Saturday, March 17, 2018

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy (author), Erin Bennett (narrator)

Hachette Audio, October 2017

In World War II, a critical part of the war effort was breaking German and Japanese codes. Yet, unlike major European countries, the US had very little in the way of a cryptography operation. One had been developed during the first World War, but Henry Stimson, William Howard Taft's Secretary of State, closed it down when he came into office in 1929.  His statement, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail," is beautiful, but of course, in the context of international diplomacy, completely wrong The Navy managed to preserve a tiny operation, but the onset of World War II, the US needed to ramp cryptography back up from almost nothing, very rapidly.

Yet the men, who "ought" to have done that work, were needed for combat operations. Enter the women.

Mundy, based on extensive research including interviews with many of the surviving "code girls," gives us a revealing, compelling picture of the women, their experiences, the history of American cryptography, and the vital role it played in WWII.

Drawing women in to war work, as well as industrial work, to fill the places of men needed for combat, was a major social upheaval in America, and after the war ended, there was an equally major effort to roll it back and send women back home to make room, and inviting homes, for returning men. Yet "freeing the men to fight" had also meant, in many cases, that the women's own brothers or husbands or sweethearts were killed, even as the coders' and others' work had been aimed at keeping the fighting men safe and bringing them home faster.

At the same time, cryptography during the war was a major opportunity for women interested in math to do real and meaningful work in it, rather than being regarded as having wasted their time on a subject not really considered fit for women.

The conflicting pressures, as well as both the restrictions of highly classified war work combined with the freedom of earning their own money in settings far removed from their families and the neighbors they grew up among, created an exciting, confusing, challenging life for women cryptographers, even as the small number of men in their ranks experienced, too often, being regarded as failures and perhaps cowards, despite often being men who were too old for military service, or classified as 4F, medically unable to meet the physical demands of combat. Like the women, they were doing the work they could do, valuable work, that enabled the combat soldiers to fight more effectively.

It's a fascinating look at a long-hidden but vital aspect of the war, one the women and men involved couldn't talk about until decades later.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.