The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing by David Kahn. Book review by Roger Pineau

codes and code breaking, history of,
Previous Next

Recent Books: Cryptology


still using direct current in 1926, while the Kalorama Road neighborhood was provided with AC power.
The cryptography of World War II is delineated in four chapters covering 136 pages. Numerous anecdotes and episodes and some epic stories are interestingly told, many in good perspective. It is clear that Kahn found several ready European sources of information about allied, enemy, and neutral cryptology in the war. The detail sometimes appears exhaustive. The sources he names are never the top experts, for the most part entirely unknown; and his narratives consequently depend upon surface and low-level detail. But the stories are well told.
The one great exception to his European coverage is Britain, and the gap shows. Probably British cryptologists, under the constraints of their Official Secrets Acts, are less likely to talk than those from countries with less severe protective laws. In any case, Kahn has stated that he excised from his text at the request of the Defense Department the material he had on British cryptologic activities.
In narrating events of the Pacific war Kahn sometimes violates his prefatory promise not to credit cryptanalysis unduly, or at least he fails to credit other factors. After telling, dramatically and in detail, the story of the interception and death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, for example, he concludes, "Cryptanalysis had given America the equivalent of a major victory," thus ignoring his own reminder that "Knowledge alone is not power.   To have any effect it must be linked to physical force."
A chapter of 62 pages devoted to the history and structure of the National Security Agency tells of publicized successes and failures in which it has been involved. Descriptions of scandals and defections, most notably that of Martin and Mitchell, are derived from news accounts and lead to an endorsement for Congressional surveillance of intelligence agencies. This chapter reports on military communications generally, along with those of the Department of State and other parts of the government, including the hot line to Moscow. Most of the material is based upon news releases, news accounts, and speculation.   Kahn seeks to validate the. latter by a sedate notice in his "Notes to Text" that he has used "the word `probably' or the verb `may' to indicate that the statement is mv own supposition"-rather too inconspicuous flags of warning, it seems to this reviewer.
The book's last section is a collection of heterogeneous addenda that can be taken or left. There is a psychoanalytic treatment of


Previous Next

Posted: May 08, 2007 08:18 AM
Last Updated: Aug 05, 2011 01:54 PM