How Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman Broke Up a Nazi Spy Ring
A new PBS documentary traces her extraordinary life, from her Quaker upbringing to her career as the U.S.’ first female cryptanalyst
Armed with a sharp mind and nerves of steel, Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892–1980) cracked hundreds of ciphers during her career as America’s first female cryptanalyst, successfully busting smugglers during Prohibition and, most notably, breaking up a Nazi spy ring across South America during the 1940s.
But until records detailing her involvement in World War II were declassified in 2008, most Americans had never heard of Friedman. A man—then-director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover—took credit for Friedman’s wartime success, and she took her secret life as one of the country’s top codebreakers to the grave.
Those eager to learn more about Friedman’s extraordinary accomplishments can now watch a new documentary, “The Codebreaker” on PBS’ “American Experience,” for free online. Based on journalist Jason Fagone’s 2017 nonfiction book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, the film also draws on Friedman’s archival letters and photographs, which are held by the George C. Marshall Foundation.
As Suyin Haynes reports for Time magazine, the PBS documentary arrives amid a surge of interest in Friedman: In 2019, the United States Senate passed a resolution in her honor, and in July 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that it would name a ship after her.
Born into a Quaker family in Huntington, Indiana, in 1892, Friedman studied poetry and literature before settling down in Chicago after graduation. A devoted Shakespeare fan, she visited the city’s Newberry Library to see a 1623 original edition of the playwright’s First Folios, wrote Carrie Hagan for Smithsonian magazine in 2015.
There, a librarian impressed by Friedman’s interest put her in touch with George Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire seeking researchers to work on a Shakespeare code-cracking project. She moved to Fabyan’s estate at Riverbank Laboratory in Geneva, Illinois, and met her future husband, William Friedman. The pair worked together to attempt to prove Fabyan’s hunch that Sir Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare’s plays, filling the texts with cryptic clues to his identity. (Years later, the couple concluded that this hunch was incorrect).
When World War I broke out, Fabyan offered the government the assistance of the scholars working under his guidance at Riverbank. The Friedmans, who wed in 1917, became leaders in the first U.S. codebreaking unit, intercepting radio messages and decoding encrypted intelligence.
Though Friedman never formally trained as a codebreaker, she was highly skilled at the process, historian Amy Butler Greenfield tells Time.
Butler Greenfield adds, “She was extraordinarily good at recognizing patterns, and she would make what looked like guesses that turned out to be right.”
After World War I, the U.S. Coast Guard hired Friedman to monitor Prohibition-era smuggling rings. She ran the unit’s first codebreaking unit for the next decade, per Smithsonian. Together, she and her clerk cracked an estimated 12,000 encryptions; their work resulted in 650 criminal prosecutions, and she testified as an expert witness in 33 cases, reports Time.
All told, wrote Hagan for Smithsonian, “[Friedman’s] findings nailed Chinese drug smugglers in Canada, identified a Manhattan antique doll expert as a home-grown Japanese spy, and helped resolve a diplomatic feud with Canada.”
Friedman succeeded in her field despite significant barriers associated with her gender: Though they both worked as contractors, she earned just half of what her husband made for the same work, according to Smithsonian. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Navy took over Friedman’s Coast Guard unit and essentially demoted her. (Women would only be allowed to serve fully in the military after 1948, notes Kirstin Butler for PBS.)
Friedman achieved her greatest code-breaking feat in the 1940s. Working for the Coast Guard, she led a team that eavesdropped on German spies as they discussed the movement of Allied ships in South America. This was high-stakes business: As Americans fought in World War II, they feared that Axis powers would attempt to conduct Nazi-backed coups in several countries in South America, per PBS.
In 1942, Friedman’s worst fear materialized. Cover transmissions from the Nazis abruptly stopped—a sign that her targets had discovered they were being spied on. As it turned out, FBI director Hoover, eager to make a career-defining move, had tipped off Nazi spies to the U.S.’ intelligence activities by hastily raiding sources in South America.
Then 49, Friedman was left to deal with the aftermath, which PBS’ Butler describes as the “greatest challenge of her career.”
Adds Butler, “Even after Hoover’s gambit set her efforts back by months, Friedman’s response was what it had always been: She simply redoubled her efforts and got back to work.”
Eventually, Friedman and her team used analog methods—mostly pen and paper—to break three separate Enigma machine codes. By December 1942, her team had cracked every one of the Nazi’s new codes. In doing so, she and her colleagues unveiled a network of Nazi-led informants led by Johannes Sigfried Becker, a high-ranking member of Hitler’s SS. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile eventually broke with Axis powers and sided with the Allied forces, largely thanks to Friedman’s intelligence efforts, according to Time.
Friedman’s husband, William, earned recognition during his lifetime and is credited by many as the “godfather of the NSA,” an organization that he helped to shape in its early years, Fagone tells Jennifer Ouellette of Ars Technica.
His wife, meanwhile, “was a hero and she never got her due,” says Fagone to Time.
“She got written out of the history books,” Fagone continues. “Now, that injustice is starting to be reversed.”