring of advanced machines she never saw; achievments in advance or simultaneous with Betchley. Elizabeth shared information as it occurred. She cared less about besting British allies. 

Her beginnings and that of the science of cryptology began on an eccentric rich man’s estate outside of Chicago. It was here that Elizebeth, a young Quaker schoolteacher, was hired to find secret messages thought to be embedded in Shaekspeare’s plays. William Friedman, a Jewish biologist, tasked with raising new crop, fell in love with Elizebeth and gained a life long code- breaking partner. 

Theirs was a marriage of equals, though William was the celebrated “genius.” The female half of the “Adam and Eve” of the National Security Agency, may have superceded him with her own innovations, but she cared little for publicity. Love and support were essentials for this marriage, rivalry wasn’t part of this love story. In one incident, where she attracted publicity, she learned a valuable lesson. Being a press darling, made her less effective in a world where secrecy was all essential.  

The history begins with  Elizebeth at 84, being interviewed about her life by a young woman, a government employee, recording her history which is also that of the beginning of the NSA. Characteristically modest, Elizabeth is a bit flustered as to why she is of interest. William’s writings are known. In this fascinating history, Fagone shows the fantastic that was not known–including the workings of an original mind.

Doing the job was the reward of solving puzzles with outcomes in the real world. Elizabeth Friedman’s story joins that of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, whose contributions, though hidden, affected history.
Fagone also shows how her  lack of recognition–no titles, awards– cost her later in life.  Being a loving caretaker and mother, a good neighbor were no less valuable to her than a WW2 career she kept secret.
But barely surviving on reduced funds was a hardship.

When files of WW2 were finally declassified this story could be told. It’s inspiring for girls who aspire to a technological career or bookish ones, who like young Elizebeth, was interested in literature more than science. The love story and the marriage of equals was also moving.  I found it amazing that William never forgot his success was shared and that he preferred working with his wife, over the mythology of solitary genius. Yet it’s his name on most of their books. Jason Fagone’s THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES may be the only book about Elizebth Smith Friedman.

A note: They left their library to the Thurgood Marshall Library, where it could be read by the public.




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