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The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies Hardcover – September 26, 2017
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From the Publisher
Nathalia Holt interviews Jason Fagone about his book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes.
Nathalia Holt: What drew you to this story?
Jason Fagone: Well, it’s one of these amazing American origin stories. A hundred years ago, a young woman in her early twenties suddenly became one of the greatest codebreakers in the country. She taught herself how to solve secret messages without knowing the key. Even though she started out as a poet, not a mathematician, she turned out to be a genius at solving these very difficult puzzles, and her solutions ended up changing the 20th century. She helped us win the world wars. And she also shaped the intelligence community as we know it today.
NH: William Friedman has long been recognized as a pioneer of cryptology, so why have we never heard of Elizebeth before?
JF: Sexism and secrecy. A lot of the time she was omitted or even erased from the records by the men in her life. Sometimes they were men close to her, like her husband, William Friedman, who was also a champion codebreaker, and sometimes they were men in power, like J. Edgar Hoover. All through World War II she used her skills to hunt Nazi spies who were spreading into the West. She broke these Nazi spy codes for the FBI, which would have been lost without her—and then Hoover turned around and painted himself as the big hero. There was nothing she could do, because of secrecy rules.
NH: In the Author’s Note of your book you describe the excitement of discovering Elizebeth’s archives in a vault of a Virginia library. What was that moment like and what types of resources did you use to research this story?
JF: I’ll never forget that moment. Elizebeth donated 22 boxes of papers to the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Virginia. Since her death in 1980 those boxes have been carefully preserved at the Foundation’s library in a vault. Elizebeth left thousands of her personal letters, whole diaries full of poems, newspaper clippings of her famous rum cases, and original code worksheets. She kept everything that wasn’t classified. The only period of her life missing from the archive was 1939 through 1945—World War II. So I had to patch the gap. It took me more than two years to find the missing records, hunting through archives in the U.S. and the U.K.
NH: How can Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s story inspire young women today?
JF: I think a lot of professional women today can relate to her experiences. She did all this important work and got very little credit. But at the same time, because she was so good at her job, she had a lasting impact on the world. She blazed a trail in a lot of ways, and she did it in her own style. Once she wrote, “If I may capture a goodly number of your messages, even though I have never seen your code book, I may still read your thoughts.” That captures her personality: Do whatever you like, but I still have this mind, and you will have to reckon with it.
NH: This book is in many ways a love story. Can you tell us about the letters sent between Elizebeth and her husband?
JF: Elizebeth and William started writing to each other before they were romantically involved, when they were still only friends. They were these two young people who wanted to accomplish great things, to leave a mark. In 1918, when William joined the Army and sailed to France to serve as a codebreaker, he wrote Elizebeth these 20- and 30-page love letters by the light of an oil lamp, calling her 'Divine Fire.' He liked to include bits of code that he knew only Elizebeth would understand, and she replied in code, too. For the Friedmans it was a lovers’ shorthand, a way of staying connected. And later, when they had kids, they taught the kids how to do it, too.
Nathalia Holt is the New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars and Cured: The People who Defeated HIV.
“[Fagone] documents the amazing arc of his subject’s life, often in stunning detail…Ms. Friedman was not only crypto pioneer and a patriotic spycatcher, but also an inspiring role model.” (Wired)
“The Woman Who Smashed Codes...has drawn comparisons to Hidden Figures, though we think this one is better. In journalist Jason Fagone’s deft hands, we not only learn about a lost national treasure, but also get new insight into the history of our country at war.” (New York Post)
“[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)
“Damned-near impossible to put down. The book has everything: thrills, chills, kills, love, crypto, and a hopeful sense that a nearly forgotten American genius, Elizebeth Smith Friedman, is finally being given her due.” (Ars Technica)
“Still, this Quaker-born poet from Indiana was the grandmother of the National Security Agency and virtually created the modern code-breaking profession. Trust us on this one.” (Forbes)
“This is the best work of nonfiction I’ve ever read—no hyperbole...Fagone has painstakingly worked backward to piece together a truth that has been buried for too long. In the process, he has helped Friedman gain recognition as the American hero she was.” (MIT Technology Review)
“In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, journalist Jason Fagone recreates a world and a cast of characters so utterly fascinating they will inhabit the psyches of its readers long after the book has been read.” (Associated Press)
“One of the year’s best reads, it is both deeply researched and beautifully told.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
“The Woman Who Smashed Codes should be the next Hidden Figures...a story that anyone with interest in the time period has to read, a key piece of the puzzle about America’s war effort.” (Washington Post)
“This book tells the incredible, little-known story of code-breaker Elizebeth Smith and her husband, cryptologist William Friedman, otherwise known as the ‘Adam and Eve’ of the NSA.” (New York Post)
From the Back Cover
In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. She moved to the tycoon’s lavish estate outside of Chicago expecting to spend her days poring through old books. But the rich man’s close ties to the U.S. government, and the urgencies of war, quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission. She soon learned to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking—the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her on the estate was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner. Elizebeth and William were in many ways the Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency, the U.S. institution that monitors and intercepts foreign communications to glean intelligence.
In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman who played an integral role in our nation’s history—from the Great War to the Cold War. He traces Elizebeth’s developing career through World War I, Prohibition, and the struggle against fascism. She helped catch gangsters and smugglers, exposed a Nazi spy ring in South America, and fought a clandestine battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German operatives to conceal their communications. And through it all, she served as muse to her husband, a master of puzzles, who astonished friends and foes alike. Inside an army vault in Washington, he worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma—and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.
Fagone unveils for the first time America’s codebreaking history through the prism of one remarkable woman’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that shaped the modern intelligence community. Rich in detail, The Woman Who Smashed Codes pays tribute to an unsung hero whose story belongs alongside those of other great female technologists, like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, and whose oft-hidden contributions altered the course of the century.
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The Woman Who Smashed Codes will be compared with Hidden Figures, and that's fair, to a point. Both books have at their core a story of remarkable scientific/mathematic achievement, overlooked because of gender, largely forgotten (until now) as others took credit. But it is so much more, so rich in its account of not only an extraordinary woman, but the time in which she lived, two World Wars and her central role in both, the incredible marriage that gave birth to modern American cryptanalysis, that I think it deserves to be evaluated on its own.
Even in the hands of a merely serviceable writer, it would be an enjoyable read. But Fagone elevates the story, weaving it into as rich a tapestry as you could hope for. Secondary characters jump from the page just as much as Elizebeth and her husband William; little details transport you to the small, smoke-filled rooms where Elizebeth and her tiny team toiled in obscurity in defense of the country. Fagone firmly establishes Elizebeth Friedman's place in our history, and not only gives her her due, but demands that we reevaluate what we thought we knew about the wars, and the origins of America's intelligence services (nearly all of them have her fingerprints on them), and the people who are given credit for critical milestones in the country's history.
This is a magnificent, memorable, important book.
This is her history in that book, I highly recommended it.
I knew she was very good but I didn't know she was that good. Thanks to the author for the book, loved it.
In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.
There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won't surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI's role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).
Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e's.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.
William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. "MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway," the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
Fagone notes, "Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing's epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes." However, independently, before the US and Britain's Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)
"William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency," Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It's very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today's NSA.
As Fagone notes, "Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology." Although today Elizebeth isn't nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. "It's not quite true that history is written by the winners," Fagone writes. "It's written by the best publicists on the winning team."
The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that
The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.
Most recent customer reviews
decoding Nazi messages....and ultimately the Enigma machine
and the ciphers it produced.