Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Germany

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.

Great Mind Games, Britain

As discussed in the book, initially, the British were quiet and low-key when it came to the fact that they could decode Germany's messages during the first world war. But then, Winston Churchill and the British Royal Navy decided to let it be known that they knew how to break the codes all along. Upon learning that their codes could be broken, the Germans began to invest their smarts into the Enigma machine technology. So should the British just have stayed quiet about their decoding abilities? Personally, I say no.

By letting Germany know that they could decode their messages after the fact, I believe it could have made the British feel as if they established some type of superiority over Germany. Such as a taller person dangling an item over the head of a shorter person, knowing that the shorter individual cannot reach it. It's like a "Na-na-na-boo-boo," moment for the British. They were so proud of their achievement, of course they were not going to stay quiet about it for too long.

And even then, it is not as simple as to say that they were just proud. They knew that it would give Germany this kind of doomed feeling even though everything was revealed after the fact. Germany must have been so secure with themselves, so secure with their encrypting strategy only for them to find out that their messages could be decoding the entire time. It is like a punch in the gut, believing something of yours was great all along only to be proven that it is not really all that good. Maybe I am reading too deep into this, but I believe there could have been some type of psychological aspect to this, and if this was done just to play mind games with Germany, it was smart.

But then it led to the creating of the Enigma machine, which was maybe not particularly great, but great mind tricks, Britain.

Wartime Measures

It's important to take into account the circumstances of a situation. In times of war, different standards are often applied to domestic and foreign policy as countries are working in their best interests to defend their home front. In terms of the Zimmerman telegram, I think it was a strategic move for Britain to not reveal its contents to President Wilson. Had Britain not kept the information in the telegram a secret, Germany would have discovered that their communication system had been cracked. As a result, they would have come up with a stronger, more secure, method of encryption, making it much harder for the Allies to intercept their messages. In turn, it is possible that the Great War would have continued for much longer, and more lives would have been lost in the end.

Despite the United States claiming a policy of neutrality, it was obvious they were supporting the Allies. The British knew the Americans were on their side. Because of this unspoken alliance, I believe that if the United States were truly in a path of immense crisis presented by unrestricted U-boat warfare, the British would have notified President Wilson. Because the dangers presented weren't catastrophic, it was a good choice for the British to keep their knowledge to themselves.

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