The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Sacrifice Few to Save Many

It is extremely hard to discern whether or not Admiral Hall's decision to withhold the information contained in the Zimmerman Telegram from America is ethical or not. At first, it seems selfish to let Americans die because they are blind to the Germany and its allies' aggression towards them, especially from an American's perspective just so Britain can maintain the secret that they can decode German messages. But, sometimes I believe it is ethical to sacrifice the lives of a few to save the many. If it were not for Britain's strategic move to steal the unencrypted message that the President of Mexico received in order to conceal their cryptanalysis breakthrough, Germany may have created a different, more secure code that could have prolonged the war. This prolonging of the war would have ultimately led to more death than if Britain hid the fact that they were able to break Germany's code and use it to their advantage in thwarting Germany's advances. As an American, it is hard to accept the fact that Britain had the technology at its disposal to save some American lives during the war, but you have to look at the long term effects. Saving those American lives could have easily prolonged the war and costed the Allies many more fatalities, so I believe Britain made its decision based on the greater good of the Allies and made the ethical choice.


The Moral Question: Does Intention Matter?


The Morality of Admiral Hall's Actions


  1. growm

    Admiral Hall had few good options to choose from in his dilemma. In the end, he chose the greater good of the Allies by withholding information from the Americans, and saved many lives, making his decision ethical.
    I agree that his decision was ethical, and that loss of Britain's cryptographic advantage would have resulted in a greater loss of lives. I would add to this that Admiral Hall managed to also save the Americans, which is the part that makes me certain this was an ethical choice. He not only managed to protect his own country and retain his advantage, but also thwarted the efforts of the Germans and Mexicans to attack America by indirectly forewarning President Wilson of the impending danger.

    • Derek

      I think your timeline is a bit off here, Mason. Hall decided not to tell the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram, then the Germans launched unrestricted u-boat warfare. The Americans didn't enter the war at this point, somewhat surprisingly, so then Hall shared the telegram with the Americans, bolstered by his "plausible deniability" strategy.

      It's possible that, had Hall told the Americans about the Zimmerman telegram prior to unrestricted u-boat warfare, the Americans would have pull their ships back, thus saving lives. They might not have--they continued sending ships out even after the u-boat attacks started, but, of course, they didn't have the Zimmerman telegram to inform that choice.

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