Dear “Knowledge is Power” readers,
Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s death, and I spent a lot of the day thinking about her.
It’s been a few years since I was researching The Woman Who Smashed Codes, poring through the papers Elizebeth left behind and trying to piece together the long-secret tale of her achievements. And I have a different job now, a day job, covering Northern California as a newspaper reporter. Still, when these key dates in Elizebeth’s life roll around, her words start pinging through the brain again, and I start looking at old photos and other stuff from my files, and then, suddenly, mentally, I’m back in book mode, freshly obsessed with the whole wild story.
Elizebeth died at 88, on Oct. 31, 1980. At the time, a few obituaries appeared in newspapers, noting that Elizebeth broke codes for the U.S. Coast Guard during Prohibition and was a pioneering woman in cryptology (the science of secret writing).
But as you know if you’ve read TWWSC, the obits didn’t tell anything close to the full story. They didn’t talk about her important and dramatic work in World War II, when she tracked dozens of clandestine radio circuits used by Nazi spies in South America, breaking the codes, solving thousands of Nazi messages, and bringing the spies to ruin. The obits didn’t mention that Elizebeth helped invent a new American science of codebreaking as a co-author of the Riverbank Publications. They didn’t mention that she broke multiple Enigma codes during WWII and was part of the first American team ever to solve an unknown Enigma machine. The obituaries missed the details and the big picture too — that Elizebeth wasn’t just a pathbreaking woman in her field but one of the greatest American codebreakers of all time.
It’s true that government secrecy rules played a part in keeping her story hidden. After WWII, the Navy ordered her to box up many of her team’s files and ship them to a classified vault. But I’m skeptical that this was the main obstacle, because secrecy considerations didn’t stop prominent male codebreakers from being recognized and praised while Elizebeth was still alive, including men whose WWII accomplishments paled in comparison to hers. (And yes, Elizebeth found this irritating: One year after the war, she and husband William ate dinner with some British colleagues in Cambridge, and when the men started telling tales about their wartime codebreaking feats, Elizebeth sensed that she was expected to keep her mouth shut. “As befits a woman in the monastic traditions of Cambridge,” she wrote later, “I said little, but my own recollections began to boil up from the cauldron of memories.”)
Of course, the real culprit in the erasure of Elizebeth was J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI. Hoover didn’t play by the same secrecy rules as everyone else. As one of the most powerful men in Washington, he could flout them without consequence, and he was a masterful and notorious manipulator of the press, using PR techniques to steal credit for work that was actually done by other agencies. Pretty much singlehandedly, Hoover crafted and sold a false narrative that the FBI — not Elizebeth and the Coast Guard — played the decisive role in smashing the Nazi spy rings in South America during WWII, and that’s the story that got written into history, even though it was a lie.
But now this injustice is starting to be addressed, thanks in huge part to you — to the community of readers and teachers that has sprung up around TWWSC.
Here are a few relatively recent (and exciting) developments:
THERE’S GONNA BE A BOAT: In July, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that they will name one of their new “Legend-Class” cutters after Elizebeth, in honor of her career as a “pioneering codebreaker” who battled gangsters during Prohibition and founded the Coast Guard’s elite codebreaking Unit 387 that went after Nazi spies in WWII. We are talking here about an actual sizable ship, 418 feet long, named the FRIEDMAN. It’s apparently scheduled to be constructed at a shipbuilding facility in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and delivered to the Coast Guard in early 2024.
As I understand it, this happened after a retired USCG captain read “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” realized the scope of Elizebeth’s contribution in WWII, and started pushing for recognition. In announcing the naming of the cutter, an internal USCG “Alcoast” dispatch refers to my research: “Only recently was her legacy fully appreciated when a journalist researched now-declassified papers and discovered her pivotal role in the Enigma-machine code-breaking as well as the Customs Prohibition operations.” Here’s part of the Alcoast:
I was grinning for hours after I learned the news. I mean… amazing, right? I’m going to try to attend the ship’s christening ceremony.
AN HONOR IN CONGRESS: Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan resolution honoring Elizebeth as “a pioneer in codebreaking,” “leaving behind a legacy of remarkable skill and technical ingenuity, woven together to solve the most complex secret messages in the world.” The effort was spurred by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and his staff, and co-sponsored by Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska. The resolution described Elizebeth’s achievements during World War II — as revealed in TWWSC — and even pointed out that Hoover “took credit for the achievements of Friedman and her team, leaving her work widely unrecognized until after her death.” I did give Wyden’s team some feedback on the resolution text when they asked me, but the project was their idea, and they did a wonderful job.
NEW CODEBREAKING HISTORIES: One of my big hopes in writing TWWSC was that it would start to shift the lore of the field and Elizebeth’s place in it. So I was glad to see her play an important role in a new book by a pair of writers and codebreaking enthusiasts, Elonka Dunin and Klaus Schmeh. The book, Codebreaking: A Practical Guide, out in the UK in December, calls Elizebeth “one of the great cryptanalysts in American history” and includes examples of actual messages she solved. The book is terrific, and I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in puzzles or secret writing.
AN ELIZEBETH-THEMED CELEBRATION: There’s an academic conference inspired by Elizebeth being planned for next August, at Indiana University, not far from her hometown of Huntington, where a new historical marker honoring her will be revealed. The project is being organized by Justin Troutman, a cybersecurity professional and educator, in conjunction with the university. I’ll have more details for you in a future newsletter.
As always, I’m grateful to all who have read the book, reviewed it, chosen it for a book club, ordered it for a library, taught it in a class, talked about it on social media, or shared it with friends and family. If you’re a student or journalist researching Elizebeth, I’m happy to help point you in the right direction or share documents from my files. And please, keep telling people about the book. There is no formula for book promotion, only word of mouth. It’s what works, what keeps the story alive.
I hope you’re safe and doing ok. I struggle these days to keep from feeling despair. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’ve stopped trying to predict. I’m going to be in line to vote on Tuesday a half hour before the polls open. I do know that. (Some journalists say that journalists shouldn’t vote. I think these people are insane.) If you’re in the U.S., I hope you’re as eager to vote in Tuesday’s election as I am. Elizebeth was a lifelong voting-rights activist. She ran a chapter of the League of Women Voters out of her home. She thought it was a scandal that residents of Washington D.C. didn’t have meaningful representation in Congress, and she pushed relentlessly for D.C. statehood. I would never describe her as an optimist. She was a precise and unsentimental thinker who hated bullshit in all its forms. But she did believe in democracy, and even though she saw so many of America’s failings up close — and despite the appalling way she was treated by her own government — she still thought this place was salvageable.
Until next time, take care,