Coming to PBS’s American Experience tonight, Monday, January 11:
American Experience (January 2021)
The recently declassified story of an unheralded female cryptanalyst who was instrumental in America’s war effort against Nazi Germany.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman would tell people that during WWII, she held an unassuming role in the US Navy. The truth would not come out until decades after her death, when classified documents would reveal the pivotal role she played as a codebreaker, responsible for foiling Nazi plans to torpedo essential supply ships and for exposing an extensive espionage ring in Latin America. As Chana Gazit’s biography reveals, Friedman was not always out of the public eye, however – she gained a fair amount of celebrity in the 1930s when she was tasked by the US Coast Guard to lead a codebreaking unit to decrypt messages used by organized crime leaders transporting alcohol during Prohibition, and later served as chief witness during the trials that followed against the gangsters. But, during WWII, in the men’s world of the military, despite her expertise in cryptanalysis, Friedman was not permitted to lead her own unit, so she was overshadowed by less experienced men, and her contributions kept strictly classified. Though she would lay the foundation for the NSA, there was no place for her postwar. While Gazit’s film follows the dry American Experience house style, it nevertheless succeeds in giving Friedman her long deserved recognition.