The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

The Road Less Traveled By

Admiral Hall’s decision not to inform the U.S. about the impending U-boat attacks was complex, to say the least. The reasons why he would share his new intelligence with President Wilson are clear–the U.S. and Britain were allies to some degree, and it might possibly bring the U.S. into the war. However, I find his reasoning against sharing this new intel to be quite persuasive. By sharing the intel, he could lose a valuable asset which could save lives, and he might not even be believed. This is where the issue of ethics comes in.

Sharing the intel on the Germans appears to be the most ethical choice. It does right by an ally, and it saves lives. Then again, the lives possibly lost by this revelation of a way of gathering information could outweigh those saved. Once they found out the British had broken the cipher, the Germans would certainly change their encryption methods, and the flow of information would be cut off. This event could possibly lead to more losses in battle, more lives sacrificed. These two possibilities create the well-known gray area of war, in which many ask, “which path will save the most lives?” There was no true way to know which way to go, no way of figuring out just exactly how many lives would be lost either way. Admiral Hall was stuck between a rock and a hard place, his own personal catch-22.

Despite his dilemma, Admiral Hall, in my opinion, still managed to make the most ethical choice. Not only did he save the lives of his people, but he also saved the lives of the endangered Americans. By choosing to keep his intel secret, but orchestrating its revelation by way of a different channel, he managed to choose the path that wasn’t apparent to many others. He kept his decryption success secret, and caused the American government to learn the true content of the telegram through a completely non-incriminating source: a mistake in the enemy’s actions. Had he not done this, I might say his actions were unethical, that he should have saved the lives most definitely in danger. However, by managing to protect both potential victims from harm, I believe that Admiral Hall took the most ethical path available.


Great or Good: Ethics and the Zimmermann Telegram


Morality v. Pragmatism


  1. Abbey

    You said Admiral Hall made the more ethical choice because in the end he was able to save lives by not letting the Germans know that they had cracked the cipher, and ultimately the Americans found out about the message before many lives were lost there either. I agree that this argument is complex and viewable from both sides, and I like how you quantified each option in terms of lives, in order to make them comparable. I think it is important to also consider, however, the number of American lives lost once we decided to join the war in Europe. That number is a direct consequence of Hall’s decision and should be taken into account when thinking about what triggered our entrance in the war – would we have joined if we knew that the British had the upper hand in cryptanalysis?

  2. osmanrh

    I think you make a valid point when discussing the ethical decision Admiral Hall had to make. I agree with the fact that even though informing America initially would have been the right ethical decision based upon the alliance system, but that more deaths in the war could have been avoided by keeping this decipherment a secret which would allow more information to be revealed regarding Germany’s intentions in the war. Also, I believe Hall proved a good point in the novel in addition to this argument in that he did not want to relay the message until the entire message was deciphered to ensure that any part was not misunderstood or read out of context. He thoroughly thought through the situation in order to determine the best possible outcome involving saving the most lives and preventing America from being surprised by Germany’s intentions. However, while I do believe Admiral Hall made the right ethical decision, I do not agree with the blog post that “he managed to choose the path that wasn’t apparent to many others.” Admiral Hall acted more on the interests of Britain and Britain would in many instances withhold information if it ensured bringing Britain further intel or even successes. While everyone seeks to aid their ally, one’s own interests and needs supersedes all else.

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