The Woman Who Smashed Codes: America’s Secret Weapon in World War Two a book by Jason Fagone
“No code is ever completely solved, you know.”
It’s quite a time to be reading The Woman Who Smashed Codes. Subtitled The True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, Jason Fagone’s book delivers on that promise, bringing one woman’s deliberately erased accomplishments back into the limelight. But it also resounds with warning bells that should sound farther away than they prove today.
…By the time Elizebeth and future husband William Friedman are decoding messages for the government at the start of World War I, her life seems almost incredible. And that’s before Fagone gets to the ciphers themselves.
Government outsiders called them magic, and though Fagone dutifully details cryptology concepts and ciphers, you’d be forgiven for suspecting something supernatural in the Friedmans’ abilities. Starting out side-by-side on a tycoon’s landscaped estate, they became the founders of modern codebreaking.
…Fagone gives us an impression of war as a bureaucracy (among other things, the FBI routinely took credit for her work), and though his fondness for his subjects is clear, he’s careful to frame their biography within dozens of overlapping stories — they’re holding down a moment in time.
by Sonny Bunch
Every once in a while as I’m reading a book it becomes clear that, for some reason or confluence of reasons, the text in question would make the perfect movie. This perhaps implies a poverty of my own imagination — a disturbing willingness to reduce codices to raw materials for celluloid — but I make do.
One such book is Jason Fagone’s “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” a fascinating combination of love story, spy novel and war tale, all of it true, most of it perfect for the big screen.
…You can just picture Kiera Knightley or Gemma Arterton or Shailene Woodley sliding right into the role.
Any fine actress would relish the chance to set the record straight about the efforts of Elizebeth. Her role in history has been somewhat sidelined as praise has been poured upon her husband, and the attention hogs at J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI stole the credit that was rightfully hers.
by Jason Fagone
Below is an excerpt from The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone’s riveting new book chronicling the work of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman, a pair of “know-nothings” who invented the science of codebreaking and became the greatest codebreakers of their era.
Their contributions continue to influence the U.S. intelligence community to this day. Our thanks to Jason Fagone and Harper Collins for allowing us to share a portion of this book with the Longreads community.
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….They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter.
The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files.
The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo — these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.