The Forgotten Female Codebreaker Who Helped America Defeat the Nazis
Elizebeth Smith Friedman broke Nazi Enigma machines and busted South American spy rings before being written out of history by powerful men. A new biography aims to change all that.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman with her then-boss, George Fabyan. Photo courtesy of Harper Collins.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman doesn’t have a dam named after her, unlike J. Edgar Hoover. There aren’t Oscar-winning Hollywood biopics of her life a la Alan Turing. And unlike Ada Lovelace, she doesn’t have a day named in her honor. But Smith Freidman was the peer of any of these three pillars of the scientific and intelligence communities, breaking World War II Nazi codes and undoubtedly saving thousands of lives.
Thanks to institutional sexism, her self-effacing personality, and obnoxious men like Hoover (more on this later), however, Smith Freidman was largely written out of history. Until now.
After stumbling upon 22 boxes of Smith Friedman’s personal files at the George C. Marshall library in West Virginia, writer Jason Fagone spent three years researching her life. The resulting work of literary nonfiction, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, is a triumph.
It tells Smith Friedman’s journey from an obscure daughter of lower middle-class Quaker parents, the years she spent working for a mysterious millionaire researching hidden messages thought to exist in Shakespeare’s works, her days busting Prohibition liquor-smuggling rings, and finally to her greatest achievement: her decryption of Nazi codes and breaking Enigma machines for the US Coast Guard during the Second World War.
“I found all these boxes full of her notes and letters, and she was so wonderful on the page,” Fagone says. Smith Freidman had initially wanted to be a poet before her unexpected diversion into the then-nascent field of code-breaking. “She was funny and witty and warm and fantastic and fighting. She didn’t really suffer bullshit. And the more I read, the more I realized she was a genuinely important figure in the history of cryptology and the growth of America’s intelligence community.”
As well as being one of the greatest codebreakers who ever lived, Smith Friedman happened to be married to another codebreaker—William Friedman—who was her intellectual rival as well as her faithful partner of many decades. The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an account of one woman’s remarkable life during a remarkable historical period, but it’s also a simple love story.
Friedman was his wife’s biggest champion, and she in turn cared for him through his struggles with depression. But the fact that Smith Friedman was married to the man who famously broke the WWII Japanese cipher machine Purple is the possible reason that Smith Friedman wasn’t given the recognition she deserved.
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“At every stage of Smith Friedman’s life, there were men around her who got credit for what she did,” Fagone says, explaining that Smith Friedman's husband overshadowed her due to the sexism of the day. “People assumed William was the great one and she was the minor one, and he got all the credit.”
Reading The Woman Who Smashed Codes is literally transporting. It takes you to a pre-NSA world before mass intelligence, when the FBI was taking down Al Capone, and Treasury officials and federal agents would turn up on the doorstep of Mrs. Friedman—as she was universally known to the government spooks—to solve their puzzles.
“She always used to say, 'Men from the government keep turning up on my doorstep, asking me to solve puzzles, and the only way I can make them go away is to say yes!’” Fagoe laughs. “But she had a rare set of skills that the government couldn’t not exploit.”
"Exploit" is the right word to describe what happened to Smith Friedman. Despite setting up a US Coast Guard codebreaking unit and leading a team that broke World War II-era Nazi spy rings in South America, Smith Friedman died poor and obscure outside of rarified intelligence circles. The great war heroine who broke three Enigma machines and decrypted Nazi messages for intelligence agencies around the world earned just $5,390 ($67,000 in today's money) at the end of her career.
One particularly harrowing passage in The Woman Who Smashed Codes describes a note that Smith Friedman, then a widow at the end of her life, wrote to herself. “Either be born Rich or BE BORN POOR. It is we in between who PAY-PAY-Pay-y-y-y.”
As Fagone extensively details, codebreakers are, by the very nature of their work, required to live in the shadows. Boast about your success in cracking a message, and you risk broadcasting to your enemies that their communications are being read, meaning that they might change their codes and require you to start from scratch. Plus, the work that Smith Friedman worked on was highly classified, stamped with “Top Secret Ultra" and not to be released until many decades later. By the time the information was declassified, she was an old woman.
But J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, didn’t have to abide by the same secrecy requirements. When World War II ended, Hoover—who was universally disliked across the intelligence community, according to Fagone—quickly began to build his own legacy while the government disbanded Smith Friedman’s codebreaking unit.
Despite the fact that Smith Friedman broke the Nazi spy ring in South America—arguably preventing Hitler from gaining a toehold in the region—Hoover manipulated the press to claim her victory as his own. He published a seven page story in The American Magazine called “How The Nazi Spy Invasion Was Smashed” which rewrote history and got his men of the FBI to take the credit for Smith Friedman breaking the complex intercepted messages that were coming out of Brazil and Argentina.
The FBI head even hired It's a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra to make a film, starring Hoover himself, to cement his credentials as America’s spy catcher in chief. His strategy worked—the American public believed it.
“Hoover was an enormous asshole!” Fagone exclaims. “I don’t know how else to put it. He was a guy who was interested in building an empire, and he didn’t care who he crushed in order to do that.”
In addition to being an attention-seeking jerk, Hoover was an even bigger chauvinist. Upon taking over the FBI in 1924, Hoover promptly fired its only two female agents and barred women from working as Bureau agents for his entire tenure. (They could be secretaries and clerks.)
“He didn’t think women had the ability to be FBI agents,” Fagone explains, “and I think that affected how he saw Elizebeth and his decision to leave her out of the story.”
The Woman Who Smashed Codes is full of characters who merit entire biographies in their own right: Nazi spies sleeping with South American officials' wives; intelligence chiefs who solved detective novels a few pages in and scribbled the answers in the margins. Fagone excels in describing those who powered the war effort but received scarce glory, like the women who hand-operated the enormous, room-sized codebreaking machines, dripping with sweat in airless rooms.
And at its center is a story that needed to be told: the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, an unassuming woman with a formidable mind who defeated Nazis and alcohol smugglers using little more than a pencil and her intellect—only to be erased from our history textbooks in favor of other louder, male voices.
“What happened to Smith Friedman was a great injustice,” Fagone says. “Hopefully this book can help rectify that in some way.”