The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Great or Good: Ethics and the Zimmermann Telegram

While Admiral Hall had some justification for his actions, his decision to keep important information from President Woodrow Wilson and the American government was unethical in the sense that passing that information on could have potentially spared lives. That being said, Admiral Hall had some reasonable justifications for acting in the way that he did. Hall intended to hide the fact that Britain had cracked Germany’s in order to prevent them from changing their cipher. He also came up with a plan to make it seem as if the information had leaked from Mexico so that Britain was not suspected of intercepting the message. Even so, deliberately keeping important information from the US was unethical.

The Zimmermann telegram brings up an incredibly controversial and open-ended debate: can it be justified that the lives of a few be deliberately risked to save the lives of more? The Zimmermann telegram was specifically about unrestricted use of German U-Boats and US involvement in the war, but it ties into overarching themes of wartime sacrifice and the value of truth within government and military. I believe that such sensitive information should be shared as soon as possible with all of those who may be affected by it. Granted, if it had not been for the ingenuity of Britain’s Room 40, Admiral Hall would not even have access to the information which he withheld from the United States. In the end, though, he did have access to this information and knowingly and unethically withheld it from the United States.


The Wartime Gray Zone – Ethics and the Zimmerman Telegram


The Road Less Traveled By


  1. Ross

    You raise a good point that the US had a right to know about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram because it directly affected them, but if withholding that information ultimately helped the Allies win the war and Admiral Hall was doing it for the greater good of the Allies, wouldn’t that justify his actions and therefore make his actions ethical?

  2. naiksj

    Strutte does pose a good argument on the ethics behind withholding information of Wilson however this is like arguing for the use of the atomic bomb. It is a matter of saving the lives of many or the lives of few. The greater good of the world was put in advance of the lives sacrificed to get there. By withholding information from the states the Germans did not discover that their code had been broken and the Brits could continue decoding messages. Also, if the Brits had informed Wilson of the breakthrough and attack than Wilson probably would have proposed a treaty instead of backing the allies. Withholding gave the allies an edge over the axies that allowed the allies to anticipate attacks.

    This same situation occurred after the enigma was cracked. Turing had to decide whether or not to use the information to stop the sinking of ships or withhold it to save lives later on down the line. They devised a method where planes would be the source of conceived involvement in telling where the U-Boats were making it appear that the enigma was left untouched.

    Morality during war is a delicate subject that has a fine line between acceptable and atrocious actions. When debating one must take into account the human lives at stake and how it affected the outcome of life after the deed was finished. In the case of the Zimmerman note the British actions were just in that it saved more lives.

  3. Thomas Ditsworth

    One interesting point the author brings up is that if Britian had not cracked the code, the U.S. still never would’ve been in a position to stop the attacks. While this is important to note, I still agree with the author’s overall sentiment that they should’ve shared the information. Just because they discovered this information does not give them the authority to be the sole parties to act on it, especially when so many lives are at stake. That being said, another potential counterpoint in favor of withholding this information is that his actions ultimately saved more lives through the entirety of the war. While this is true, in the context of the time period, there is no way that Admiral Hall knew for certain that his plan would work and it wouldn’t be known that the British had broken the encryption. If the Germans somehow found out then he would’ve been responsible for all those lives. It would hve been far more responsible to clue the Americans in and allow all of them to determine a course of action that would protect the secret while also preventing the lose of life.

  4. Nathan Chang

    I really liked the point about how this particular situation ties into wartime sacrifice and value of truth. It’s interesting to know when and where certain militaries decide to cut their losses and whether or not they’re willing to take one for the team or let their allies suffer. This reminds me of the trolley problem, where one is forced to chose between letting one person die or many other people die; either one or two civilian boats go down, or an entire country gets taken down. If you think of the situation within the scope of this problem, the loss of one person is far more devastating than the loss of multiple people. The loss of a few civilian ships can’t even compare to the destruction of a country. As such, I believe Admiral Hall’s final decision had some merit to it.

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