American Experience


The Codebreaker

Based on the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies, The Codebreaker reveals the fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the groundbreaking cryptanalyst whose painstaking work to decode thousands of messages for the U.S. government.

AIRED: January 11, 2021 | 0:52:49

(radio static crackles, intermittent beeping)

(waves crashing)

NARRATOR: In March of 1942,

German U-boats prowled the vast Atlantic Ocean in wolf packs,

attacking scores of Allied transport ships

as they headed towards war-torn Europe.

(mechanical whirring)

(torpedo releasing)


In less than three months,

the Nazi submarines had sunk more than a million tons

of desperately needed supplies

and killed thousands of soldiers.

The U-boat captains had a secret weapon--

encrypted messages sent by Nazi spies in South America

had provided them with the coordinates

of the targeted ships.

ROSE MARY SHELDON: We're talking about networks

all over South America,

an entire front in the Second World War.

NARRATOR: But America had on its side

one of the most skilled codebreakers in the world--

Elizebeth Friedman.

DAVID HATCH: She was a suburban mom.

Nothing really to mark her as anything unusual.

But she lived a double life.

NARRATOR: In World War I, Friedman had trained

the first team of codebreakers for the U.S. military.

During Prohibition, she had taken on

the most powerful gangsters in the country

and brought down

an international rum-running operation.

BARBARA OSTEIKA: The gangsters

put a hit out on Elizebeth,

and the Coast Guard puts a protection detail on her.

NARRATOR: Now, as she decrypted

the intercepted messages on her desk,

she knew everything she had learned in her career

had led to this moment.

AMY BUTLER GREENFIELD: She was somebody who had

the ability to see beyond what most other people could.

She could see things startingto unlock in front of her eyes.

NARRATOR: She was one woman

fighting a secret army.

Her success or failure could determine

the outcome of the war.

JASON FAGONE: Elizebeth Friedman was

a code-breaking Quaker poet who hunted Nazi spies,

and there's nobody like her then or since.

(car horns honking, trolley clanking)

NARRATOR:Elizebeth Smith Friedman's life

was unexpectedly set on course

during a visit to the bustling city of Chicago in 1916.

Twenty-three and full of dreams, she was hoping to escape

the life she had been raised to expect.

FAGONE: Elizebeth came from

a large Quaker family in small-town Indiana,

and from a very young age,she felt like she didn't fit in.

She even hated her own name.

She called it "the odious name Smith."

And she hated it because she believed that

whenever she was introduced

as Miss Smith, she would be seen as

something so ordinary,

and she didn't want to be ordinary,

she wanted to be extraordinary.

She wanted an adventurous life.

NARRATOR: Her mother, Sopha,

had delivered ten children,

the first when she was only 17.

Elizebeth, born in 1892, was the youngest.

FAGONE: Elizebeth often felt pity for her,

because Sopha's life had been completely overtaken,

it seemed to Elizebeth, bychildbearing and child rearing.

She didn't seem to be able to

pursue any kind of life of the mind, and to Elizebeth

that was horrifying,

because Elizebeth was a very bookish kid.

She loved to read, she loved poetry.

She wrote her own poetry.

GREENFIELD: Her father was a Civil War veteran.

He saw his youngest as a difficult child,

and their relationship absolutely was difficult.

Her father did not support her going to college.

He was against further education,

particularly for women.

She manages to talk him into this,

and he says she can have the money, but at 6% interest.

She has to pay it all back.

NARRATOR: In college, Elizebeth studied

Greek and English literature.

When she discovered Shakespeare, she became fascinated

by the intricacies of language,

sparking a passion that would drive her ambitions.

After graduation, Elizebeth pursued one

of the few careers available to women at the time

and accepted a teaching job at a small Indiana school.

She found the work uninspiring,

and quit after just a year.

In June of 1916, she headed for Chicago

in search of a new job.

After a week of effort, she found nothing.

(trolley bell chimes)

With no income and no job prospects,

Elizebeth had no choice but to return home in defeat.

On her last day in the city, she indulged in a visit

to the Newberry Library to see a rare treasure--

Shakespeare's first folio, printed in 1623.

FAGONE: She's looking at this book of Shakespeare.

And the librarian notices and says,

"You're interested in Shakespeare, aren't you?"

And Elizebeth says, "Well, yes."

And the librarian says,

"You know, it's funny, there's an odd, wealthy man

"who keeps coming to the library,

"and he's looking for somebody

"to help him with this project,

"to find some kind of secret

that he thinks is hidden in this book."

NARRATOR: An hour later,

George Fabyan was standing at her table.

At 6'4", 250 pounds,

the wealthy industrialist towered over her.

FAGONE: He walks right up to Elizebeth

and the first thing he says to her is,

"Would you like to come out to Riverbank

and spend the night with me?"

She has no idea what to say to this.

It's the most indelicate question

that anyone has ever posed to her.

And he grabs her under the elbow,

lifts her up--

she's tiny, he's huge--

and he frog marches her out the door

to a waiting limousine,

which takes them to the railway station.

(train clattering on track)

(birds chirping)

NARRATOR: Soon, Elizebeth was wandering

the grounds of Fabyan's vast Riverbank estate,

nestled on 350 acres

of rolling hills in Geneva, Illinois.

Strolling the Japanese garden,

she was filled with a mix of astonishment and curiosity

about the tycoon's eccentric kingdom.

FAGONE:George Fabyan had so much money

that he could do essentially anything that he wanted.

And what he wanted to do was

to build a playground for science.

He would go out and hire

some of the leading scientists of the day,

bring them to Riverbank,

essentially collecting these scientists,

and he would set them looseand tell them to be spectacular,

tell them to make breakthroughs,

tell them to unlock the secrets of nature.

NARRATOR: What captured most of Fabyan's attention, however,

was a literary project focused on proving

that the works of William Shakespeare

had been written by another author--

the Elizabethan philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon.

VINCE HOUGHTON: Fabyan had this belief

that William Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare.

That actually Francis Bacon had written a code

within the Shakespearean plays that demonstrated that

Shakespeare was not the author, that Bacon actually was.

NARRATOR: Fabyan assigned Elizebeth the job of ferreting out

the secret messages he believedBacon had implanted in the text.

Excited by the challenge,

she first had to master a method of encoding messages

invented by Francis Bacon in 1623.

In the Bacon system, each letter of the alphabet

was assigned a combination of the letters A and B,

in groups of five.

HOUGHTON: Essentially what he did

is he said, "Okay, I'm going to take

"every letter of the alphabet and break it down

into a binary system of As and Bs."

The letter A would turn into five As, A-A-A-A-A.

The letter B was A-A-A-A-B.

The letter C and so on.

This can be represented any way you wanted to,

as long as there's two different things

you're using to represent the binary system.

And this is what the legend was--

that the first Shakespeare folio had this code written

in two different typefaces throughout.

NARRATOR: Once the differences

in the typeface were identified,

and the letters sorted into clusters of five,

a hidden message would be revealed.

The work was tedious, but Elizebeth discovered

she had the patience to stare at characters on a page

for hours on end.

FAGONE: What Elizebeth was required to do

was peer through a magnifying glass

and try to discern very subtle variations

in the fonts on photographic enlargements

of Shakespeare's plays.

And that was how she was going to break the code

and rewrite the history of English literature.

NARRATOR: Her work with the Shakespeare manuscripts

would bring her together with the young man who was

photographing and enlarging the Shakespeare texts,

William Friedman.

Genetics was his field of expertise.

Photography was his hobby.

At Riverbank, he easily stood out.

SHELDON: William always wore a white starched shirt,

which in that heat, I don't knowhow he didn't perspire to death

but he always looked very together, very cool.

His hair was always combed perfectly.

This was a man who knew how to dress.

FAGONE: There are a lot of photos of just Elizebeth

and you can tell that William

is gazing down at his camera into the glass

and seeing an image of her and probably smiling.

She was unlike anyone he had ever met.

He was very quickly falling in love.

NARRATOR: The couple were an unlikely match--

she was a Quaker from the Midwest

and he was a Jewish immigrant from Russia.

HATCH: Late in his life,

one of William Friedman's colleagues

asked him how he got into cryptology.

According to the story,

he had a sly smile on his face and he said,

"I was seduced."

NARRATOR: Working across from each other day by day,

they began digging into Fabyan's collection

of codebreaking books, exchanging insights and ideas.

HOUGHTON: And so Elizebeth was able to bring William into the fold

and say, "Look, you can take your very mathematical,

"scientific approach tounderstanding codes and ciphers,

"I can bring my poetry

"and language skills,

and together we'll be unstoppable."

NARRATOR: As they began to master rudimentary skills,

however, they saw little indication

of embedded codes in the Shakespeare manuscripts.

Every now and then,

there will be a letter that is slightly different.

Now, it could be just because

the way the typeface struck the paper.

There might be a little tail off a letter

or a letter might be a little wider.

They're random marks and they can be made by any typesetter,

especially back in the 16th century,

and so they're really rather meaningless.

Now they both agreed that

the central project at Riverbank had no scientific validity.

It was all a pipe dream, it was a kind of delusion.

NARRATOR: Disheartened by their revelation,

they saw no future in codebreaking.

Still, they saw a future with each other.

In May of 1917,

Elizebeth and William stole away from Riverbank

to get married in Chicago.

FAGONE: William's family was shocked

and appalled by the marriage.

They wanted to see him marry a Jewish woman.

His brother later said that

if William had been living in Pittsburgh at the time,

in the close-knit Jewish community there,

he would have been exiled.

The two of them go ahead,

and despite the differences in their background,

despite the family opposition, despite the lack of money,

despite all the many reasons

why they should not get married, they do.

NARRATOR: The newlyweds hoped

to start a new life away from Riverbank.

World events, however, would upend their plans.

A month before they wed, the United States

had entered the "Great War" in Europe--

a war unlike anything that had come before,

in part because of

the invention of the radio.

(static buzzes)

Suddenly, the air was full of messages relaying information

that could win or lose a battle, destroy a regiment,

or sink a ship... (radio beeping)

All of it easily intercepted

by anyone with an antenna.

FAGONE: The invention of radio

completely transformed the value of codebreaking.

(explosion echoes)

So it put an incredible premium

on cryptography, on strong codes and ciphers,

because now that those messages were flying through the air,

they had to be protected.

The problem for America is that

on the eve of World War I, the United States

was completely unprepared to break codes in the war.

HOUGHTON: The United States

had no code-breaking agency or bureau

in the United States military.

It just didn't exist.

There was no NSA, there was C.I.A.,

the military branches had their own

very, very small intelligence agencies.

We're talking about dozens of people,

not thousands, in this case.

NARRATOR:At Riverbank, George Fabyan saw

an opportunity to serve his country

and to enhance his reputation.

He established

the first dedicated codebreaking unit in America

and, much to their disbelief,

placed Elizebeth and William in charge.

Soon, the War, Navy, State, and Justice Departments

were sending thousands of secret messages

to Riverbank for decryption.

HOUGHTON: So, William and Elizebeth Friedman

at this point hadn't really done this systematically

for very long.

They'd kind of played with it a little bit.

But all of a sudden, they're being asked to break codes

for the United States military in a world war.

Talk about on-the-job training,

this is as deep as on-the-job training gets.

(cipher ticking)

NARRATOR: The couple scrambled to expand

their knowledge of codebreaking:

starting with the most fundamental concepts,

like the difference between a cipher and a code.

HOUGHTON: A code is when you take a word or even a phrase

and you replace it with another word or a phrase.

So if we have the word "gun," we might say

every place the word "gun" is,

we're going to put "Bob" instead.

That way you're able to replace the words,

but if somebody intercepts your message,

they may not actually knowthere's a secret message there,

because it reads like plain text.

A cipher, on the other hand,

is taking individual letters

or groups of letters,

and changing them through some process,

through some algorithm, into other letters,

into numbers, into symbols, into anything,

so that you can mix up the message

and make it unreadable.

NARRATOR: Using a method that had been around for hundreds of years,

they began decrypting messages using frequency analysis.

HOUGHTON: This is what's called a frequency chart.

This is what allows a codebreaker

to very effectively look through an enciphered message

and say, "Okay, look, there's a lot of Ns,

"there's a lot of Gs, there are a lot of Qs,"

so the likelihood is those are going to be

some of these very common letters

in the English language-- Es, Ts, Ns, As.

If we understand this in a very mathematical way,

it can help us to attack secret messages

and break them down

and understand what they actually mean.

NARRATOR: Elizebeth quickly discovered that she was quite good at

spotting patterns hidden in the texts.

Before long, though,

William and Elizebeth reached the limits

of what was known about codes and ciphers,

and they began inventing their own methods.

They figured out methods of solving secret messages

that had never been imagined before.

The first eight months of World War I--

this sounds incredible but it's completely true--

Elizebeth, William, and their colleagues at Riverbank

broke all messages forevery part of the U.S. military

and the Department of Justice.

NARRATOR: They documented their breakthroughs in eight volumes

known as the Riverbank Publications,

which established a mathematical foundation

to the principles of cryptology.

HATCH: Prior to the publications at Riverbank

from Elizebeth and William,

cryptology had been thought of as a field for linguists,

for people with knowledge about foreign cultural areas

and perhaps math might be a tool.

But the Riverbank Laboratories' publications

turned cryptology from language to statistics.

NARRATOR: In an age when codebreaking was becoming a weapon of war,

Elizebeth and William were forging

a new science of immense power.

It was a heady time for Elizebeth.

She was training the first generation of codebreakers

for the U.S. military.

The couple were so captivated by cryptology,

for fun, they embedded codes everywhere,

even the officer trainee class photo.

As the group gathered,

they instructedeveryone assembled how to pose.

And if you're just looking at the picture,

you're like, man, whoever decided to shoot this

wasn't very disciplined.

A good chunk of the people in the photograph

are looking forward,

but a good chunk are looking to the side.

It turns out that

each person in the photo stands for

a letter in Bacon's biliteral cipher.

So the people who are looking off to the side

are the B form of the cipher,

and the people who are looking straight ahead are the A form.

And when you put it all together,

the people in Bacon's cipher spell out the phrase

"knowledge is power,"

which is one of Bacon's mottos

and a motto that William andElizebeth adopted as their own.

And it's not written in letters but it's written in people.

NARRATOR:The Friedmans' work at Riverbank

was an eye-opener for the U.S. military.

Six months into the war,

the Army established its own cipher bureau in Washington.

With the workload at Riverbank dwindling,

William signed up for military duty

as a field codebreaker in Europe.

Elizebeth wanted to do field work as well,

but she could not;

women were excluded from serving at the front.

HOUGHTON: Being left behind had to be

incredibly difficult for Elizebeth.

Not only is the man that she loves

being sent off to fight a war,

but this was her field.

She taught William

how to break codes and ciphers.

This was a key way to move forward in your career.

William could do it, she couldn't.

NARRATOR: And worse still,

she would be on her own at Riverbank.

FAGONE: It was a terrifying time for her.

She let it be known in letters to William

that George Fabyan was not treating her well,

that he was pressuring her.

There's a reference in one of William's letters

to the fact that Fabyan might have

sexually harassed Elizebeth, might have propositioned her.

William was very angry, he called Fabyan

"that nameless rascal" in that letter

and said he wanted to hurt him, to beat him up.

And so when they were reunited,

they were highly motivated to get the hell out of there.

NARRATOR: At war's end, William used his military contacts

to line up a job in Washington.

He arrived in Washington

with a reputation earned on the battlefield.

Elizebeth arrived in Washington as William's wife.

Technological innovations were fueling a global race

to create ever-more advanced devices

for making and breaking codes.

The post-war world was still a dangerous place.

In 1921, William went to work for the Army Signal Corps

developing new cipher machines.

Elizebeth was also offered a job--

but at half of William's salary.

She took the position, but left after a year.

She believed her codebreaking days were over.

In 1923, Elizebeth gave birth to a daughter,

soon followed by the birth of a son.

Codebreaking unexpectedly entered Elizebeth's life again

in 1925 when a Coast Guard officer

knocked on the door of her suburban home

with an urgent request.

He explained that the CoastGuard's network of radio towers

had interceptedhundreds of encrypted messages,

but no one knew how to break them.

Decrypting the messages might help them

gain the upper hand against a deadly adversary.

The Prohibition Act,

signed into law several years earlier,

had triggered an explosion ofillegal trafficking in alcohol.

Mobsters and gangsters

ruled the streets.

OSTEIKA: Murder was rampant,

and it became not just murder of gangster on gangster,

but they were starting to murder

anybody who opposed them.

The federal police didn't even

really understandthe concept of organized crime.

FAGONE:A massive black market rises up,

and it's controlled by gangsters,

racketeers, and mafiosi.

And very quickly,

they make a mockery out of the Coast Guard.

NARRATOR:The Coast Guard was charged with

stopping the deluge of liquor coming in by sea,

but it only had 200 boats topatrol 5,000 miles of coastline.

The rum runners, on the other hand,

had unlimited resources.

Huge ocean-going vessels served as mother ships

that stored millions of dollars' worth of liquor

in their holds.

A fleet of smaller crafts, called black ships,

would divvy up the cargo and transport it back to shore,

logistics made possible by the use of shortwave radios

and sophisticated codes.

The Coast Guard officer pleaded with Elizebeth for help.

She was no teetotaler, but Elizebeth saw the damage

organized crime was doing to the country.

During her first three months on the job,

she single-handedly decrypted

two years' worth of backlogged messages.

GREENFIELD: It's basically Elizebeth and a secretary filing her decrypts,

and she's doing all of that work during those years.

She says she ends up looking

at about 25,000 intercepts a year.

That's just astonishing.

It's really a war.

NARRATOR: Elizebeth, however, was not just decrypting the messages,

she was weaponizing the data she was gathering.

OSTEIKA: What Elizebeth does is she begins

the development of strategic intelligence,

which nobody has done to this point.

And what that means is she takes the information

that she's obtaining in these broken codes and ciphers,

which are basically the plansand intentions of the gangsters.

And she begins to figure out who owns the ships,

where a ship is scheduled to leave from,

where those ships are going, who's meeting those ships.

All of these arrangements were made with wireless radio.

She was able to explainbasically to the U.S. government

and all of its federal law enforcement agencies

what organized crime looked like,

how they were doing their job, and how to stop them.

And that is really visionary.

NARRATOR:By 1931, Elizebeth's work was so indispensable

the Coast Guard approved her plan to build

an official codebreaking unit--

one of only a handful of such units in the country

and the first to be run by a woman.

FAGONE: She was allowed to hire junior codebreakers and train them.

She was given a raise to $3,800 a year,

which is not a lot of money, but a bump for her.

And she got a new title along with it.

She was called the "cryptanalyst in charge"--

essentially the chiefcodebreaker for the Coast Guard.

NARRATOR: For a mother with young children, a home to run,

and a husband who worked equally long hours,

it was an exhausting time.

A decade into Prohibition, the crime syndicates had grown

into multinational businesses run with exacting efficiency.

But with Elizebeth's intelligence in tow,

the U.S. government could finally

take the mobsters to court.

Elizebeth became the key witness

in a series of sensational trials,

starting with the prosecution of CONEXCO,

the largest rum-running enterprise in the world.

They had the network from the manufacturer

of the liquor to the final distribution of that liquor

to speakeasies and nightclubs.

When the government went after CONEXCO,

it would be like the government going after Walmart today.

NARRATOR: With a virtual monopoly on bootlegging in the Pacific

and the Gulf of Mexico, CONEXCO supplied liquor

to the most notorious mobster in the country, Al Capone.

Within a year,

the U.S. government indicted CONEXCO's top rank,

which included Capone's brother.

In 1933, at the trial in New Orleans,

prosecutors called upon Elizebeth to testify

against some of the most dangerous men in the country.

There were a lot of prohibition agents

who had already been killed in the line of duty.

SHELDON: There are these plainclothes people that she doesn't know

that are there to keep her from being whacked by the bad guys.

But it wouldn't have occurred toher not to testify against them.

These people had to be put away,

that was the whole point of breaking the codes.

(gavel pounds)

NARRATOR: When Elizebeth took the stand,

she was grilled mercilessly by Al Capone's attorneys

who worked to undermine her credibility.

FAGONE: Whenever Elizebeth tried to explain

how she solved the messages,

these six lawyers-- men--would often stand up and object

and say that it was some kind of witchcraft,

that code breaking was not science,

that Elizebeth was just making a guess.

She got so fed up with the repeated objections

of the defense attorneys that she asked a judge

if she could have access to a blackboard.

And Elizebeth proceeded to give a class in codebreaking.

And by the time she was finished,

the defense attorneys had nothing else to say.

OSTEIKA: They must have been thinking

they were going to be able to bowl her over

and make her testimony irrelevant.

And instead she takes control of that

and, you know, seals the deal.

She gets the conviction.

NARRATOR: Elizebeth became a national celebrity.

One newspaper praised her "class in cryptology."

Another described her as

"a pretty woman who protects the United States."

Reporters expressed surprise that one woman could take down

some of the most dangerous gangsters in the country.

HOUGHTON: This is juicy stuff,

these are murderers and these are people

who will become household names in America.

And then along comes this woman

who is the key witness at the trial

to get these guys thrown in prison.

They don't talk about her skills,

they don't talk about her brains,

her ability to break these codes,

and to bring these gangsters to justice.

They talk about how she looks, how she's dressed,

that she's this dainty, little woman who is bringing

these big Al Capone-type mobsters to justice.

NARRATOR: William was delighted that his wife was finally getting

the recognition she deserved.

"I'm as proud as I can be," he told her.

As Elizebeth's work was seeing the light of day,

William's was burrowing deeper into the shadows.

By the late fall of 1939,

Elizebeth knew something wasterribly wrong with her husband.

FAGONE: He developed mood swings--

that's what Elizebeth called them,

mood swings or down swings.

Elizebeth was trying to figure out what was going on.

She assumed that he was working

on a very difficult project at work.

She didn't know what it was.

He didn't tell her and he couldn't tell her.

NARRATOR: William's work for Army intelligence

was classified top secret.

He was breaking into the encryption machines

of America's enemies.

The machines had reached a new level of complexity.

Many were considered unbreakable.

(plane engines droning)

(bombs whistling)


With the start of the Second World War in Europe,

William's work reached a new level of urgency.

GREENFIELD: There's Blitzkrieg.

You see Paris fall.

You see that Britain is left standing almost alone.

You see that the Japanese

are starting to make overtures

to be joined in alliance with Germany and with Italy.

It's looking very bad

and William, in addition, as a Jewish man,

is aware that terrible things are happening

to Jewish people in Germany.

So I think the weight was colossal.

NARRATOR:William was trying to pry open aJapanese machine called Purple,

a device he had never seen or even had diagrams for.

FAGONE:William and his team at the Army worked around the clock

to try to reverse engineer these Japanese cipher machines

because if they could,

then they would essentially be able to read minds

of the Axis powers, Japan and Nazi Germany.

HOUGHTON: William had to keep all that inside.

He had a small group of people he worked with

that he could talk to, but they all worked for him.

And because he internalized all this stuff,

it just burned him up inside until he finally broke.

NARRATOR: William's team finally cracked Purple in September of 1940.

Three months later, he had a complete breakdown

and checked himself into the psychiatric unit

of Walter Reed General Hospital.

Elizebeth watched in dismay

as he sank deeper and deeper into a depression.

FAGONE:William at that point was still

the main breadwinner in the household.

He made much more money than Elizebeth did.

And so the fact of him being in the psych ward,

the uncertainty about his future

created a much bigger uncertainty

about both of their lives.

NARRATOR: Every day for the nearly three months he was hospitalized,

Elizebeth made the exhausting trip to see her husband.

GREENFIELD: She is absolutely essential to William's recovery.

The medical establishment justlet them sort it out themselves.

And William says later that she was the person

who sent down the rope to theterrible morass that he was in.

She pulled him out of the swamp.

She did it by willpower, she did it by faith in him.

NARRATOR: After he was discharged,

he returned to his job at the Army.

But he would struggle with clinical depression

for the rest of his life.

FAGONE: Elizebeth and William had always been equals, a team.

After William's breakdown in 1941,

he would never quite be the same.

And so Elizebeth would have to step up.

From now on she would, in many ways,

have to be the stronger of the two.

(planes droning, explosions echo)

NARRATOR: In December 1941,

after a surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor,

the U.S. military immediately ramped up

its codebreaking capabilities.

Elizebeth's team had just shifted from the Coast Guard

to the Navy.

Now a military operation,

the Navy placed a uniformed officer

with much less experience in charge of the unit.

SHELDON: The Navy had a rule that women couldn't be in charge of men,

and so she had to take a secondary position

to a man who wasn't as good as she was.

FAGONE: She had to deal with the pain and the frustration

of losing leadership ofsomething that she had created,

that she had built and that was really her baby.

NARRATOR: The unit's assignment was to monitor communications

between a Nazi spy ring in South America

and the German high command.

GREENFIELD: There had been a high amount

of German emigration to South America

in the early 20th century.

There were places that had German towns

with German street names, German newspapers,

German schools...

(German music playing)

In addition, you had homegrown fascist movements.

You had movements in Brazil,

in Paraguay, and other countries

where you see real similarities with what is going on

with Hitler's Germany and what's happening

in Mussolini's Italy.

NARRATOR: Decoding messages written in German

wasn't a problem for Elizebeth.

She was now so skilled at recognizing

the various statisticalproperties of foreign languages,

a translator could do the rest.

In her rum-runner days,

she had even decrypted messages in Chinese.

Among the decrypted messages,one name appeared over and over:


She doesn't know it yet,

but she's starting to suspect she's onto something big,

and she is.

Sargo is the code name

for a man named Johannes Siegfried Becker.

And Becker is the SS's main man in South America.

He is part of Hitler's elite.

NARRATOR: As Elizebeth began to decode Sargo's messages,

she made a startling revelation--

his network was transmitting the locations of Allied ships

to U-boats in the Atlantic.

HOUGHTON: One of the most important

intelligence targets for the Germans

is information about Allied shipping,

because it would be so easy for the Germans

to pick off these supply ships one-by-one

or to take out entire convoys all at once

if they had accurate information about what route they were

taking that they could knock the English out of the war.

And without the English, the war's essentially over.

(rapid beeping)

NARRATOR: In March of 1942,

Elizebeth decrypted a series of ominous dispatches

about the largest of the Allied supply ships, the Queen Mary.

With her record-breaking speed and size,

the Queen Mary's military value was so great,

Adolph Hitler was offering $250,000

to the U-boat captain who could bring her down.

On this trip, more than 8,000 men stood to lose their lives

if the ship was sunk.

Guided by the secret messages,

the U-boats found the Queen Mary off the coast of Brazil.

But before they could strike,

Elizebeth's decrypts were relayed to the ship's captain.

He was able to take evasive maneuvers

and bring the ship safely to port.

(ship horn blares)

As soon as Elizebeth started unlocking Sargo's messages,

the balance in the Atlantic began to tip.

DAVID HATCH: The information could be given

to American forces first for a ship to take evasive action,

and also for the hunter-killer teams

that the Americans had in the South Atlantic.

And many U-boats were sunk based on this kind of information.

(splash, explosion)

HOUGHTON:The work that Elizebeth Friedman is doing

is some of the most important work of the Second World War.

It is allowing the supply line to exist.

NARRATOR: Then, without warning,

the Brazilian police started rounding up the Nazi spies,

driving Sargo further underground.

Within days, the airwaves went silent.

HOUGHTON:One of the worst things that youcan do, if you're chasing spies,

is to arrest them before you're done following them

and watching them and seeing what they're doing.

Because the easiest way for a country to know

that you've broken their communication system,

or that they have a leak somewhere,

is if you round up all their spies.

NARRATOR: Elizebeth was stunned to learn that her work

had been tripped up by one of her own.

The Brazilians were conducting the arrests

at the behest of the American FBI director--

J. Edgar Hoover.

HOUGHTON: Hoover wants the glory, Hoover wants the headlines.

That was really stupid of him to do.

This is really life and death.

Hoover is now completely cutting us off from

this life-saving intelligence that's allowing us

to keep our convoys safe in the Atlantic Ocean.

This puts Elizebethand her team back at square one.

NARRATOR: Sargo escaped and immediately rebuilt the network.

The spies set up 15 new circuits,

each adopting a far more complex system of codes.

Month after month,the unsolved messages piled up.

Elizebeth suspected that the codes were being generated

by a highly complex machine called the Enigma,

used by the German Intelligence Services.

There were several models of the Enigma.

The British were using a newly invented decoding device

to crack into the version used by the German military.

The machine Elizebeth was facing was slightly less intricate,

but not by much.

Her tools were still only pencil and paper.

Day after day, she waded through the messages.

After two months, she spotted a chink in the Enigma's armor.

She intercepted a cache of 28 messages

all sent in the same key,

a careless mistake made by the spies.

The breakthrough enabled her to make inroads

into the machine's system.

She lined up the messages one below the other

in a technique called solving "in depth."

HOUGHTON: When you solve in depth

and you put papers next to each other

or one on top of the other and you're looking at

what is the first letter in each of these messages,

what is the second letter in each of these messages,

once you have the knowledge that

you're dealing with the same key every day,

then you can actually start breaking down words

and understanding what letters are turning into others.


GREENFIELD:I think that Elizebeth would be the first to say

that you are always looking for the mistake

that the other side is making.

You find a little doorway that's been left open just a smidge

and that's where you attack and that's where you go in.

NARRATOR:Finally, she was able to follow Sargo's activities again.

The decrypted messages laid bare

ominous new developments in South America.

GREENFIELD: There is a coup in Argentina,

a fascist coup,

in the summer of 1943.

At the end of that, Sargo is really on the inside.

In Bolivia, again, he is working with people

who want to turn the government toward the Nazis,

and in December of 1943,

lo and behold, there's a fascist coup in Bolivia.

And this is scary stuff for the United States.

HOUGHTON: The fear is that the Germans

will start a front in South America.

This could be a dramatic game changer

that could make it very difficult for us

to fight the war overseas,

because we'd be worriedabout fighting the war at home.

NARRATOR: From her tiny office in Washington,

Elizebeth shadowed Sargo's every move.

Any which way they turned, his spies were outflanked.

HOUGHTON:In the end, Elizebeth is able to give information to the Allies

which allows them to break up the spy ring

and do it in such a way that the Germans have no idea

that the spy ring was broken up

because their codes had been broken.

NARRATOR: German backed revolutions inBolivia and Chile were crushed.

Argentina's relationship with Germany splintered.

Within months,

the Nazi threat in the Western Hemisphere was eliminated.

Sargo went into hiding.

He would never rebuild his network again.

Elizebeth's work in South America

was an astonishing testament to the power of codebreaking.

But it would be a private and lonely victory.

She had signed a Navy oath

promising her silence until death.

She could tell no one.

Not even William.

And she could do nothing as J. Edgar Hoover took credit

for her crowning achievement.

He took all the decrypts Elizebeth had sent--

all 4,000 of them--

and had them stamped with FBI identification numbers,

erasing Elizebeth and her team from the official record.

Elizebeth just had to kind of grin and bear it,

and after a while she wasn't grinning so much anymore.

It kind of ate at her,

but there was very little that she could do.

NARRATOR: In her Christmas card in 1944, she wrote friends

that she was just carrying on a routine Navy job.

William added a PS:

"Elizebeth was, is, and continues to be

the most fascinating woman I've ever known."

NARRATOR: World War II ended in August 1945.

A year later,Elizebeth's unit was disbanded.

She was 54 years old and out of a job.

Codebreaking by pencil and paperhad become a thing of the past.

Computers were the future.

GREENFIELD: The post-war era will be likenothing Elizebeth has ever seen,

and she knows that.

She knows it's changing.

She can see that her era is ending.

NARRATOR: William continued to work for the government.

In the early 1950s, he suffered a series of heart attacks,

and struggled with mental illness.

He was so depressed that

he was unable to even start his hand to move

on a pad of paper at the office,

and so Elizebeth would put her hand on top of his

and move the pencil for him.

And in that way,

he was able to begin to work, begin to draw,

begin to think and come to life.

To me, that says everything about the Friedmans,

who they were, their bond.

NARRATOR: William died of a heart attack on November 2, 1969.

Though Elizebeth's career as a codebreaker was long over,

codebreaking itself was becoming a critical part

of keeping the nation safe.

The U.S. government had created the National Security Agency,

the NSA, in 1952,

and charged it with collecting cryptographic communications

and strengthening the nation's codes.

It would become the largest, most secretive,

and far-reaching arm of U.S. intelligence gathering.

HOUGHTON: Even though we're not fighting a shooting war,

we are keeping secrets, and a lot of them,

and not letting the American public know

what the government is doing in its name.

Elizebeth felt that it was going too far,

collecting too much information, becoming too intrusive,

violating too much privacy.

Some of the same themes that will basically pester the NSA

for the next several decades.

NARRATOR: Even as intelligence gathering grew into something

Elizebeth could hardly recognize,

her methods formed the basis of codebreaking

for decades to come.

FAGONE: She helped to create an immensely powerful

new science of code breaking.

And so there's still a good portion of her DNA

in codebreaking today, even though it's been mathematized

and done on computers.

She laid a foundation for what happens

at American intelligence agencies every day today.

NARRATOR:Elizebeth struggled in her final years as her savings dried up.

She died on October 31, 1980,in a nursing home in New Jersey.

She took her secret life to the grave.

The government kept the files

detailing Elizebeth Friedman's history-making work

locked away for 62 years.

In 2008, decades after her death,

they were finally declassified.

GREENFIELD: If we could miss something as big as Elizebeth,

who is crucial in two world wars,

who fights crime, who fights the mob,

if we missed her,

who else are we missing?

ANNOUNCER: "American Experience: The Codebreaker"

is available on DVD.

To order, visit ShopPBS or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

"American Experience" is also available

with PBS Passport and on Amazon Prime Video.


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv