The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Admiral Hall

Hall’s Choice

Admiral Hall of Room 40 – Britain’s analog to the American Black Chamber – was faced with an impossible choice during World War I: immediately release information of the Zimmermann Note to the Americans and risk the Germans developing new, more secure ciphers, or holding on to the note until the perfect moment, potentially risking thousands of innocent Americans. While Hall’s final decision was morally duplicitous at best, it was certainly the more ethical of the two options, and one that, on net, saved more lives and brought about the end of World War I.

The choice to release the Zimmermann Note to the Americans was one of the most pivotal decisions made during the Great War. To fully comprehend the implications of Hall’s decision, we must analyze the logical end of both options he was presented with. First, we’ll consider the case where Hall releases the Note immediately. As history has proven, upon receiving the Zimmermann Note, American politicians almost unanimously motioned to go to war, Woodrow Wilson even reneging on his campaign promises and urging Congress to approve an official declaration of war. Of course, such a momentous decision would be heard the world over, documented by every major news source on the planet, especially in Germany; these stories would likely also detail the reason why the United States changed its mind: the Zimmermann Note. Following this, it would not take the German government very long to deduce that their encryption techniques had been broken, forcing them to engineer new ways to encipher their confidential information. By forcing German intelligence to upgrade in such a way, Great Britain would have been swamped with a sudden influx of cipher text that needed to be decoded, cipher texts that would demand resources to decipher. In this way, the British would be stuck playing intelligence catch-up, as the Germans would thus be able to their troops around freely without the Allies knowing. This would clearly lead to a colossal loss of life on the Allied side.

On the other hand, history has shown that Hall’s strategy ultimately paid off, and that the number of civilian ships sunk by the German’s aggressive UBoat campaign were few and far between. Therefore, in true utilitarian fashion, history will and must regard the choices of Admiral Hall as ethical insofar as they mitigated an excessive loss of life and expedited the end of the war.

Admiral Hall’s Decision

The action of Admiral Hall is unethical. When the Room 40 deciphered Zimmerman telegram, Admiral Hall got to know how important this information was and the greatness of deciphering enemy’s ciphertext. He got to know that Germany will begin his plan in two weeks, but he chose not to tell America immediately. However, when the allies wanted America to join the war, Admiral Hall had to tell America this information. Hall did not want to provide Zimmerman telegram to America, but he finally did, so why didn’t tell America earlier? Hall could evaluate the cause and effect or ask for the intention of America earlier. Admiral Hall made a decision that made no sense since his wish of not letting Germany know they has deciphered the text is disclosed finally. He used the hand of Mexicans to try to hide this information, but he could choose to do this as soon as he got the decipher text. Hall made a decision that may cause more problems. The Zimmerman telegram provided the information that the Germany will initiate the attack in two weeks, but to be prepared for the attack, America needs more time. Two weeks are short but still valuable, but Hall’s decision shorten this time and may cause more casualties. Thus, the decision of Admiral Hall is unethical.

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