The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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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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Contextual Ethics

Ethics in times of war must be thought of differently from ethics in times of peace, however much we may want it to be otherwise. The focus of ethics during wartimes turns to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is sacrificing the wellbeing of a few for the good of the many. It is “big-picture” thinking, striving to benefit as many people as possible, even if that means a few people must get hurt along the way.

When thought of in that context, Britain’s Admiral Hall’s decision not to tell American President Woodrow Wilson about the Zimmerman telegram makes perfect sense. If he had told President Wilson the contents of the telegram, the Germans would have been alerted to the fact that the British were able to read their messages, and would have changed their codes and created additional obstacles for Britain’s cryptanalysts, potentially costing Allied lives. The danger posed to America by Germany’s U-boat warfare, by comparison, put far less lives at risk, especially because it seemed likely that the United States would enter the war after the beginning of the U-boat attacks.

The reason Admiral Hall’s decision would seem unethical in the context of today is that the major powers of the world have not been involved in a worldwide or home-turf war in some 70 years, since the end of the Second World War. The focus of ethics has shifted from utilitarianism to a more deontological ethical viewpoint. Deontology, contrary to utilitarianism, concentrates on how ethical an action is without consideration for the consequences of the action. In this situation, it would seem Admiral Hall had a moral obligation to inform President Wilson of the Zimmerman telegram, simply because it would be “the right thing to do.” However, when thought of in the context of the First World War, Admiral Hall’s decision to bring the United States into the war in a more roundabout way seems the more logical and ethical choice.

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Ethical, Unethical, or Both?

I am of the opinion that there are two ways that the question can be looked at. Personal ethics, I think, are different than the ethics of a nation. This is something that must be taken into account when questioning the ethics of decisions surrounding national security; it most certainly must be taken into account when considering the Zimmerman telegram.

From a personal standpoint, this decision is unquestionably unethical. Letting America know the contents of the Zimmerman telegram would have saved American lives, and potentially shortened the length of the war. Although it could be argued that more lives might have been lost if Germany knew that the code had been broken, I vastly disagree. Creating a new and equally strong code for their messages would have taken Germany a long period of time, because creating codes that function and are very strong is not an entirely simple process. Even if Germany became aware that their code had been broken, with the advantage given to both America and Britain, the war may have been won before the new code was invented. It is completely unethical for someone to break a code with the intention of shortening the war, and then not use the broken code to save as many lives as possible.

At the other end of this issue is the standpoint of national ethicality.  It is my opinion that a nations ethics are typically focused first and foremost selfishly, on the survival of that specific nation. It is quite possible that Admiral Hall believed that telling the Americans about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram would jeopardize the very survival of his nation, in which case he simply obeyed his national ethics, which told him that survival came first. In following this duty to his country he also follows another part of national ethicality, that the homeland must come first.

With these two sides to keep in mind, it is impossible for me to conclude that one is more correct than the other. Personally, it is unethical. Nationally, it seems it may have been quite ethical. In the end, this is a murky issue. However, in the tumultuous and interconnected times we live in today, this will be an issue I think we will revisit very soon.

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Strategical rather than unethical

After the Zimmermann telegram was deciphered, Admiral Hall chose to withhold the important information regarding the unrestricted submarine warfare and put many Americans’ lives on the line.

The decision itself at that moment seemed unethical because it resulted in the death of many innocent Americans. However, thinking in a larger scale, Hall’s action was justifiable. Firstly, given this war context, the ethical considerations probably weren’t be the top priority for people who dedicated themselves for the future of their country. Instead of thinking about whether their decisions might be ethical, they would probably spending more time weighing up the consequences of their actions, which, in Hall’s case, was the potential long-term consequences of disclosing their advanced cryptographic progression to the world. Hall realized that it might eventually make the British lose the advantage of using their advanced cryptographic techniques to gather the information that would be extremely valuable to them in the war.

Another text written by Sun-Tze in the Art of War says that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” Sun-Tze’s words implies that in order to win the battle, not only should us try to gather as much information as we can about the enemies, but also try to avoid exposing any of our own progression to the enemies. That was exactly what Hall did. His action enabled the British to see through German’s plot while keeping the Germany in the dark, hence gaining significant advantages in the long run. In this sense, I believe that Hall’s decision shouldn’t be considered unethical, but simply strategical.



The Morality of Admiral Hall's Actions

Upon learning the intended plans of the Germans from deciphering the Zimmerman telegram, it was ethical of Admiral Hall to withhold such information from the President.


One may argue that Admiral Hall should morally concede the information to the President so that Britain may be subsequently informed, and lives could be potentially saved during the outbreak of unrestricted submarine warfare. Yet, if America was to intervene before German acted out their plan, they would’ve “concluded that their method of encryption had been broken,” leading them to “develop a new and stronger encryption system” (Singh 113). This grants the possibility of the German’s using an extremely more complicated encryption system, one that the cryptanalysts in Britain’s Room 40 may never solve in their lifetime, to act out their unrestricted submarine warfare unopposed. This, in turn, could’ve led to a higher number of wartime casualties, especially among passenger ships. Thus, through decrypting future German telegrams without their knowledge that their encryption system had already been broken, Admiral Hall’s actions could potentially save many more lives than he would’ve had he passed on the information.


Furthermore, as history proved, by not informing the President, Admiral Hall ensured that the Germans did not realize the Americans had broken their encryption system, granting the Americans an advantage in decrypting any future German messages encrypted by the same system. Eventually the Mexican version of the Zimmermann telegram led America to retaliate, granting the same outcome had the Admiral actually passed on the information, but without the Germans discovering their blunder.


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?

Trade-offs between decisions that secure immediate safety versus the "overall good" - whether that means a quicker end to war, more net lives saved, keeping the upper hand - are often made during wars. They're made in our everyday lives as well, though, of course, the consequences of choosing between those two options are on a much less significant scale. I thought reading about the deliberate withholding of the Zimmerman Note from Wilson was very interesting, as it was the first time I was exposed to this information. It didn't particularly incite a strong reaction from me, however, in the sense that I felt very pro- or against the decision Admiral Hall made.

At the same time, someone might argue that it was based on similar principles as those during the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, an event that I do have a strong opinion on. In order to end the war quickly, thus the "greater good" aspect of it, America decided to end 129,000–246,000+ innocent lives in Japan. While this death toll was not pre-estimated nor maliciously and intentionally predicted by any means, the result is still reality.

This differs from the Zimmerman event in that rather than deliberately taking lives, Hall put at risk the potential of danger from unrestricted U-boat warfare. I think the argument that his decision was reasonable can easily be made by stating that the reality of the situation was that the United States kept an upper hand and many lives were saved. It seems that the consequence was favorable. Taking that into mind, both these decisions - regarding the bombing and the Zimmerman note information - are probably considered ethical or reasonable almost overwhelmingly by looking at the result, rather than by looking at the initial intentions. If we looked at intentions, then both cases would un-controversially be deemed fair, which is clearly not true.

So by mulling over this event where we are in 2015, I too would most likely say (perhaps hypocritically, since I don't support the bombing decisions) that Hall made a logical decision to withhold the information he was keeping. Even knowing to consider his intentions, it is simply impossible not to look at the result when we're peering into the past from almost a hundred years into the future.


Ethically Relying on the Unknown

I believe that, just like beauty, ethics are in the eye of the beholder. Whether or not one finds a decision ethical arguably depends more on one’s own upbringing and personal experiences than the action itself. The wide variety of cultural responses to issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and civil liberties exemplifies the inconsistency between our perceptions of morality. Ethics often lack one right or wrong answer and instead simply show how actions can align, or not align, with one’s beliefs.

When Admiral William Hall decided not to tell President Woodrow Wilson about the immense progress of Britain cryptanalysts, he was making a decision for the future of his own country. Although the telegraph showed signs of American danger, Hall was instead thinking of the potential lives he would save by withholding the information. By letting the Germans know that their code had been broken, the British would be unable to prevent future, possibly greater attacks on both their allies and their own country.

Although both risky and difficult, Hall did what he believed was best in the long run. While he was uncertain that more attacks would be revealed through cryptanalyzing German telegraphs, he truly thought that saving the lives of those in future warfare was the right decision. Ethically, I agree with Hall. Although he withheld information that would have helped his allies, he was focused on doing what he believed would help the most people over time. Hall himself was not putting the Americans in danger; he simply did not act upon the information given. If he had shared Britain’s knowledge, he would have given away an advantage that could ultimately win them the war. While Hall’s decision was a difficult one, his intentions were ethical as he believed the withheld information would best help both countries in the end.

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The Truth Behind the Zimmerman Telegram

In 1917, during the height of World War I, the British intercepted a German telegram (the Zimmermann Telegram) that was meant for the Mexican government.  The Germans called for unrestricted submarine warfare, which violated a previous agreement with the United States, and proposed that if Mexico invaded the United States, Mexico would receive United States territory at the end of the war.

In high school history classes, we are told that as soon the British caught word of this duplicitous German telegram, the United States' government was immediately notified.  However, as Singh explains in the third chapter of The Code Book, the British initially withheld the information, at the potential cost of American lives due to unrestricted submarine warfare, in order to protect the cryptographic advancements of the British.  At first, I thought that the actions of the British were wrong.  The lives of innocent people were on the line.  Yet, I realize that from a broader perspective, the move to protect British cryptographic intelligence was ethical and necessary, because in the end, it led to the demise of the Germans and to the end of the war.

If the British had immediately informed the American government of the Zimmermann Telegram, chances are the United States would have publicly condemned Germany for its actions.  The success of the British codebreakers would have become known, and the Germans would have realized that their ciphers would need improving.  Had the Germans known this, they could have created a better, more impenetrable cipher, and the Allies would have been back at square one.  Since the Germans were unaware that their cipher had been broken (they believed that the Mexican government had handed over the telegram to the United States), the Allies had an upper hand, because they now knew the German code.

Overall, the British decision was ethical, because in the grand scheme of the war, more lives were saved by defeating the Germans than lives that would have been lost from unrestricted submarine warfare.  By protecting British cryptographic intelligence, Germany was blindsided and fell behind in their cryptographic advancements.  Because of this, Germany lost yet another advantage in the war.


Ethical yet Reasonable?

After Reverend Montgomery and Nigel de Grey deciphered the Zimmermann telegram, Admiral Sir William Hall refused to turn it over to the Americans. His decision not to tell President Wilson about its contents was not ethical, but it is somewhat understandable.

With the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, German U-boats were prepared to attack any and all ships in the war-zone waters, including civilian passenger carriers. Given the high number of lives at risk, it was definitely unethical for Admiral Hall to withhold this information. Hall knew that the U-boat onslaught was going to begin in a mere two weeks, and the fact that he did not notify the United States reveals his apparent insensitivity for the lives of others.

However, war is often about taking risks. It could be argued that keeping the Zimmermann message private was a beneficial risk to take. Preventing the Germans from finding out that their encryption method had been compromised may have actually saved a greater number of lives than disclosing the message would have. If the Germans had found out about the decipherment and had created a new and stronger encryption method, the British would no longer have been able to easily decrypt their messages. This could have led to a longer war with a higher death toll.

It is unknown whether Admiral Hall was simply being selfish in keeping the message from the Americans or if he truly thought that it was in everyone’s best interest to keep the message private until it could be disclosed without the Germans finding out that their cipher had been cracked. Either way, it was undoubtedly unethical, yet reasonable, of Admiral Hall to withhold the information from the Americans.

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