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Frequently Asked Questions

Rich Heritage of U.S. Cryptology

  1. What is cryptology?
  2. How has cryptology influenced American history?
  3. Where can I learn more about our nation's cryptologic heritage?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 code books, declassified NSA documents, and transcribed oral histories. The museum, adjacent to NSA/CSS headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland, is open to the public. School groups and civic organizations are welcome. Group tours may be scheduled in advance by calling 301-688-5849.

Museum Hours:
9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, Monday through Friday
10:00 AM to 2:00 PM 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month.

Just outside the museum are the National Vigilance Park and the Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial, honoring the many aerial reconnaissance crews lost in the performance of their duties. The park is open from dawn to dusk.

NSA's Center for Cryptologic History has produced many unclassified histories about our nation's cryptologic heritage, and these can be found in the Center for Cryptologic History section of our web site.