The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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.


Strategical rather than unethical


Contextual Ethics


  1. Julia

    I liked how you looked at the difference between personal ethics and national ethics. Your ideas that the decision was personally unethical but nationally ethical were very interesting. You did a great job of supporting your arguments. However, I do not fully support your point that more lives would not have been lost if Germany knew that their code had been broken. Although creating a new code would have taken time, they could have implemented other communication strategies or ways that would have made it harder for the Allies to get hold of and understand their messages. Overall, I enjoyed your blog post as it brought a new level of depth to the question of ethicality in this decision.

  2. naughkm1

    I find your idea of splitting views on this topic very interesting. However, I do not agree that personal and national ethics are different. In the end I believe that they are actually quite similar, particularly because it is individuals in the government that run a nation. They still should follow the same ethics that they follow personally and take that into account in their decisions, which in turn will govern what is nationally ethical. That being said, it was in Britain’s best interest to hide the contents of the Zimmerman telegram. Just because it is still unethical does not mean that it is not the best option for a country. Politics are very messy, especially in a time of war, so ethics tend to be over looked for self (or national) gratification. Britain benefited from their secrecy because they did not out their means of decryption, keeping them a step ahead of Germany. Also, America joined the war, adding more manpower to the struggling Allied forces. Britain’s decision may not have been ethical but it was most definitely logical. Although I may not completely agree with your argument, your blog post was very interesting to read as it attacked a complex problem from multiple angles, making it even more intriguing to think about.

  3. youngar

    I appreciated that you tacked this argument from both sides instead of taking a biased approach. However, I think that personal and national ethics are rather similar in the grand scheme of things. To say that we as people do not act in our best interests puts too much faith in humanity. If put in a situation where I could either save myself or someone else, I’m almost definitely going to save myself. That’s just human nature. The same statement can be applied on the national scale. If a country has the opportunity to save its citizens or the citizens of another country, it will undoubtedly save its citizens. Britain’s choice to hide the contents of the Zimmerman telegram from the US was the right decision when you look at it from the point of view of a British person. Making sure Germany didn’t know they had decoded the message was in their own best interests. Why would they want to help the US out if it meant this decision would hurt them? This could be viewed as unethical, but that would only be the case if you favored the US. Overall, everyone, whether it be a person or a nation, is self-serving to an extent. Sure, some would call it unethical, but I just call it human nature.

  4. Jackson

    When looking at all of the blog posts, this one was immediately compelling to me because it attempted to divide ethics into two categories. However, in this context of war I believe there only to be one correct decision and that is doing what is best for your country. In my opinion it is completely unreasonable to expect a British citizen to do anything other than what he thought best for his country which is exactly what he did. For that I believe he should be commended. In the blog post I do understand the argument for “personal ethics” but that is essentially irrelevant when you compare it to the ethics of an entire country. By not telling the Americans about the contents of the telegram, the British were able to keep their advantage of knowing the German code as well as persuade the Americans to join the war. Even as an American, I can not help but agree that this was the ethical decision because in a time of war like this one must do everything in his power to protect his country.

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