If you reveal your secrets to the wind,
you should not blame the wind for
revealing them to the trees.
When my sister and I were little, we tried to teach ourselves hand signs for the alphabet with an eye toward secretly communicating with each other. She can still remember a couple of words. Later, I taught myself Braille but never mastered the ability to read the characters by touch. Still later I studied the Cherokee syllabary with fascination. Symbols substitute for each of the syllables in the Cherokee language. I’ve extended my interest in codes and cyphers to my current reading list. Here are three books that I’ve enjoyed the most. (Note: I actually listen to these as audio books since I am a knitter and I listen while I knit.)
The Zimmerman Telegram
By Barbara W. Tuchman
I’ve read and listened to this book several times. It amazes me and it’s author is one of my favorites. Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s summary:
In the dark winter of 1917, as World War I was deadlocked, Britain knew that Europe could be saved only if the United States joined the war. But President Wilson remained unshakable in his neutrality. Then, with a single stroke, the tool to propel America into the war came into a quiet British office. One of countless messages intercepted by the crack team of British decoders, the Zimmermann telegram was a top-secret message from Berlin inviting Mexico to join Japan in an invasion of the United States. Mexico would recover her lost American territories while keeping the U.S. occupied on her side of the Atlantic.
How Britain managed to inform America of Germany’s plan without revealing that the German codes had been broken makes for an incredible, true story of espionage, intrigue, and international politics, as only Barbara W. Tuchman could tell it.
The Woman Who Smashed Codes
By Jason Fagone
The subtitle is A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies. The woman at the center of the story grew up close to where I live—she was a farm girl who went to college when most women didn’t. Her story is charming and amazing. The Zimmerman telegram is mentioned in this story. The publisher’s summary states:
In 1912, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the US government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the Adam and Eve of the NSA, Elizebeth’s story, incredibly, has never been told.
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 for 40 years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizabeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma – and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.
By Liza Mundy
The subtitle is The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. This book mentions both William and Elizabeth Friedman. Of interest to me was the discussion of the Navy WAVES who helped construct the bombes (machines used to decrypt messages) at National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio. Also, since my aunt was a Navy WAVE cartographer during World War II in Washington DC and I was a Navy nurse 20 years later, I was fascinated by the personal descriptions of life and working conditions. The publisher’s summary adds:
Recruited by the US Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than 10,000 women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of codebreaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, best-selling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment.
Next, I plan to read Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures.