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Code Girls by Liza Mundy

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Code Girls by Liza Mundy is a worthwhile read about a part of American history that was secret for many years: American code breaking efforts during WWII. And since the book speaks primarily about the many, many women involved in this effort, and how this was part of the general 'women to work' movement that helped to fuel the war effort, it fits in well with current examinations of the role of women in Western culture. Code Girls provides useful information about the massive, and ultimately permanent, structural changes to the American economy occurring during and after the war. The notion that women could have careers too, began to take root at this time. The book is timely in its discussion of women in the workplace, and in this case, women entering into what was a purely patriarchal environment - the military.

We also get to hear about various inter-service and agency rivalries in the U.S. military. Another reminder that even during a 'national crisis', when a country is 'fighting for its very survival', there is still an incredible amount of in-fighting and self-serving activity going on.

[Samples from the text]

'The women were told that just because they were female, that did not mean they would not be shot if they told anybody what they were doing. They were not to think their sex might spare them the full consequences for treason in wartime. If they went out in public and were asked what they did, they were to say they emptied trash cans and sharpened pencils. Some would improvise their own answers, replying lightly that they sat on the laps of commanding officers. People readily believed them. For a young American, it was all too easy to convince an inquiring stranger that the work she did was menial, or that she existed as a plaything for the men she worked for."
    "Almost everybody thought we were nothing but secretaries," one of the women would say years later.'

'In May 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt urged the Navy to get a move on. So did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, joined by advocacy groups such as the American Association of University Women. Barnard's Virginia Gildersleeve and other college leaders also pushed. It was an uphill battle. “If the Navy could possibly have used dogs or ducks or monkeys, certain of the older admirals would probably have greatly preferred them to women," Gildersleeve acidly remarked later.'

'During this effort Betty was assigned to take some code recoveries to a high-priority room, where she opened a door and was shocked to see a man waiting to receive it who was Japanese…
…Determined to hold out to the last, Betty refused to surrender the material she was holding. The man laughed graciously. "I'm an American," he assured her. He was Nisei, an American citizen of Japanese heritage, working as a translator. "You don't look like one," she blurted in her exhaustion, and felt sorry about that remark for the rest of her life.'

    "It was only now that Jimmie Lee understood the import of the work she was doing. When she asked for leave to attend her husband's funeral in Oklahoma, her request was denied. There were other bombe [early computer] operators getting the same telegrams, and they could not all be allowed to leave. Jimmie Lee stayed at her post. Her father died not long after. She was never able to go home and unburden herself, never able to talk to her father about how much she missed her husband. Nor had she been able to tell her own father good-bye."

    "Not long after, Alethea Chamberlain came to her station, sat down, and put on her headphones. She was a WAC intercept operator at Two Rock Ranch, a listening station the Signal Corps maintained near Petaluma, California, in a a beautiful agricultural area north of San Francisco. It was a nice posting: the intercept operators could hitchhike into San Francisco.
    Chamberlain began fiddling with her dial, trying to pick up the Hiroshima station she received. Hiroshima sent out a very good signal. Now all she got was dead air. There was nothing at all. She could not figure out why this was or what had gone wrong, why there was no signal at all coming from Hiroshima."


It isn't a perfect book, and in some ways Mundy appears to have taken on too much, since she runs into structural problems trying to cover so much disparate information as well as biographical references to many different individual women. She doesn't have the narrative gift of a Laura Hillenbrand, or long before her, Barbara Tuchman. Tuchman had an especially uncanny ability for successfully threading together discussions of complex ideas with riveting accounts of real events and the personalities involved in them, and doing so in a well organized narrative.

Mundy also has a tendency to use colloquialisms so as to create a looser, conversational tone for the work, but I have a problem with history writing that sounds the least bit offhand or presumptive about the events it is describing, and assumes too much on behalf of the reader. In my opinion, historians should never simply assume readers have adequate background information on a subject. As an example of what I'm referring to:

"As GIs liberated concentration camps, the world would learn the full horror that had unfolded in Dachau and Buchenwald, a permanent stain on human history."
>> This is her only specific reference to the Nazi concentration camps in the book, and it reads that Dachau and Buchenwald are either the only camps, or the only ones worth mentioning. Not a huge deal perhaps, but it sounds a little too sloppy. And I immediately wondered if in the thousands (maybe millions) of intercepted and decoded Axis diplomatic and military message transmissions there weren't references to at least the "work camps" that were set up to support the Nazi war effort. But I don't recall this being mentioned. Of course, if the Allied governments knew in advance about what was going on in these special 'camps' that would be fodder for a whole other book.

Here's the New York Times book review:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/06/books/review/liza-mundy-code-girls-world-war-ii.html

Edited by pherank

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Thanks for the heads-up -- another book to add to my list!

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, sandik said:

Thanks for the heads-up -- another book to add to my list!

I'd love to hear what you think about it (once you get to that book). There's lots of interesting bits, even with the structural and stylistic issues I mentioned.

I had previously read a number of the books about the British code breaking group at Bletchley Park. I'm not sure why Americans have been so slow to pick up the subject here in the US. One thing the American intelligence workers and their British counterparts have in common is a remarkable acceptance of the need for secrecy and to keep their word that they would never speak about what went on in these facilities, ever. Mundy points out that many of the women still refused to say much of anything in detail about what transpired at work in the code rooms. The interesting thing is that the N.S.A. publicly gave permission for WWII coders/code breakers to speak about their work. But for many of the people of that generation, 'your word is your word', and they have been happy to go to their graves having said nothing in particular about their experiences.

Edited by pherank

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13 hours ago, pherank said:

I'd love to hear what you think about it (once you get to that book). There's lots of interesting bits, even with the structural and stylistic issues I mentioned.

I had previously read a number of the books about the British code breaking group at Bletchley Park. I'm not sure why Americans have been so slow to pick up the subject here in the US. One thing the American intelligence workers and their British counterparts have in common is a remarkable acceptance of the need for secrecy and to keep their word that they would never speak about what went on in these facilities, ever. Mundy points out that many of the women still refused to say much of anything in detail about what transpired at work in the code rooms. The interesting thing is that the N.S.A. publicly gave permission for WWII coders/code breakers to speak about their work. But for many of the people of that generation, 'your word is your word', and they have been happy to go to their graves having said nothing in particular about their experiences.

Considering the height of the pile next to the bed, and the auxiliary pile just beyond, it will be awhile...

You raise an interesting question about the relative lack of work about the American women code breakers.  Perhaps because of the fascinating work done on the Bletchley Park group, we seem less compelling?

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10 hours ago, sandik said:

You raise an interesting question about the relative lack of work about the American women code breakers.  Perhaps because of the fascinating work done on the Bletchley Park group, we seem less compelling?

The Mundy book makes it clear that there were plenty of interesting things happening on this 'side of the pond', in code-breaking terms, so I have to think that it is either more of a political issue, or a cultural issue.

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