The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Ethics vs. Strategy

The Zimmerman Telegram was a telegram from Germany to Mexico containing crucial war information about The Great War. It included the Germans’ plans for unrestricted submarine warfare, as well as a proposal asking Mexico to ally with the Germans and invade the US. The Germans had hoped to attack the US on three fronts: Mexico from the South, Japan from the West, and Germany from the East.

However, this telegram was intercepted and decrypted by the British, led by Admiral Sir William Hall. Upon reading the telegram, rather than warning the Americans about the U-Boat warfare that was about to ensue, he decided to keep the telegram a secret. He did this because he knew that if America publicly condemned Germany’s acts of aggression, the Germans would know that their encryption system had been compromised, and strengthen it. Admiral Hall was thinking long-term; he knew that the Germans could not win the war.

While Admiral Hall’s decision may not have been completely ethical, I do believe it was the right decision to make. Yes, American lives were compromised due to the unrestricted submarine warfare, but if the Germans had changed their encryption the Allies may not have won the war. In wartime, it’s imperative that the most strategic decisions are made. In eventually using the stolen telegram from Mexico to convince America to enter the war, I believe Hall found a happy medium between handing over the telegram and keeping it a secret. Many times, secrets are necessary if kept for the greater good.


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  1. Ben

    I like how you pointed out that Allies may not have won the war if Hall told America. This would have caused Germany to create a stronger encryption system which could have costed the allies the war in the long run. But I do think that this decision by hall was unethical. It costed American lives that could have been saved if this information was shared.

  2. Ethan Barr

    The point brought up about whether the decision was right or ethical is very intriguing and brings this idea of morality into a new light for me. What is right may not be ethical and what is ethical may not be right. Sometimes those things do not matter, and all that matters is how the decision will effect the overall outcome. Although the decision Admiral Hall made was seen as unethical, he made the decision for ethical reasoning and found that happy medium, as talked about in the post, that saved a lot of people in the end. Maybe in the heat of the moment it could have been seen as unethical, but looking back on the outcome, I feel like it can be seen as an ethical decision because it was the right decision. What is more important at the end of the day, what is right in the heat of battle or what is seen as ethical?

  3. Logan Kyle

    Was what Hall did ethical? I personally think that what is ethical and what is right are two different things. What some people see as ethical and correct might be unethical and wrong to others. I think what Hall did was ethically correct and helped Americans in the long run but it also came at the cost of American lives. This is were it gets into perspective and peoples personal beliefs of what right and wrong are. I believe he made the right choice and that his head was in the right place. At the end of the day it comes down to what do you feel is the most important in those super intense moments and what do you see as correct and right, not whether or not the decision your making is ethical.

  4. Thomas Riker

    I agree with the author here. What Hall did may or may not have been ethical, but it was appropriate and was necessary during the wartime. While this did endanger American lives, it definitely saved more lives generally. Furthermore, if Hall had let Americans know about the decryption, then the Germans would know their cipher was broken, and then they would create a second one, maybe even a stronger one that would help the germans overall in the war. So, by keeping the decryption a secret, as the author points out, might have changed the tide of the war. This very well could have allowed the germans to win the war, so in the spirit of saving thousands of lives, what Hall did was ethical.

  5. Jeremy Tetenman

    I agree with the point that is was the right decision. Sometimes you have to use your own judgement and think about what is for the greater good, and sometimes you’re wrong, but you still need to believe in your gut. Luckily it ended up being right in this situation. However, I do have a problem with not sharing it because they were allies. During wartime, one of the most important things is open communication between allies, and it could’ve ended up catastrophic for something that the British could’ve avoided. Overall, it was risky but it ended up paying off, so I do agree with the author of this post.

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