From Encryption to Decryption In Stephen Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II, the text starts off with some rather interesting words by Dr. Johnson, who states, “Knowledge is more than equivalent to force.”1 In the context of this historical book, this quote plays a rather large role in Budiansky’s thesis about the importance of technology during World War II. Often times, people neglect the importance of wit in warfare as much as sheer military force; it is in these desperate times that crafting ideas and theories behind the nature of war is just as important as raw power. In Budiansky’s book, he highlights the wits and the thinking behind the crafting of technology in World War II. People often know about the famous battles that occurred during the war, but not much is remembered about the importance of technology during the war. Especially with the outbreak of nations using encryption devices and encrypting information, there became a new need to create decryption devices for nations to truly gain an edge over their enemies. It is this need that caused the coding technologies to become prominent in warfare, and proved even more useful in the rising age of information. In the prologue and through chapters one and two, titled “No Good, Not Even for Intelligence,” and “Nature of the Beast,” respectively, Budiansky introduces the ideas behind coding. When the war broke out, nations began to need to encrypt their messages, as their enemies could very easily intercept messages and find out their exact plans. Budiansky says, “The Navy had a few years’ head start in both intercept and cryptanalysis…[because of] the difficulty of the Japanese language.”¬¬2 With the language barriers between the Pacific nations, as well as the European nations, and the challenge that this posed to the American government, it was necessary to learn those specific languages in order to decrypt any intercepted messages that arrived. This natural obstacle between messages started the movement in information intelligence in the war and decryption. With this new development in cryptology, Budiansky continues with the theory behind encrypting messages. Budiansky also discusses numerical codes and the basic theory behind them. Replacing letters with numerical numbers was the first step to encrypting one’s messages so that it would be more difficult to understand the message. However, the main flaw to this more “basic” type of encoding was that the distribution of letters in the English language is not equally distributed. Thus, it is rather easy to see when a number appears more often than another, and logically it would represent a rather common letter in English. Another flaw was that a single replacement type of encryption made it easy to decrypt, as there were only 26 possible types of encryption codes. Nations began to develop multistep replacement coding systems, which meant that they had translated letters into coded numbers multiple times in order to deter any type of decryption attempts. However, it did not make it much more difficult for codes to be broken through this method. It made it easy at first for nations to discover what other nations were saying. It was through these early decryption methods that they began to realize that they needed much more complex codes in order to avoid any information leaks. As they increased the complexity of their codes, developing even more complex decrypting technologies also became a necessity. Chapters three and four, titled “Il y a du Nouveau,” and “Fighting Back,” respectively, discuss the development of technology in code making and encryption devices. Nations began to realize that their simple numerical and letter replacement method was easy to crack, and they began to use different machines. For example, the German encryption machine was called the Enigma; this type of machinery and technology that was integrated into code making made many more combinations of codes that could be made for a single message. According to Budiansky, “[there were] about 400 million million million million possible ways the Germans could have rewired it.3 Due to this type of encryption technology, the Americans and British in particular, decided that they needed to counter this type of algorithm that the Germans had invented, a type of coding system that was nearly impossible to decrypt simply by hand. These two chapters focus on the development of the coding technologies that became prevalent in both the sides of the Axis and the Allied powers during World War II. Because of this more prominent need for nations to create technology in order to counter technology, this type of coding technology became just as important as any other wartime intelligence endeavors the nations attempted. In chapters five, six, and seven, Budiansky begins to talk more about the context of the war, and the roles that technology played within the war itself. Budiansky also mentions the development of Bletchley Park, the British decryption center for the Allied powers, as well as IBM Machines, which rose to importance as necessary machines in helping the Allies decrypt some of the most complicated codes that were intercepted from the Axis powers. He also talks about the Western and Eastern fronts, as well as their differences and similarities during World War II; Budiansky often refers back to how technology helped the Allies gain an advantage over their Axis enemies and helped win the war. For example, Budiansky says, “The breaking of naval Enigma contributed to a sharp decline in sinkings by U-boats in the Atlantic that began in the summer of 1941.”4 It is in these chapters that Budiansky talks more about the war in general, mostly focusing on Atlantic naval warfare and warfare on the two European fronts. He discusses how technologies and codebreaking instruments gave the Allies a marginally larger advantage over the Axis powers, especially due to more complex codebreaking technology and a large central base in Britain’s Bletchley Park during the duration of the war. Budiansky also goes into depth in these three chapters about how the Americans contributed to the Allied cryptanalysis and intelligence sector, especially with their development of the Arlington Hall, a site for decryption analysis and information gathering from the Axis. Budiansky goes in depth about the beginnings of Arlington Hall and the diversity of those who worked in the cryptanalysis sector of the Army. He says, “The occasional regular Army type assigned to Arlington Hall was generally made mincemeat of by the staff, civilian, and ‘military’ alike.”5 Budiansky also goes more into depth about how the code encryption and decryption systems worked, including how the rotors worked. He discusses into depth about how the 456,976 rotor positions in a simple codebreaking machine would work so that they could go through all different combinations of codes in an attempt to crack the one imputed into the machine. He describes in these chapters the physical descriptions of what the machines were like, especially noting how large and bulky the early computers were. Through these descriptions, Budiansky puts into context the fight for codebreaking and intelligence in the American context as well as the physical characteristics of those early machines and computers that were dedicated as machinery for the sole purpose of intelligence. In chapters eight, nine, and ten, Budiansky talks about suspicious activity between important officials, Russian intelligence, and U-boats in the many locations in the oceans during the war. He describes in detail how the U-boats played an important role in World War II as well as their lasting effect. He says, “The Atlantic struggle was among the grimmest, most merciless, and most bloodthirsty of the entire war.”6 Descriptions like these bring life to Budiansky’s writing, as he boldly tells the facts about what occurred in the war. He also describes Russian intelligence in the war, as well as the known Russian spies that had infiltrated different intelligence bases in an attempt to gain knowledge on how other nations had broken codes and what type of technology they had used, in an attempt to gain the same edge that the other nations had obtained already. Budiansky’s thesis in his book is that the evolution of intelligence in World War II had created a new need for developing different types of technology, particularly due to the enhanced capability of technology in encryption and coding. Budiansky says, “Churchill did not realize how much things had changed since the First World War: There was no way one person could read and comprehend hundreds of messages a day.”7 In this example, Budiansky shows how warfare had changed since World War I, and how intelligence was an integral role in warfare. Warfare was no longer just a brutal battle of military strength and the tactics of conquering lands, but required intelligence and gathering data. With such an important aspect of warfare almost completely open to the enemy, nations began to develop important coding systems so that it would not be as easy to decipher critical messages en route that contained confidential information about tactics, strategy, and more. With the development of encryption and mechanical encryption, technology was then created for the sole purpose of decoding messages that other machines had created in the first place. Budiansky’s thesis also highlights the difference in warfare and how intellect and codes had played an extremely important role in the development of the war. Stephen Budiansky certainly has the background credentials that help him have an objective, scientific approach to his research on the topics of warfare, technology, and cryptanalysis. His educational background certainly helps his approach on the technology and mathematical approach to codebreaking and encryption in the war. Budiansky has a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a master’s degree in Applied Mathematics, and graduated from Yale University and Harvard University. His education in math and science helped his foundation for the studies in technology and war theory, which he discusses in this book, especially computational technologies. Budiansky says, “The machines used optical principles to perform calculations directly, a concept that would shortly be…in the digital electronics revolution.”8 Budiansky’s inclusion of scientific and mathematical achievements as a whole adds a scientific perspective to his work, analyzing coding and intelligence theory from a methodical, mathematical approach. His other books such as Her Majesty’s Spymaster and Perilous Fight mainly focus on warfare and military intelligence give him a solid background in describing how the military works and the theory behind intelligence gathering and codes. Budiansky’s work experience as a national security correspondent and editor of U.S. News and World Report give him a global perspective on his work, as well as an objective point of view and a reporter’s desire to cover all perspectives on an issue. The book was published in 2000, at the turn of the century and at the beginning of the most modern era. Budiansky has traces of relativist historiography in his writing, in which he analyzes how others have seen intelligence in World War II in the past and how it has affected him in his writing. According to Swedish archaeologist Dr. Martin Rundkvist, “A relativist historiographer will…suggest more well-supported interpretations of the sources.”9 Budiansky, in his work, often analyzes different reasons has to why different events occurred, but never sets any bias or personal perspective on the events. He often leaves the final decision to the reader. This reflects the ideals of relativist historiography, especially relevant since his book was published in the 21st century, a time when looking back into history and taking apart previous theories was popular for historians. In a review made by A.D. Baker III, Baker describes the usefulness of Budiansky’s book in describing the machinery and technology behind encrypting and decrypting the codes that existed in the war. Baker states that Battle of Wits stands among the finest books of its kind that deals with military intelligence and technology. Baker writes, “Budiansky manages to touch on nearly all the major themes handled in greater detail by the myriad other books that preceded his, while at the same time achieving an admirable balance in his presentation.”10 Baker also notes the usefulness of the graphic organizers available at the appendices, and how the explanations of the complex machinery and coding devices were easy to understand. Another critic, Simon Singh, himself a scientific journalist and author, notes how objective Budiansky’s work is and how well it describes the work of both the Axis and the Allies as well as notes the similarities and differences in military technology between the British and the Americans. Singh also notes how Budiansky’s book touches upon two disciplines: both science and history. He comments on the substantive amount of scientific explanations that can be found in a book that may seem to be only dedicated to analyzing historical events. Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits condenses multiple topics of military theory, coding, computer science, technology, and mathematics all into a concise, informational book that focuses on how each of those topics are relative to World War II and how they were used by the different nations. The book is extremely informational and offers several visual aids to help the reader understand the rather complex theories and algorithms that existed in code decryption and encryption in World War II. Budiansky wants his readers to understand the different types of technologies that existed between all nations that participated in the War, including Japan, Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States; Budiansky includes all of these nations in his analysis of their relative coding technologies and encryption methods. He also focuses on how important the people behind the machines were and how important their legacies were. He writes, “The civilians in uniform at Arlington Hall and the Naval Communications Annex…had won the war, they had changed the world.”11 Budiansky describes not only the mechanical aspect of cryptanalysis in his book well but also includes the human aspect of decryption and encryption. Budiansky skillfully touches on several complex concepts in his book, while including the human aspect to the war and those who had worked to help evolve technology in warfare. This author definitely agrees that the 1940s were a watershed in American history, particularly due to the massive effect that World War II had on millions of people. This is demonstrated by Budiansky’s thesis that foreign intelligence and cryptanalysis had changed due to the outbreak of World War II, and his descriptions of its effects on the many nations that were in the War. Budiansky also adds that the war had effectively started a new era in information and intelligence. He writes, “[After the Japanese surrendered,] the war was indeed over. The signals intelligence war had, in truth, just begun.”12 Budiansky focuses on how warfare and cryptanalysis had evolved through the 1940s, changing from a predominately simple type of encryption and decryption method to a much more computational and complicated one during the war. Budiansky, in his epilogue, ends his book by discussing how cryptanalysis is a form of arrogance, based on the principle that “secrets are worth knowing.”13 Because of this principle, an entire system of cryptanalysis and signals intelligence evolved and rose to prominence during the duration of World War II and beyond.
Endnotes 1. Budiansky, Stephen. Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II. New York: The Free Press, 2000. 1. 2. Budiansky, Stephen. 35. 3. Budiansky, Stephen. 95. 4. Budiansky, Stephen. 195. 5. Budiansky, Stephen. 227. 6. Budiansky, Stephen. 279. 7. Budiansky, Stephen. 149. 8. Budiansky, Stephen. 245. 9. "Science Blogs." Aardvarchaeology. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2013. 10. Baker III, A.D. “U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol.127 Issue 2,” 2001. 11. Budiansky, Stephen. 329. 12. Budiansky, Stephen. 328. 13. Budiansky, Stephen. 337.
About the Author (Stephen Budiansky) Stephen Budiansky was born and grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry at Yale University and his Master’s Degree in Applied Mathematics from Harvard University. He worked on the staff of Nature and has worked on many other magazine and publications, such as the Washington Post. His other books include Her Majesty’s Spymaster and Blackett’s War.