Code Girls

Title:                      Code Girls

Author:                 Liza Mundy

Mundy, Liza (2017). Code Girls: The Untold Story of The American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II. New York: Hachette Books

LCCN:    2017020069

D810.C88 M86 2017


  • Introduction: your country needs you, young ladies — Part I. In the event of total war women will be needed — Twenty-eight acres of girls — This is a man’s size job but I seem to be getting away with it — The most difficult problem — So many girls in one place — Part II. Over all this vast expanse of water Japan was supreme — It was heart-rending — Q for communications — The forlorn shoe — Hell’s half-acre — It’s only human to complain — Pencil-pushing mamas sink the shipping of Japan — Part III. The tide turns — Sugar camp — All my love, Jim — Enemy landing at the mouth of the Seine — Teedy — The missionary and the surrender message — The train platform — Epilogue.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 8, 2017

Reviewed by Meryl Gordon[1]

In the fall of 1941, mysterious letters appeared in the mailboxes of a select group of young women attending the Seven Sister colleges. Chosen for their aptitude in such subjects as math, English, history, foreign languages and astronomy, the women were invited to meet one-on-one with senior professors. At Wellesley, the students were asked unusual questions: Did they like doing crossword puzzles, and did they have imminent wedding plans?

Those women who gave the right answers—yes, and no—were asked to sign confidentiality agreements and join a hush-hush government project. With war raging in Europe, the United States Navy had been staffing up its cryptanalysis division for several years but this was a new recruiting strategy. The female undergrads were offered campus training in code breaking, with the promise of government civilian jobs in Washington upon graduation.

In the months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, such a patriotic summons became more urgent. Not only did the Navy reach out to women from a wider range of colleges but the Army began ramping up its own rival code-breaking unit. After Army brass were chastised for competing with the Navy for the same female campus talent pool, the Army switched tactics and sought out small-town schoolteachers eager to participate in the war effort and take part in a big-city adventure.

In Liza Mundy’s prodigiously researched and engrossing new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, she describes the experiences of several thousand American women who spent the war years in Washington, untangling the clandestine messages sent by the Japanese and German militaries and diplomatic corps. At a time when even well-educated women were not encouraged to have careers—much less compete with men to demonstrate their mastery of arcane, technical skills—this hiring frenzy represented a dramatic shift. The same social experiment was simultaneously unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. The British debutantes and their middle-class peers recruited to work at the secret Bletchley Park code-breaking operation came to outnumber the men.

In an era when history is being updated to reflect the math and science accomplishments of 20th-century women with such accounts as Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race[2], Mundy’s book offers valuable insights and information about those unsung women who made crucial contributions during wartime.

Their work was often mind-numbingly tedious and frustrating as the women spent 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in steamy offices staring at incomprehensible columns of numbers and letters and trying to decipher patterns. They learned to recognize ciphers—where one letter is substituted for another letter or number—and to interpret “additives,” extra numbers thrown in to stump prying eyes. They built and operated “bombe” machines to decode the thousands of German messages sent out via the complex Enigma machine, work that was done in conjunction with Bletchley Park.

Mundy’s narrative turns thrilling as she chronicles the eureka moments when the women succeed in cracking codes, relying on a mixture of mathematical expertise, memorization and occasional leaps of intuition. Thanks to their efforts in retrieving and passing along vital information about enemy battle plans and the whereabouts of Japanese vessels, the American military was able to sink enemy supply ships, shoot down enemy planes and blunt attacks on American targets. This was emotionally fraught work since the women occasionally learned, in advance, that the Japanese had targeted ships in regions where their loved ones were serving. As Mundy writes, “Some of the women broke messages warning about attacks before they happened but were helpless to avert them.”

In the run-up to the D-Day landing in Normandy, the women were also charged with creating phony coded American messages to deceive the Germans about the site of the invasion.

A former Washington Post reporter, Mundy was inspired to tackle this book after her husband, Mark Bradley, a veteran Justice Department official, read a declassified World War II document about a counterintelligence operation, which noted that many women schoolteachers worked on the project.

The author of three previous books that touch on feminist themes, Mundy paints a vivid portrait of the daily lives of these energetic single young women—the upheaval and challenges of adjusting to the high-pressure military environment, the condescension and sexism from male colleagues and superiors, the cramped living quarters, the constant anxiety over brothers and boyfriends in harm’s way, the wartime romances, weekend high jinks and stress-related breakdowns.

Three-quarters of a century later, with firsthand recollections of World War II vanishing daily in the obituary columns, Mundy was able to track down and interview more than 20 former code breakers such as Ann Caracristi, an English major at Russell Sage College who turned out to be such a problem-solving prodigy that as a 23-year-old she became the head of an Army research unit. Dorothy Braden Bruce, a 97-year-old former Virginia schoolteacher known as Dot, described the tense experience of decoding urgent data from Japanese supply ships and also offered up amusing and poignant details about wartime life.

These accounts are supplemented by numerous oral histories, declassified documents and exhaustive research at the National Archives. Mundy delves deeply into a transitional pre-Betty Friedan moment in American life when institutional discrimination was the norm. As she points out, a 1941 Navy memo proposed paying female clerks, typists and stenographers $1,440 per year, while men in the same posts were to receive $1,620. The gap grew even larger higher up the ladder: Female Ph.D.s were slated for $2,300 salaries compared with $3,200 for their male counterparts.

The author unearths the stories of pioneers like Agnes Meyer Driscoll, a math, physics and language whiz who joined the Navy in 1917, broke Japanese codebooks in the 1920s and ‘30s and went on to train a generation of male code breakers, only to be patronized and pushed aside during World War II. The talented cryptologist Elizebeth Smith Friedman was hired by the Coast Guard in 1927 to break the code of rumrunners and went on to work for other federal agencies, designing the codes used by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the C.I.A. Yet her husband, the Army code breaker William Friedman, was sometimes given credit for her work.

In her effort to cram in an enormous amount of information and give so many women their due, Mundy’s book suffers at times since it’s hard to keep track of her vast cast of characters, many with similar backgrounds. As their stories began to blur, I found myself frequently flipping back to remind myself who was who. When she attempts to tell the tale thematically, her time-shifting can be confusing. At the end of Part Two of the book, it’s the summer of 1944, the United States military has just retaken Guam and Dot Braden is feeling optimistic that the Allies are doing well in the Pacific. When Part Three begins a few pages later, we’re back in 1943; then the story abruptly zigs to dismal times in 1942.

At the end of the war, virtually all of the female code breakers were given their walking papers and returned to civilian life. Only a few superstars were asked to stay on (among them Caracristi, who went on to become the first female deputy director of the National Security Agency).

For these accomplished and resourceful women, who had been given a heady taste of professional success, it was jarring to have to fight to be accepted to top graduate programs on the G.I. Bill or embark on traditional paths as wives and mothers. Warned not to reveal their secret wartime lives, many remained silent about their valuable service. Thanks to Mundy’s book, which deftly conveys both the puzzle-solving complexities and the emotion and drama of this era, their stories will live on.

[1] Meryl Gordon, the director of magazine writing at N.Y.U.’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend. A version of this review appears in print on November 12, 2017, on Page BR14 of the New York Times Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Rosie the Cryptographer”.

[2] Shetterly, Margot Lee (2016). Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space. New York, NY: William Morrow

Posted in Crypotography | Tagged | Leave a comment

Global Intelligence Oversight

Title:                      Global Intelligence Oversight

Author:                 Zachary K. Goldman

Goldman, Zachary K. (2016) and Samuel J. Rascoff, eds. Global Intelligence Oversight: Governing Security in The Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

LCCN:    2015051038

K3278 .G56 2016


  • Intelligence services, peer constraints, and the law / by Ashley Deeks — Oversight through five eyes : institutional convergence and the structure and oversight of intelligence activities / by Richard Morgan — Oversight of intelligence agencies : the European dimension / by Iain Cameron — Global change and megatrends : implications for intelligence and its oversight / by Christopher A. Kojm — The FISC’s stealth administrative law / by Daphna Renan — In law we trust : the Israeli case of overseeing intelligence / by Raphael Bitton — Review and oversight of intelligence in Canada : expanding accountability gaps / by Kent Roach — The emergence of intelligence governance / by Zachary K. Goldman — The president as intelligence overseer / by Samuel J. Rascoff — Intelligence oversight : made in Germany / by Russell A. Miller — Intelligence powers and accountability in the U.K. / by Jon Moran and Clive Walker — Executive oversight of intelligence agencies in Australia / by Keiran Hardy and George Williams.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 7, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Of the 15 contributors to this volume, 11 are lawyers, all are academics, and none claim any professional experience in the intelligence profession. They come from seven countries: Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Israel, Canada, and the United States. Oversight in each nation is discussed, and one contribution considers it in the “Five Eyes” context. In her preface, former Congresswoman Jane Harmon writes that “the world wants to know … who is watching the watchmen?” Oversight is her answer. (p. xiv) To illustrate that oversight works, she cites “the inspiring example” of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation techniques. (p. xv) She admits that Congress can do better,” suggesting that “members ask spies the tough questions every chance we get.” (p. xvi, emphasis added.)

Global Intelligence Oversight gives an overview of how oversight has developed and how it is currently working. Compared to the United States, “parliamentary oversight across the liberal democratic world is not as robust,” (p. xix) the editors assert. Several contributors expand on this point. More generally, they “offer insights into the purposes intelligence oversight may serve beyond legal compliance.” (p. xxvi)

As might be expected from lawyers, the descriptions and recommendations concerning oversight are not always expressed in simple declarative sentences. For example, in an otherwise informative study, on “Oversight Through Five Eyes,” the author argues that “the similarity of intelligence structures and oversight across the Five Eyes states is neither coincidental nor unintentional. Rather it is the result of a phenomenon of isomorphic ‘institutional convergence’ that results in homogenization of state practices across a wide variety of contexts …” (p. 38) He argues that the process of isomorphic convergence has resulted in a model that could become an “international norm for intelligence oversight.” (p. 70)

In addition to chapters on oversight in the countries named above, other topics include global technical changes under way in government and industry, the legal aspects of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the challenging issues associated with oversight within the European Union. The chapter entitled “The President as Intelligence Overseer” surprises no one by concluding that “the White House ought to be an object, not a source, of intelligence oversight.” (p. 235)

Global Intelligence Oversight does leave some issues for the future. For instance, the term oversight is never defined, which makes it difficult to identify the line between oversight and management. Likewise, there is the implicit assumption that the legislative branch of government is the proper body to conduct oversight, as opposed to an independent joint commission of experts. Finally, one may reasonably ask whether the conference from which the book emerged would have benefited from the contributions of an experienced career intelligence officer.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, pp. 115-116). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

Posted in Intelligence and Policy | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hidden Figures

Title:                      Hidden Figures

Author:                 Margot Lee Shetterly

Shetterly, Margot Lee (2016). Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space. New York, NY: William Morrow

LCCN:    2016021050

QA27.5 .L44 2016


  • Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine. Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world — and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.


  • Setting the scene — A door opens — Mobilization — A new Beginning — The double V — The “colored” computers — War birds — The duration — Breaking barriers — No limits — The area rule — An exceptional mind — Turbulence — Progress — Young, gifted, and black — What a difference a day makes — Writing the textbook on space — With all deliberate speed — Model behavior — Degrees of freedom — Out of the past, the future — America is for everybody — One small step.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • African American women–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • Space race–Juvenile literature.
  • Women mathematicians–United States–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • Employees.
  • African American mathematicians.
  • African American women.
  • Space race.
  • Women mathematicians.
  • United States.

Date Posted:      December 7, 2017

Reviewed by Cara Buckley[1]

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia in the 1970s, in the shadow of Langley Research Center, where workers helped revolutionize air flight and put Americans on the moon, Margot Lee Shetterly had a pretty fixed idea of what scientists looked like: They were middle class, African-American and worked at NASA, like her dad.

It would be years before she learned that this was far from the American norm. And that many women in her hometown defied convention, too, by having vibrant, and by most standards, unusual careers.

Black and female, dozens had worked at the space agency as mathematicians, often under Jim Crow laws, calculating crucial trajectories for rockets while being segregated from their white counterparts. For decades, as the space race made heroes out of lantern-jawed astronauts, the stories of those women went largely untold.

Four of them are the subjects of Ms. Shetterly’s first book, Hidden Figures. The book garnered an early burst of attention because its movie version, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, was scheduled for a year-end [2016] release and set for an Oscars run. The movie rights were snapped up weeks after Ms. Shetterly sold her book proposal in 2014, and well before she started writing the book in earnest, a disorientingly fast, if exhilarating, turn.

“The thrilling thing to me about the book, and the movie, is this is an American story that we’re getting to see through the faces of these women,” Ms. Shetterly said during a recent visit to Hampton, which sits on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, surrounded by aquamarine waters and Navy ships. “It’s just as American a story as if it were John Glenn or Alan Shepard telling it.”

Ms. Shetterly happened upon the idea for the book in 2010, when she and her husband, Aran Shetterly, then living in Mexico, were visiting her parents here. The couple and Ms. Shetterly’s father were driving around in his minivan when he mentioned, very casually, that one of Ms. Shetterly’s former Sunday school teachers had worked as a mathematician at NASA, and that another woman she knew calculated rocket trajectories for famous astronauts.

Ms. Shetterly remembers her husband perking up and asking why he had never heard this tale before. “I knew women who worked at NASA as mathematicians and engineers,” Ms. Shetterly said, “but it took someone from the outside saying, ‘Wait a minute’ for me to see the story there.”

(A book on a similar topic, Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls[2], about women working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the ’40s and ’50s, was published in April.)

Two of the women she would focus on are still living in the area. Christine Darden, now 73 and retired, had worked her way out of NASA’s computing pool to lead engineering research into sonic booms. Katherine Johnson, who recently turned 98, lives in a retirement home with her husband of 57 years, James A. Johnson, and is enjoying a recent surge of fame. She calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions, and last year President Obama personally awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life’s work.

Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Johnson still socialize, and on a recent summer day, made meltingly hot by a heat wave, met to play bridge at Mrs. Johnson’s apartment. (Mrs. Johnson and her partner won.) Ms. Shetterly was visiting too, and presented both women with an early copy of her book. “Fantastic,” Mrs. Darden said, as Mrs. Johnson, whose eyesight is failing, peered at the cover with a slight smile.

Yet asked how she felt about the coming film, in which she is played by Ms. Henson, in the starring role, Mrs. Johnson became solemn. (Mrs. Darden is not portrayed onscreen, as the film focuses on the years preceding her arrival at NASA.)

“I shudder,” Mrs. Johnson said. She had heard, she said, that the movie might stretch the facts, and that her character possibly came across as aggressive. “I was never aggressive,” Mrs. Johnson said.

Ms. Shetterly reminded Mrs. Johnson of her persistence in the late 1950s, when she successfully pressed her supervisor into admitting her into traditionally all-male meetings. “You took matters in your own hands,” Ms. Shetterly said. “For other women, it was a revelation.”

Ms. Johnson said: “Well, I don’t ever wait for something. I remember asking the question, ‘Is there a law?’ And he said, ‘Let her go.’ It was easier than arguing.”

Listening in, one of Mrs. Johnson’s health aides chuckled. “Yep,” he said, “That’s the Katherine Johnson I know.”

Though outwardly their stories are remarkable, both Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Johnson remained matter-of-fact when describing their careers, an attitude that seems to have prevailed among their peers. Ann Hammond, whose mother, Dorothy Vaughan, was one of the first black women to be hired by what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, in 1943, said her mother never wanted a pat on the back. Mrs. Vaughan died in 2005 at the age of 98, and is played in the film by Octavia Spencer.

“My mother would’ve probably said, ‘I was just doing my job,’” Ms. Hammond, 80, said, speaking in the Hampton bungalow where she grew up with her five siblings.

But what jobs they were. While military budget cuts and sequestration have hurt the economy here in recent decades, some 75 years ago the hungry wartime machine needed manpower, and womanpower, to fill its depleted ranks. This helped open the door for black female mathematicians, who were recruited through job bulletin boards and newspaper ads. Their job title? “Colored computers.”

Mrs. Johnson, a math savant, graduated summa cum laude from what is now West Virginia State University at 18, and heard about the job through a family connection. Mrs. Darden, who went to college at Hampton Institute and earned a master’s degree in math at Virginia State College, was hired to be a NASA data analyst out of graduate school in 1967, and went on to become an aerospace engineer.

The military boom lasted for decades, allowing the women and their families to have what Ms. Hammond described as a good life, despite enduring the indignities of segregation in the early years—working, eating and using restrooms apart from white colleagues.

Ms. Shetterly discovered in her research that the space agency’s leaders were well aware of the negative effects of segregation. As Virginia began vigorously fighting public school desegregation in 1956, one higher up worried about the face that the United States, with its roiling racial problems, was presenting to the world, using words that still have resonance today.

“In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country,” NACA’s chief counsel, Paul Dembling, wrote in a file memo that year. Two years later, the segregated computing pool was disbanded.

Through it all, by most accounts, the black women at NASA held their heads high.

“Her whole life, my mother never felt superior and never felt less than anybody else,” said Joylette Hylick, the eldest of Mrs. Johnson’s three daughters. “She didn’t let it get in her way.”

[1] Cara Buckley. A version of this article appears in print in The New York Times on September 6, 2016, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “Space Race Math Whizzes Hidden From History”.

[2] Holt, Nathalia (2016). Rise of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to The Moon to Mars. New York: Little, Brown and Company

Posted in computing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Al-Qaeda’s Revenge

Title:                      Al-Qaeda’s Revenge

Author:                 Fernando Reinares

Reinares, Fernando (2016). Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; New York: Columbia University Press

LCCN:    2016043284

HV6433.S7 R4513 2016

Date Posted:      December 6, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Fernando Reinares is the director of the Program on Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute and professor of political science and security studies at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, both in Madrid. The focus of his research is on individual jihadists, their motivations, and the networks that link them. In Al-Qaeda’s Revenge, he tells how those responsible for bombing commuter trains near Madrid on 11 March 2004, killing 191 people and wounding 1841, were identified as part of the global threat from al-Qa`ida’s jihadist terrorism.

Immediately after the 3/11 bombings, the government blamed ETA (Euskadi to Askatasuna), the Basque separatist organization in Spain. An investigation soon discredited this conclusion and blamed the attack on local radicals who had little or no connection to an outside organization. Mr. Reinares’ analysis, however, disproved this result and established that the attacks were conducted by a coalition of several terror groups under al-Qa`ida’s direction.

The original Qa`ida cell in Spain was created in 1994 (p. 8) and it helped the 9/11 attackers in the planning phase. Most but not all of them were arrested by Spanish authorities after 9/11;.the group’s leader, Abu Dandah and at least four others remained ,at large. (p. 9) In the first part of Al-Qaeda’s Revenge, Mr. Reinares shows how the remnants formed links with groups from Algeria and Morocco to create the 3/11 network. Part 2 discusses why Spain was selected, the decisionmakers—Abu Dandah and others involved, the connection between the 3/11 network and the al-Qa`ida command center in Pakistan, why the 3/11 bombings did not constitute a suicide attack (though some involved later martyred themselves) and the social and political consequences of the bombings.

Al-Qaeda’s Revenge also describes the bombers’ connections in London, Milan, Belgium, and Indonesia, as well as what happened to those who left Spain after 3/11. The intent of al-Qa`ida’s global ambitions and the complexity of its worldwide structure becomes apparent as Mr. Reinares names the many participants and examines their relationships. He also discusses the intelligence exchanges between US and Spanish authorities as each worked to track the terrorists involved. (pp. 91-92)

In his foreword to Al-Qaeda’s Revenge, former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution, characterizes the book as “one of the most important … written on the subject of radical Islamic terrorism in Europe and North America since 9/11.” (p. xiv) Riedel gives it high marks for the depth of research, the quality of analysis, and the accuracy of its often complex results. Right on all counts.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, p. 115). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

Posted in Spain | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Stanley Johnston’s Blunder

Title:                      Stanley Johnston’s Blunder

Author:                 Elliot Carlson

Carlson, Elliot (2017). Stanley Johnston’s Blunder: The Reporter Who Spilled The Secret Behind The U.S. Victory at Midway. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

LCCN:    2017024861

D774.M5 C284 2017


  • “Elliot Carlson tells of Stanley Johnston, a Chicago Tribune reporter who exposed a vitally important secret during World War II. After Johnston is embarked in the USS Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea, he is assigned to a cabin on the rescue ship Barnett where messages from Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz are circulated. One reveals the order of battle of Imperial Japanese Navy forces advancing on Midway Atoll. Johnston shares this info in a 7 June 1942 Chicago Tribune front-page story. Navy officials fear the Japanese will discover the article, realize their code has been cracked, and quickly change it. Drawing on seventy-five-year-old testimony never before released, Carlson describes the grand jury room where jurors convened by the FDR administration consider charges that Johnston violated the Espionage Act. Using FBI files, U.S. Navy records, archival materials from the Chicago Tribune, and Japanese sources, Carlson at last brings to light the full story of Stanley Johnston’s trial.”–Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 6, 2017

Review by Thomas E. Ricks[1]

One of the most misremembered aspects of World War II is the notion that relations between the military and the news media were smooth then. People who think this usually cite the work of Ernie Pyle, who beautifully chronicled the life of the average G.I. The historical record is far different. Perhaps the biggest single intelligence leak to a reporter in American military history came in June 1942, as the journalist Elliott Carlson demonstrates in his sprightly Stanley Johnston’s Blunder.

Johnston, a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, was a talented drifter and a bit of a scammer. He also was a relative newcomer to journalism when he lucked into being aboard a Navy ship that received a top secret transmission about the Japanese plans for the Battle of Midway. His news article about that, recklessly written and misleadingly edited, was never submitted to censorship, as was the normal practice.

Anyone reading between the lines of the article could deduce that the United States Navy had broken the Japanese Navy’s codes. President Franklin Roosevelt urged the Justice Department to prosecute the reporter and the anti-Roosevelt Tribune. But the Navy refused to discuss its code breaking with a grand jury, rightly fearing any additional publicity, and the case fizzled out. And the Japanese, arrogantly confident in the impenetrability of their codes, apparently did not notice the article and so never realized their secret dispatches were being read by the Navy.

[1] Thomas E. Ricks, the Book Review’s military history columnist, is a former war correspondent and the author of six books, most recently Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. A version of this review appeared in print in The New York Times on November 12, 2017, on Page BR36 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Military History. Accessed at

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The London Cage

Title:                      The London Cage

Author:                 Helen Fry

Fry, Helen P. (2017). The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain’s World War II Interrogation Centre. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

LCCN:    2017019360

UB251.G7 F79 2017


  • Introduction: impounding the evidence — Genesis of the cage — A very ‘German’ Englishman — Cage characters: the interrogators — Cage characters: the ‘guests’ — Downstairs: interrogation methods — Prison quarters — Caged lies: the truth drugs — The German ‘great escape’ — German-Jewish émigrés — A matter of justice — Knöchlein: the Butcher of Paradis — The Sagan case — Norway and war crimes — Befriending the field marshal — Death in the cage — Torture: myth or reality — Epilogue: the legacy — Appendix: Staff at the London cage.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 5, 2017

Review by Thomas E. Ricks[1]

One of the few areas of World War II history where more information is still emerging is intelligence operations. In The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain’s World War II Interrogation Centre, Helen Fry, a prolific historian of the war, looks at the London detention and interrogation center, located in an exclusive neighborhood at the western end of Hyde Park.

This unusual London prison camp went through three distinct phases. Early in the war it was used by British military intelligence to examine odd lots of prisoners—U-boat crews, unlucky German paratroopers and spies. Then, starting in 1944, it began to receive a flood of German prisoners, many of them senior commanders. After the war, it housed German officers suspected of war crimes. Some of the most startling interviews took place then, as émigré Jews listened to Waffen SS officers boast of the number of Jews they had killed. One British officer who had been captured during the war found himself interrogating the Gestapo officer who once had brutally interrogated him. This is a good story told poorly, as Fry tends to jump around in time and often repeat herself.

[1] Thomas E. Ricks, the Book Review’s military history columnist, is a former war correspondent and the author of six books, most recently Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. A version of this review appeared in print in The New York Times on November 12, 2017, on Page BR36 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Military History. Accessed at

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Rise of The Rocket Girls

Title:                      Rise of The Rocket Girls

Author:                 Nathalia Holt

Holt, Nathalia (2016). Rise of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to The Moon to Mars. New York: Little, Brown and Company

LCCN:    2015954384

TL862.J48 H65 2016


  • “During World War II, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate jet velocities and plot missile trajectories, they recruited an elite group of young women–known as human computers–who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design and helped bring about America’s first ballistic missiles. But they were never interested in developing weapons–their hearts lay in the dream of space exploration. So when JPL became part of a new agency called NASA, the computers worked on the first probes to the moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond. Later, as digital computers largely replaced human ones, JPL was unique in training and retaining its brilliant pool of women. They became the first computer programmers and engineers, and through their efforts, we launched the ships that showed us the contours of our Solar System. For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women who charted a course not only for the future of space exploration but also for the prospects of female scientists. Based on extensive research and interviews with the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science, illuminating both where we’ve been and the far reaches of space to where we’re heading.”–Dust jacket.


  • January 1958 : Launch day — Part I. 1940s. Up, up, and away — Headed west — Part II. 1950s. Rockets rising — Miss Guided Missile — Holding back — Ninety days and ninety minutes — Moonglow — Part III. 1960s. Analog overlords — Planetary pull — The last queen of outer space — Part IV. 1970s-today. Men are from Mars — Look like a girl — Epilogue.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 16, 2017

Reviewed by Margaret Weitekamp[1]

They were always there.

Women making history have always existed, present in their time and thus in the archival record, although sometimes unnamed. But their stories have not always been considered significant. Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls investigates the history of women at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to offer “an inside look at pivotal moments in American history from a perspective never before told”. Such compensatory histories that restore lesser-known figures to the historical narrative are only just the first step in bringing the lens of gender to analytical histories, we know. And yet, such efforts continue to be important restoratives with significant implications, in this case, for the current state of mathematics, science and engineering.

Doing women’s history presents real challenges. As Holt recounts, photos of women may have been saved but sometimes without captioning. Also, many women change their surnames when they marry, complicating research. Indeed, Holt contacted 12 different women before locating the right Barbara Lewis (Paulson), a key figure for this book. Holt’s story begins, however, with a different Barbara.

When 19-year-old Barbara Canright moved with her husband to the California Institute of Technology in 1939 and took a job as a typist, the school was still all-male. The young couple befriended the so-called Suicide Squad of incipient rocketeers–Frank Malina, Jack Parsons and Ed Forman–thus becoming two of the first employees of the newly funded Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project, the precursor of JPL (which would later become part of a new government agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA). As the team developed jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) devices for the US Army Air Corps beginning in 1939, Canright joined the men in the field (quite literally). As the group tested rocket motors in a dusty, dry streambed outside Pasadena, she, in stockings, heels and a skirt, recorded and processed the data. She was a computer.

Before electronic devices took over the term, a computer was a human being who computed. In Canright’s case, she calculated complex thrust-to-weight equations, repeatedly and accurately, to compile the experimental data. Armed with a high school education where she had been one of the few girls, if not the only one, in her advanced math and science classes, she embraced the job. America’s entry into the Second World War brought more women to work alongside Canright, who was initially the only woman at JPL other than Malina’s secretary. Holt’s story reconstructs the broader history of female computers at JPL, a group eventually known simply as “the sisterhood”. At JPL, their mathematical competence coexisted with interdepartmental beauty contests in the 1950s (in some ways, a sign that there were enough women at JPL to compete) and real restrictions on their professional advancement.

The all-female computers’ enclave can be credited to Macie Roberts, the head of department after 1946. After the only male computer left during the war, Roberts hired women exclusively. She guarded her group of professional women carefully, discouraging dating at work and protecting them from untoward advances. Roberts worried that a male computer, who could advance professionally into engineering in ways that women could not, would not be content as a peer on the team. More so, however, she wanted the women’s work to be accurate and excellent. Roberts integrated the department in 1952 by hiring Jamez Lawson, whose long commute across a racially segregated Los Angeles to her new job in all-white Pasadena testified to her commitment.

Male figures in history are often written about in purely professional terms. But to flip a common slogan from the women’s movement, if the personal is political, then, for women, the professional is also personal. The realities of these women’s employment conditions–for a long time the women at JPL could not remain employed if they had a baby–meant that their professional skills were never really separate from their personal lives. Canright received weekly missives from her mother in Ohio asking her to start a family. (Indeed, in 1943, Canright left to have a baby.) In the white-collar world, even for very talented, bright, hard-working, well-educated young women, for a long time the only employment options were secretary, teacher or nurse.

The women themselves helped change those circumstances. After Helen Ling returned to work after childbirth in 1961, she rehired Barbara Paulson, who had also just had a baby. Holt interleaves the professional achievements of these working women–and then working mothers–with histories of divorce law, the Pill and the invention of pantyhose. Holt depicts women who were as comfortable with oxidizers and experimental fuels as they were with hairstyles, hemlines and childrearing. Likewise, readers of Rise of the Rocket Girls will not only meet these women but will also be introduced to hypergolic fuels, inertial guidance, and gravity assists, topics inextricably woven into the women’s work.

After electronic and digital computers began to change the women’s work in the early 1950s and 1960s, JPL’s women took on computer programming and digital image processing. Their work in data reduction, finding patterns, influenced spacecraft design. Holt’s account offers a useful precis of the early history of JPL’s planetary exploration missions and the women’s contributions. By the time the women’s titles are changed to “engineer” in 1970, and some of the women start to be credited as co-authors in scholarly publications, readers understand how significant those advancements are.

One of the challenges of collective biography is not allowing the varied historical actors to blur, becoming indistinguishable or interchangeable. Holt’s highly readable account draws compelling portraits of each person. And yet, I also wanted more images of the women themselves. Holt describes various group portraits, often noting how the women presented themselves as feminine professionals, but these images are not reproduced. Archival photos of calculating machines, missiles and computing punch cards illuminate the human computers’ work, but more photos of the women throughout (in addition to the small portraits introducing early sections) would have been welcome.

Those who already know JPL’s history will find Holt’s larger story to be familiar–and indeed, the book’s notes testify to the depth of her archival research and solid command of the secondary literature. But these stories of women, taken seriously and in depth, are new and worthy of attention. The engaging stories move quickly and would even, I venture, make good beach reading.

Writing women back into the history of science and technology has profound implications, not only as a corrective to our understanding of the past but also for current practice. Take all-male conference panels (“manels”). Tumblr contributors mock them online and Canadian mathematician Greg Martin published a brilliant critique of how statistically unlikely such groupings are, given the proportion of women with PhDs working in mathematics. But pair those professional slights with some appalling stories of high-profile scientists who have driven competent women out of their fields through sexual harassment or even outright assault and one reveals pockets of misogynistic culture. Uncovering past female role models won’t solve those problems, but such models do begin to correct a fundamental misperception equating math, science and engineering with masculinity.

JPL’s computers were there. They did the work and, to paraphrase the quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything that Fred Astaire did, backwards and in high heels, these ladies made their professional marks in hose and with a baby waiting at home. You’ll want to meet them.

Author Nathalia Holt“I was born and raised in New York City, a place that I believe engendered my gritty determination but also my love of science,” says Nathalia Holt.

“My dad is a jazz musician and my mom was a secretary, so my steadfast pursuit of science–and I was a studious child–was an act of rebellion in my family.”

She took her undergraduate degree, in biology, at Humboldt State University in northern California. “I was 16 when I started my degree, so I was younger than most of my peers. This made me determined but also painfully naive.”

Until recently, Holt was a postdoctoral fellow carrying out research into HIV/Aids at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based medical institute is, she enthuses, “a special lab and a place that truly fosters collaboration across disciplines in science”. Holt left the Ragon to pursue a full-time writing career, following the publication in 2015 of her much-acclaimed first book Cured: The People Who Defeated HIV.

Of the research she carried out for Rise of the Rocket Girls, Holt says “there were so many surprising discoveries, but I was most shocked at how the history of these women had been forgotten. Although they worked for NASA for 50 years, the agency had forgotten their names and contributions.

“From the first phone call I made to them, they were delighted but not surprised. I almost think they’d been waiting this whole time for someone like me to come along and finally record their memories.”

What gives Holt hope?

“Women scientists are getting far more attention now than they ever have in the past,” she says. “And I’m hopeful that the history of our current female pioneers won’t be lost to the cosmos.”

[1] Margaret Weitekamp, a review (July 28, 2016). Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. This article accessed at

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