Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

The Morals of the Zimmerman Telegram Decipherment

  1. When the Zimmerman telegram was deciphered by the cryptanalysts of Britain’s Room 40, Admiral William Hall decided not to tell American President Woodrow Wilson about its contents because doing so might let the Germans know that Britain was capable of breaking their codes.  Given the danger posed to America by the unrestricted U-boat warfare indicated in the telegram, was this ethical of Admiral Hall?

I think that in a time of war, it is very hard to judge the hard decisions of people in power. In all wars, there will be casualties, and the hard fact of life is that in war the generals and people in charge need to minimize overall losses, not save every life. I think that overall the decision was ethical because strategically it had to be done. They chose not to tell President Wilson because they knew that the Germans were starting unrestricted submarine warfare and that the US would most likely join the war because of this. This was a calculated decision that paid off for the British in the end. Having the codes to someone else’s messages is extremely valuable, much more valuable to the British than having the US in the war a few weeks sooner. This was most definitely the strategic decision for the British. With these codes, they could be able to save countless more lives in the future by intercepting key attacks. Even with the case in World War II, the Allies had to let certain attacks happen that they knew were planned so that the Germans were not tipped off about the cracking of the Enigma. Although it is a very tough decision, I think that the British made the right decision in not telling the US about the Zimmerman Telegram.

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6 Comments

  1. Rishabh

    My grandpa, who worked in the Indian Foreign service, once told me that gratitude is an “unreliable sentiment” to build relations especially during war. It leaves one party in debt to the other which can only spell future exploitation. If the Americans had received the telegram, they would have been owing something to the British. The British could easily demand the Americans to join the war by saving the lives of those on the two ships. However, the sentiment of gratitude definitely is irrelevant when lives are lost and by withholding information, Britain was immoral in its actions. In times of crisis, the preservation of life should be a number one priority. While in the grand scheme of war, these deaths are just a few in millions, they could have been prevented by one simple choice. It is blood on Admiral Hall’s hands.

    • Derek Bruff

      That’s an interesting statement about gratitude. I’ve always thought that Hall’s actions were a poor way to treat an ally. I think it’s an example of how “unreliable” (to use your grandfather’s word) trust is during times of war.

  2. Lucas Schnee

    I agree that it was strategic to not tell President Woodrow Wilson about the contents of the Zimmerman telegram. In the long run, it allowed for Britain’s expert codebreakers and their abilities not to be revealed to Germany. The German U-boats were to attack enemy and neutral ships alike, hurting many civilians. The death of many American civilians and supply ships prompted Wilson to enter WW1. But, it was not ethical to knowingly let a smaller portion of people suffer and die knowing you could save them. In war, it is still morally wrong to save a secret and bring in more firepower against the enemy at the cost of lives. The weight of those lives and the suffering of their families are on the British and Admiral hall a result of their decision.

    • Derek Bruff

      These moral questions are always complicated. One could argue that the Germans were the ones ultimately responsible for those lost American lives. What moral weight do you put on someone who could prevent a loss of life but chooses not to act?

  3. Sebastian Garaycochea

    I agree that in war, we want to minimize the overall losses and shorten the war and that they acted only when the message was fully decrypted. However, by not telling the Americans right away, this meant that civilians and merchant ships were being targetted and this is unethical. It is even a potential war crime. By authorities waiting for unrestricted U-boat warfare to occur, they have let civilians die, which has been established as unethical combat during the war by the Geneva convention. Even though we’re trying to minimize overall losses, it is expected that military combatants will, unfortunately, lose their lives in war but there’s no excuse for letting civilians die or targetting civilians.

    • Derek Bruff

      You raise an important distinction here between loss of military lives and loss of civilian lives. Typically we are more willing to sacrifice military lives to save civilian lives, but that’s not the choice Hall made.

      That said, Hall did pick British lives over American lives, which is a hard choice, but protecting one’s countrymen is a choice many would find ethical.

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