During the darkest days of the Cold War, in moments of extreme tension when the fate of the world was at stake, the only thing that saved America from certain doom was the red telephone on the president’s desk. It was of a basic design, and it had no numbers. All he had to do was pick it up, and an identical phone would ring on the desk of the Premier of the Soviet Union in Moscow. They would speak directly and hammer out the problem before nuclear missiles reached the sky.
A chilling image, except that reality was never like this. Contrary to news reports, movies, and books of the era, there was no red phone on the president’s desk. There was a hotline between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but the leaders of the two countries never spoke directly on it. The language barrier, the time difference, and their busy schedules would have made that impossible, anyway. However people may have imagined the hotline, it did succeed in easing tensions between the two superpowers during the Cold War and kept small crises from turning into big ones.
The hotline was formally known as the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link. It went live on Aug. 30, 1963, just under a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation that brought the U.S. closer to the brink of nuclear war than any other time in history.
During the Cuban crisis, communications between Moscow and Washington were frightfully slow. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s first 3,000-word message took 12 hours to receive, decode, and translate. During that period, tensions rose significantly as American and Soviet warships began piling up in the Caribbean. While the U.S. was crafting a response, Khrushchev sent a second message that escalated the situation.
U.S. and Soviet military and civilian officials recognized that direct communications between the two nations needed to be improved. Khrushchev said after Cuba, “If we succeeded in finding a way out of a dangerous situation this time, next time we might not safely untie the tightly made knot.”
On June 20, 1963, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington.
The first message sent by the U.S. over the hotline was “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.” There was nothing cryptic or coded in this message. It was simply a sentence that contained every letter of the American alphabet along with every number key to test the keyboard. The Soviets sent back a Russian message describing a sunset.
The first hotline terminals were teletype machines connected via a 10,000-mile cable hookup. Messages were sent in their original language in code. On the American side, non-commissioned military personnel would sit over the machine in eight-hour shifts, supervised by a military officer fluent in Russian and fully briefed on the day’s worldwide developments. Terminals were originally stationed in the Pentagon, and later added to the State Department and the White House Situation Room. Again, contrary to myth, there has never been a hotline terminal in the Oval Office.
The hotline was tested hourly with literary passages from Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Chekhov, and encyclopedia entries. And every Aug. 30 a greetings message would be sent to honor the anniversary of the hotline.
The technology was upgraded in 1971 to take advantage of satellite linkups, and again in 1984 to include facsimile machines, which replaced the teletype technology that had been in use since the beginning.
The Cold War came to an end, and with it the Soviet Union in 1991, but Washington and Moscow elected to keep the hotline open and running. In 2007, it was upgraded to include email and chat, and now relies on a dedicated secure computer network carried via satellite and fiber optic cable.
The hotline has been used on several occasions. The first official message from the U.S. was a notification of John Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. The first Soviet use of the hotline was related to the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967. Other instances of direct communication between Washington and Moscow included the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and a few times during the Reagan administration.
The hotline allowed Washington and Moscow to more directly understand each other’s intentions during political crises. This was much better than relying on administration or outside experts, whose own agendas and biases could not always be separated from their analyses. It didn’t necessarily improve relations between the two countries, but it gave each side some insight that has made the world a little bit safer.