The Female Code Breakers Who Revealed Soviet Spies

During the Cold War, America’s most secretive counterespionage effort was in charge of cracking ciphers.

code breakers
Female code breakers (Wikipedia)

In 1945, Angeline Nanni, who had always easily done math, was taking a test like nothing she had ever seen. She and her sisters had moved to Washington, D.C., to take jobs in the World War II effort, but when the war ended, Nanni wanted to stay. So she, along with eight or nine other women, all took the same test at a secret government facility in Arlington, Virginia. Before her, a piece of paper showed ten sets of numbers, arranged in five-digit groups. The numbers represented a coded message, and each five-digit group had a secret meaning. Nanni finished before anyone else, and made her a candidate for the Russian code-breaking project.

Nanni and a group of extraordinary women became members of the top secret U.S. effort to break encrypted Soviet spy communications, writes Smithsonian Magazine. For nearly four decades, Nanni and her colleagues helped identify those who passed American and Allied secrets to the Soviet Union during and after WWII. Their work revealed infamous spies and provided vital intelligence about Soviet tradecraft. Even President Harry Truman did not know about the work these women were doing. But when the team, called Venona, was declassified in 1995, the face of the program was male. So Smithsonian decided to tell the stories of Venona’s female code breakers.

Even now, talking about her career makes Nanni, who is 99, nervous: “I still don’t if I can help it,” she said, according to Smithsonian. 

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.