Cryptologic History Overview

At NSA we recognize the importance of not only focusing on the tasks ahead but of taking a step back to examine, understand and appreciate our rich cryptologic heritage.

Through the Center for Cryptologic History, the National Cryptologic Museum, and the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Memorial, we are able to share with the public-at-large some of the significant contributions cryptologists have made in defense of our nation. People at home and around the world can learn about the key role that NSA's missions have played in world events. From the outstanding cryptanalysis of the VENONA project, which identified numerous Soviet agents in the United States; to the way sophisticated direction finding helped track Soviet intentions when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened nuclear war; to breakthrough achievements in the development of the computer and the amazing advancements of secure communications capabilities, codemakers and codebreakers were there.

The NSA Center for Cryptologic History (CCH) keeps history alive by enhancing the knowledge and decision-making abilities of the Intelligence Community (IC). A critical asset, the center provides a historical and objective account of cryptologic history for the IC, the Department of Defense, other government agencies, academia, and the general public. 

NSA believes learning from the past can help improve future decision making. In partnership with our National Cryptologic School, we offer numerous learning opportunities for intelligence professionals. These include a variety of history courses, seminars, illustrated lectures, and case studies. Our many publications, classified and unclassified, document the past and enable today's cryptologic professionals to benefit from a historical perspective as they tackle increasingly challenging missions.

NSA's Center for Cryptologic History staff of professional historians publishes a calendar of special programs and events annually that explores the impact of history on current issues and operations. Each year, the Schorreck Memorial Lecture brings a distinguished intelligence historian to NSA for a public presentation. Every two years, we sponsor the Symposium on Cryptologic History. Our Scholar-in-Residence Program brings an outstanding academic historian to NSA for a year of research.

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 What is cryptology?
Cryptology is the art and science of making and breaking codes and ciphers. NSA/CSS is responsible for creating the systems that protect U.S. communications and for analyzing systems and communications used by foreign powers. Making a code or cipher system is called cryptography. Those who try to "break" a cryptosystem are practicing cryptanalysis.


 How has cryptology influenced American history?

Code making and code breaking have influenced America's history. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers sent encrypted messages and intercepted enemy communications. In 1917, British decryption of the Zimmermann Telegram helped push the United States into World War I.

Intelligence derived by solving many Japanese and German systems gave Allied forces an edge in many World War II battles - on land and at sea - arguably shortening the war and saving countless lives.

Protecting U.S. communications was likewise as important to the Allied victory in WWII as reading the enemy's messages. The Marine Corps and Army trained Native Americans in radio communications. They used their own languages and code words to confuse enemy soldiers who may have been listening. The Army and Navy also used the SIGABA, an extremely complex cipher machine, to encrypt messages. The enemy never broke the Navajo code talkers or the SIGABA code, giving the United States a clear advantage. The Cold War saw cryptology foster the development of new communications and computer technology. Today's supercomputers, encrypted cell phones, and verification systems owe some of their development to work done for the NSA/CSS.

The NSA/CSS continues to provide and protect vital information, shaping America's history and contributing to the nation's cryptologic heritage.

 Where can I learn more about our nation's cryptologic heritage?

The National Cryptologic Museum collection contains thousands of artifacts illustrating the rich history of cryptology. The museum also has a research library with a unique collection of commercial codebooks, declassified NSA documents, and transcribed oral histories. The museum, adjacent to NSA/CSS headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, is open to the public.

At the CCH, we have produced many unclassified histories about our nation's cryptologic heritage, which can be found through our historical publications and events & figures sections.

To learn more about NSA/CSS’s cryptologic history, contact us through our web form, or write to us at:

National Security Agency
ATTN: Center for Cryptologic History
9800 Savage Rd., Suite 6886
Fort George G. Meade, MD 20755