The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Room 40

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.

All is Fair in Love and War

In The Code Book, Simon Singh details the codebreaking successes of the British military during World War I–successes that often needed to be kept secret and prevented the spread of some important, yet sensitive information during the war. One such piece of critical information was the Zimmerman telegram. While some may think it completely unethical of Admiral Hall to withhold the information gathered after cracking the Zimmerman telegram from American intelligence, it was simply a fact of wartime priorities. The British were the ones embroiled in war, which is a time when a nation looks out for their own interest over the those of other nations (especially the United States, which was not active in the war at this time). Additionally, while America would surely suffer from the impending unrestricted u-boat warfare and lives would be lost from torpedo attacks, there are many reasons why Admiral Hall’s actions to allow these attacks to happen would also save lives in the long run. First, the information gathered by Britain’s Room 40 was crucial in British victories and undoubtedly saved the lives of many British soldiers and civilians. Also, Admiral Hall hoped these attacks would implicate America in the conflict in such a way that necessitated their entrance into the war, a policy chance that would hopefully help the Allies to win the war sooner and thus save more lives in the long run. Therefore, the lines drawn in this instance of ethical dilemma are not black and white, as is usually the case in times of war.

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