The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

The Wartime Gray Zone – Ethics and the Zimmerman Telegram

British Admiral William Hall ultimately made the decision to keep the United States in the dark about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram, but was it ethical? I think the answer depends on whose perspective you view it from.

From the perspective of Great Britain and their military efforts, it was the ethical (and right) thing to do. If Britain made the decrypted telegraph public, or even just gave it to the Americans, Germany would know that their encryption had been cracked, and Britain would immediately lose the cryptographic advantage that they had just gained. Since America was not officially in the war, and was neutral, Britain had no real loyalty to warn President Wilson. Furthermore, the unrestricted submarine warfare would start whether the Americans knew about it beforehand or not, and the British had not completely finished deciphering the message before that date came and went.

From a more global perspective of humanity, it was not an ethical decision. Admiral Hall had the opportunity to warn the United States about attacks that might harm or kill Americans, but he did not. His motives were also partly selfish for Britain, wanting American to join the war and the Allies, giving them a much-needed boost on the European front. In my opinion, a military alliance where countries don’t share intelligence about possible attacks against their allies is not a good relationship and is an unethical way to conduct such a “friendship.”

Ethics in the midst of a war are never black and white, and the Zimmerman telegram is no exception. Admiral Hall made a strategic and ethically arguable decision in keeping the telegram from the Americans, but William the human made an unethical decision in choosing to not potentially save the lives of innocent people.


Übermensch and Unterseeboots


Great or Good: Ethics and the Zimmermann Telegram


  1. Parker

    I thought you brought up a good point that ethics depends on the perspective of the person deciding whether it is ethical or not. I agree with your breakdown on the value of an alliance and the unspoken ethics behind such a relationship.
    However, would your argument change if Britain did have a “real loyalty” to America? I mean some would argue that they did due to their historical relationship. Just a thought.

  2. browkm10

    I think you raise a very fair point that it depends on the perspective of which side it is looked at from. My opinion and viewpoint changes as the side that I look at it from. I agree that in this case, ethics in war aren’t always black and white, but I do think that there are certain cases where there is no gray areas on whether or not it is ethically correct or not. For example, during the civil war in Rwanda which was a genocide and complete murder of the Tutsi by the Hutus, many countries and the UN were completely aware of what was going on. Even still many did not take immediate action and instead watched while many people where brutally murdered. There is no gray area there, it was a war and the both the French and the Dutch were loosely involved. While that doesn’t relate much to cryptography, I think that the statement that “Ethics in the midst of a war are never black and white” is refutable. I also think that most countries kinda have to been selfish in their own way in order to keep their own nations interests in mind. I think countries doing this is unethical on a whole because it can lead to undermining the wellbeing of other humans. I think that Admiral Hall could have approached the situation differently in order to be more aware of the friendship that Britain was supposed to have with America. While I am not a war expert, I feel like there could have been ways for Britain to notify the USA without the Germans knowing that they were the ones to crack their code.

  3. Angie Brinckerhoff

    I thought your point that not sharing intelligence with those you wish to be allied with is not representative of a fair and good alliance was very interesting. I had not thought of Britain’s actions under that light before, and it certainly makes the decision of Admiral Hall look like a selfish one. It makes the alliance feel like it was started on an unstable foundation.
    In regards to the paragraph about the global perspective of humanity, I’d like to argue that, in some ways, from that perspective, the decision to keep the Zimmerman Telegram a secret could be considered ethical. By not sharing that they had the ability to crack Germany’s codes, Britain prevented Germany from creating an even stronger code, which, most likely, saved more lives than were lost because of unrestricted U-boat warfare.

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