Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Victory At All Costs

The Zimmerman telegram could be described as the key leading to an allied victory and the end of the war. However, after being deciphered, Admiral William Hall decided to keep America in the dark, withholding the contents of the telegram from President Wilson. Despite the immediate danger this posed to the United States, I believe Admiral Hall made the correct decision. Disclosing the contents of the telegram would have alerted the Germans to the vulnerabilities in their encryption, leading them to create more secure ciphers and eventually cutting off British access to German information.

Essentially, this boils down to whether or not "the end justifies the means". Although this paved the way to an allied victory, keeping the telegram a secret endangered countless american lives. One could argue Admiral Hall's decision was extremely unethical, as it unnecessary risked peoples' lives. Needless deaths must be avoided, even if it leads to a faster victory. The means are simply too cruel to justify the end. However, keeping the telegram a secret potentially changed the course of the war. Although American involvement was believed to ensure an allied victory, it was not guaranteed. The British access to German intelligence proved to be invaluable to their war effort, and saving more lives was not as important as keeping these intelligence lines open. With this intelligence, the British forces could always stay one step ahead of the German offensive. This aided greatly in preventing the Germans from dominating the war, and essentially allowed the allied forces to emerge victory. Thus, safekeeping this crucial line of intel proved much more important than saving more american lives. In addition, Admiral Hall's plans to intercept the German's telegram in Mexico would lead to President Wilson learning of the contents of the Zimmerman telegram. Although he would learn of its contents late, the effect of the telegram still stirred America to action. Thus, immediately sending the Zimmerman telegram to America was not even completely necessary. Overall, victory was the main objective, and thus the end did justify the means.

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2 Comments

  1. tsais

    I agree with your argument that the British decision to initially withhold the information from the Zimmermann Telegram was ethical because in the end, it was more beneficial for the overall war effort because the Germans no longer had a cryptographic advantage.

    However, when you say that "immediately sending the Zimmermann Telegram to America was not even completely necessary," because they eventually did find out about it through Mexico, how do justify that lost time? Although the United States did eventually find out about the contents of the telegram, and while the overall result of the war would have been essentially unchanged had the British initially passed along the telegram, there was great potential for lost American lives.

  2. peinrm

    The Zimmerman telegram is the perfect example of the ethical dilemmas that lie behind the secrecy of cryptography. It is challenging enough to decipher messages, but deciding whether or not to release the content of such messages is an ethical controversy on multiple levels. However, when addressing WWI with the hindsight we possess today, it is easy to claim Admiral Hall made the right decision because his side won the war. I'm sure it was far more difficult in the moment to decide what the right course of action would be. I feel that what makes cryptanalysts so successful is that they keep their identity a secret, thus luring the cryptographers into the illusion that their cipher is safe, so they won't change it or strengthen it and the cryptanalysts can dedicate more time to breaking it. This was demonstrated when members of Room 40 even published a false article in the news, criticizing themselves for "not breaking the cipher" to avoid suspicion. A very clever move, in my opinion, since the press and media is where the majority of the world gets its information from, so creating mass sentiment doubting the abilities of Room 40 would ironically make them all the more effective.

    In terms of ethics, do I believe Admiral Hall made the right decision? Speaking currently, yes. Had I been in his position however, I do not believe I would have had the self-control to withhold that information just because I knew it would prevent loss of lives immediately. In the long run, it is unclear if releasing the information would have sped up the war or cost Britain their victory, but when dealing with this extent of secrecy it is always important to think about the long-term effects rather than acting on instinct.

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