Someone retweeted something about a new book about a WWII code breaker into my Twitter timeline, and the title caught my attention: The Woman Who Smashed Codes.
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.
In short: a fascinating look at the birth of what is today an industry/agency of its own. As usual, it’s infuriating to know that this woman was essentially erased from history by J. Edgar Hoover as he bolstered his own reputation and budget.
I enjoyed the book, but one line late in the book really got under my skin. On page 265, when talking about German activity in Argentina: “…Juan Domingo Peron, the future three-time president of Argentina, now just a young army colonel with a taste for moral larceny. (He lived with a fourteen-year-old girlfriend whom he called “The Piranha.”)” Was the parenthetical necessary? Does it contribute anything? If the intent was to make clear how revolting a human being Peron was, well, it worked. As a reader, I was seriously squicked not just by Peron but by the way the information was presented: in a casual way, tossed off almost as a joke, normalizing what would have been statutory rape. Because does anyone think a fourteen year old would have agency when it came to a relationship (of any type) with a man in his forties? Ugh.