On This Day

moscow washington hot line, cold war hot line
Teletype operators on the Washington side of the hot line.

On This Day: Communications “Hot Line” Opens Between Soviet and American Heads of State

August 30, 2011 06:00 AM
by James Sullivan
On Aug. 30, 1963, a direct line of communication between Washington and Moscow—dubbed the “Hot Line”—became operational. The hot line was established after previous methods of communication were found to be dangerously cumbersome. 

Cuban Crisis Underscores Need for Better Communication

The United States was aware that its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, had for some time been shipping defensive arms to communist Cuba, located just 90 miles from the Florida coast. It was not until October 1962, however, that U.S. spy planes discovered that the Soviets were constructing nuclear missile bases there. What followed this revelation were two tense weeks of political drama that brought the world’s nuclear superpowers to the edge of war.

The crisis was ultimately resolved through diplomacy, but the communication between President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev during this period was done through intermediaries, which caused delays and led to misunderstandings. With nuclear war on the line, the importance of a direct channel for communication was obvious, and the Soviets readily agreed to President Kennedy’s suggestion to create the hot line.

The first iteration of the hot line was text-only. Messages could be sent to Moscow from a Teletype transmitter located in the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. The backbone of the hot line was a 10,000-mile duplex telegraph circuit running from Washington to London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Moscow. Encrypted messages would be sent along this pathway to a Teletype machine in the Kremlin, near Khrushchev’s office.

According to The New York Times, the first message dispatched by Washington was the panagram, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.” The first message received from Moscow “was completely unintelligible to the United States operators but at least showed that all the characters on the Teletype were working correctly.”

Use of the Hot Line

The hot line was first used in 1967 during the Six Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, to clarify the intentions of fleet movements in the Mediterranean that could have been interpreted as hostile. Richard Nixon used the hotline during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, and again during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Although the hot line had limited application in real politics, its concept was eagerly adopted by writers of fiction. Instead of mundane Teletype machines being manned by trained operators in the Pentagon and the Kremlin, Hollywood often depicted the “Red Phone” as a direct phone line between the Oval Office and the office of the Premier.

The hot line has appeared in the series “24,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” the 1964 film “Fail-Safe” and even the “Dilbert” comic strip. TVTropes.com offers some examples of accurate use of the hot line in media to contrast the usual misrepresentations. In the Tom Clancy novel “The Sum of All Fears” the hot line is depicted in its correct all text format. It even shows operators conducting routine tests of the system using poetry.

Despite the infrequency with which the hot line is used, and the improved relationship between Russia and the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the hot line remains up and running. CNN reports that former CIA director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates believes the hot line will remain an important tool for “as long as these two sides have submarines roaming the oceans and missiles pointed at each other.”

Key Player: Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear brinksmanship in Cuba set the foundation for the hot line’s creation. Khrushchev became Chief Director of the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin. He was replaced in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev and lived under the watchful eye of the KGB during the final years of his life.

He is best remembered for his 1961 approval of plans proposed by East German leader Walter Ulbricht to build the Berlin Wall, thereby reinforcing the Cold War division of Germany, and of Eastern Europe.

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