Tag Archives: world war i

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The true makers of history are often hidden from us, either owners of softer voices or casualties of the rhetoric of louder glory-seekers. More often than not, those lost voices below to women and that is the case for Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the first people to develop a science for code-breaking and a key, if not the key, figure in the development of the US’s intelligence services. As the author of her story, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone writes, “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The story of her and her husband, a leading code breaker in his own right, is fascinating, not only for the development of code-breaking as a science and their contributions to more than one war, but also because of the odd and eccentric characters that populate Elizebeth’s life. Her husband, William, was perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, in part due to the extremely long hours both Friedmans put in service to the US government. Maybe most fascinating of all was Elizebeth’s first patron, George Fabyan, who created a compound outside of Chicago — the Riverbank Laboratories — which was a private laboratory researching a multitude of topics, some scientifically sound and others very much of the crack-pot variety. It was at Riverbank that Elizebeth first encounter cryptography and her future husband William. Riverbank was full of would-be scientists, studying a range of topics from hidden messages in Shakespeare’s plays to acoustics, for which it still exists. The compound raised all its own animals and grew much of its own crops for food.

During World War I, there was a dearth of people who understood encryption, much less could decipher the messages of the enemy. William and Elizebeth demonstrated their abilities and developed a true scientific approach to the problem. Both Friedmans had an uncanny knack of seeing patterns in data, at a time when computers weren’t available to help with the task. But, at the same time, one had to discern real patterns and not ones made up by their own brain. As Fagone writes, “Humans are so good at seeing patterns that we are often able to see patterns even when they aren’t really there” and “One way of thinking about science is that it’s a check against the natural human tendency to see patterns that might not be there.” Seeing and identifying real patterns was the first criterion for breaking a code.

During the time the Friedmans were developing the science of cryptography and creating the profession of the cryptanalyst (“a person who analyzes and reads secret communications without the knowledge of the system used”), the world was changing at an incredible pace. Radio communications meant that agents could speak to each other across the globe, without the need to exchange paper. The atom bomb was being developed. Politics were changing too. J. Edgar Hoover was accumulating power in the FBI and was at odds with the military in the use of cryptography. What do you do when you break a code? As was highlighted in the movie The Imitation Game about the life of another famous cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, if you act on the intelligence from the broken code, you reveal the fact that the code is broken to the enemy, leading them to change the code and breaking that stream of intelligence. Her husband called this dilemma “cryptologic schizophrenia.” It is a no-win situation for the cryptanalyst, especially since human lives were often at stake. The FBI was chasing sensationalist news rather than maximizing the benefit to the nation of the broken codes.

The story follows Elizebeth’s career from a scientist building the beginnings of a new scientific field to her work for the government, where she ultimately found a home with the US Navy, where she tracked Nazi spies in South America. She also worked for the US Treasury, intercepting the messages of crime lords working within the US. Throughout it all, Elizebeth simply did her work, serving her country, either not willing or even able to really tout her contributions and role in developing the field. In fact, after the death of her husband, she dedicated much of her life organizing his records and documents, his legacy, at the detriment of her own. However, her work, along with that of her husband, led directly to the spy agencies we have now, such as the CIA and NSA. What they created, however, ultimately led them to become uncomfortable, as the reach of agencies such as the NSA extended far into every aspect of our lives.

An interesting note that relates to our own times. In discussing the context of Germany in the lead-up to World War II, Fagone notes that “The international press covered him [Hitler] like a normal leader. Many Germans did not think he would really do the things he had said he would do.” Perhaps a caution for our own times.

Fagone weaves an excellent story, filling these larger-than-life characters with personality and telling an exciting story involving spies, drug dealers, and the future of Western Civilization. Learning about hidden heroes such as Elizebeth Smith Friedman is always a pleasure, even more so when the story is well executed.

Draw by James Reasoner

draw-reasonerThe Wild West is one of those times and places that pulls strongly on our imagination, with images of danger, adventures, and freedom. Daring bank robberies, shoot outs, posses chasing outlaws through the wilderness, saloons and gambling. Men such as Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday. These are the icons of the Wild West. Typically, however, we have next to no real inkling of the real Wild West, with most of our knowledge informed more by Hollywood than history. In his book Draw, James Reasoner explores the truth behind the stories of these men and their exploits, truths that are often as exciting and interesting as anything Hollywood could ever invent.

Reasoner focuses on gun fights, the violence that characterized the lives of these men. Some of these men were out-right sociopaths, killing with no emotion nor remorse, over things as trivial as snoring too loudly (ok, that was an accident, but there was still no remorse). Often motivated by the desire for wealth, many of these men started off on gangs that robbed stage coaches, trains, and banks, but soon events got beyond their control, with posses in chase and life on the run. Some were able to escape justice for a while, settling in another territory or moving back east, but often, the bullet eventually found its target.

Draw looks at some of the lesser known gun battles of the Old West, sometimes skipping the more well known ones almost altogether. For example, the shootout at the O. K. Corral is only briefly touched on as part of the context of the death of the one Earp brother who wasn’t there. Not much is made of the two most notorious outlaws, Billy the Kid and Jessie James, except in how their deaths were part of the narrative of other men. Maybe that’s because these more famous events and men have so much more written about them that Reasoner figured there wasn’t a need for even more, focusing instead on the lesser known battles. In any case, the events and men he has chosen are compelling.

There are a couple of things I found very interesting. Reasoner tries to emphasize is that the Old West image of two men facing each other on Main Street in a showdown, an image that some historians have said is pure Hollywood fiction, did occur at least a few times. He gives a couple examples of exactly this kind of shootout. Also very interesting is how much New Mexico plays in the history of the Wild West. When we hear of the exploits of Billy the Kid and so on, we don’t have much context for the where of it, just a generic western setting. However, many of these men lived and worked and robbed in New Mexico, as well as Kansas, Colorado, Texas, and California. It makes me want to find some of these places in New Mexico and see what there might be to see. Finally, Reasoner describes some truly remarkable men — on both sides of the law — who, facing a barrage of bullets, kept their cool to gun down their enemies. They let the others wildly shoot away while they steadied their aim and let loose a deadly shot. Fast wasn’t always the most important factor in who won the day.

Probably the most interesting aspect of all of this is when these events occurred. These stories involve men who span the worlds of the Civil War to World War I. Many were either Confederate or Union soldiers who moved West to find their fortune. But the last few events described occurred around 1917, near the end of WWI. To me, this was a near epiphany as WWI, having occurred in the 1900s, feels like the modern era, while the Old West seems to be another time. But they overlap. And, indeed, there was less time between the Civil War and WWI than there is now between WWII and our own time. Thus, the backdrop of the Civil War was likely very important context for most of these men, regardless of what side they were on. That, while in Europe men were dug into trenches and airplanes were engaged in aerial combat, men in the US were still robbing banks by horseback is just a bit amazing to think about.

I only found one aspect of Reasoner’s writing a bit annoying. In setting up each story, he gives some context to the time and place and more than once uses a phrase such as “The bustling town grew up around the miners who dug their wealth from the ground and the saloon keepers and soiled doves who came to extract that wealth from the miners.” This type of phrase — though probably very accurate — got a bit repetitive, but maybe that shows how similar all of these western settlements were at the beginning.

Draw is a very entertaining read and has me looking for more about the Old West.