The Woman Who Smashed Codes

The Woman Who Smashed Codes

by Jason Fagone

Overview: Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II.

Deanna Boe (11/05/18): Another wonderful non-fiction book! It seems as if they just keep coming to my attention. What is more amazing is the fact I keep reading about people and situations that I never knew anything about prior to this book. For instance, I had never heard of the unconventional tycoon, George Fabyan. He and his wife happened to believe there were secret messages buried in the writings of Shakespeare; in fact Fabyan’s wife believed that Shakespeare’s writings had secrets implanted into them by Francis Bacon. For years she tried to find the code that would break all these secrets in Shakespeare’s writings. This was a minor part of Fabyan’s work. He had great wealth that he used to explore all kinds of projects. Fabyan brought people to live on his property and provided them with a place to live, food to eat, and a small salary. That was how Elizebeth Smith, a young Quaker, came to work for him. It was here she met her future husband, William Friedman, a Jewish scientist, who eventually became her codebreaking partner for life. They are even considered the “Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency.”

Unfortunately it wasn’t until many years later that Elizebeth was given the credit that she deserved in terms of all she did to break secret codes, not only for two World Wars, but all that happened in between i.e. rum runners during prohibition, gangsters, organized crime, codes for foreign countries etc. In short, Elizebeth and her husband transformed with their techniques the codes of secret writing.

As usual in a book of this magnitude there are always many other points one picks up that are not necessarily talked about in our society or history. For instance the anti-Semitism that was very much alive in the twenties in the U.S. The president of Harvard changed the admission rules to keep out Jews. Henry Ford started an anti-Semitic weekly newspaper. Its position was that “the Jew is the world’s enigma.” This was just the tip of the iceberg and because of this William was very careful when he went to Washington because he didn’t want to provoke any negative Jewish feelings. This was happening in the twenties and into the thirties at the time Hitler was coming to power in Germany. We can also say it is still happening by the killings in the Jewish temple recently.

Elizebeth became the “Cryptanalyst-in-Charge, U.S. Coast Guard in 1931. “It was the first unit of its kind in Treasury history, and the only codebreaking unit in America ever to be run by a woman – another pioneering moment for Elizebeth.” She held this position until after WW II.

Probably the most disturbing points that came out in this book were about Herbert Hoover. He felt women were only fit for “boring clerical functions” or to “bullshit ‘em and ball ‘em: Just don’t tell them any secrets.” He went on to claim credit for almost all of Elizebeth’s work! It wasn’t determined until years later what he had done and how the FBI was given credit. This along with the fact William and his group had warned our government that the Japanese were planning something before Dec. 7 but it was ignored. Many often felt it was a way for FDR to get us into the war since most did not want us to do it. This is not a “fast” read, but one that is very thought provoking and interesting. There are many other points besides the few I have mentioned.
Rating: ****

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