This article was originally published by American Experience to accompany its documentary, THE CODEBREAKER. Written by Tim Weiner and edited by Ben Greenberg.
By Tim Weiner
Until the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman came to light, the history of American intelligence was missing a key figure. Now we know how she and her husband, William Friedman, became the progenitors of American code-making and codebreaking.
They started out more than a century ago, as the United States prepared to enter World War I. Together, they gave birth to an empire of intelligence. By the start of World War II, their genius had engendered an army of human computers — mostly women working with pencil and paper — deciphering the secrets of the Axis and the Soviets alike. And at the dawn of the Cold War, their pioneering efforts laid a cornerstone for the foundation of the National Security Agency.
They likely never imagined what their labors would lead to — though they had their fears. Following his retirement in 1955, William Friedman warned that the NSA’s “secrecy virus” would one day infect the American body politic.
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Tim Weiner is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Folly and The Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare, 1945-2020.