The Nyla Fall 2022 book club selection is The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone. This best-selling book, which was an NPR Best Book of the Year, tells the almost unbelievable story of Elizebeth Friedman (née Smith) and her husband William Friedman who were pioneers of codebreaking and have been called the Adam and Eve of the NSA. Elizebeth learned how to break codes while working for a business tycoon during WWI. She went on to use her skills to help police apprehend gangsters and smugglers during the Prohibition era. But when the US entered into WWII, her talents proved to be truly invaluable.
Elizebeth highly classified work exposing Nazi spy rings led her to crack several versions of Hitler’s Enigma machine used by German spies. Williams’ contributions were no less impactful. He worked tirelessly to crack Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma from inside an Army vault in Washington, DC.. Their successes in cracking these enemy spy systems helped the US win the war and their contributions forever changed the course of American history.
Although much has been told of William’s story, this book is the first to provide well-researched insight into Elizebeth’s life and her part as a pioneer of cryptanalysis. The reason we have this information at all is due to Elizebeth’s tenacity and determination. After William’’s death in 1969, Elizebeth devoted much of her remaining years to compiling a library and bibliography of their work. This “most extensive private collection of cryptographic material in the world” is housed in the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia.
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