There Never Was Such a Thing as a Red Phone in the White House | History | Smithsonian
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A scene from 1964's Dr. Strangelove(Courtesy Everett Collection)

There Never Was Such a Thing as a Red Phone in the White House

Fifty years ago, still spooked by the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. and Soviet Union built a hotline. But it wasn’t a phone

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Apart from avoiding worldwide destruction, there was one other silver lining to the Cuban Missile Crisis: it persuaded the two nuclear superpowers that they had to find a better way to communicate.

Even though the idea of a proscribed diplomatic communication system had been discussed in the past, especially in the years since Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, it took the Crisis itself to bring the idea to fruition. The United States and the Soviet Union were both inspired to reduce the risk of another confrontation; picking up a phone seemed like a good idea. Such technology was not available, however. The best that could be done was the installation of two terminal points with teletype equipment, a full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit and a full-time radiotelegraph circuit. To allow for this system, Soviet and American negotiators produced a memorandum, “Regard the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link.”

“For use in time of emergency the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have agreed to establish as soon as technically feasible a direct communications link between the two Governments,” the “Memorandum of Understanding” opens. The two nations signed it 50 years ago this month, on June 20, 1963.

The use of the word “direct” in the memo’s title was a bit misleading; there was no red phone involved. Messages sent to the Soviet Union on the wire telegraph circuit were routed on a 10,000-mile-long transatlantic cable from Washington to London to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Helsinki and finally to Moscow.

Still, it was a start. Soon after the agreement, four American-made teletype machines were flown to Moscow and installed in the Kremlin. An equal number of machines manufactured in East Germany were shipped to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. They were delivered not to the White House but to the Pentagon, which has remained home to the “hotline” ever since. The two sides also exchanged encoding devices so that the Americans could translate received messages into English and the Soviets could translate messages into Russian on their end.

The “hotline” became operational on August 30, 1963, and the very first message sent was not exactly Samuel Morse’s dramatic first telegram, “What hath God wrought.” Washington sent to Moscow, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890,” a message more practical in nature because it used every letter in the English alphabet and all the Arabic numerals, a test of the system’s accuracy.

According to a New York Times account published the following day, “Back from Moscow came a similar test message in Russian, which was completely unintelligible to the United States operators.” Obviously, a few kinks had to be worked out. At least having to run out to the nearest hardware store wouldn’t be one of them: “The two countries also exchanged a year’s supply of spare parts, special tools, operating instructions and telecommunication tape.”

The myth of the red phone hotline, that the president could call the Kremlin whenever it suited him, came from a wide-range of pop culture sources. A duo of movies from 1964 lent immediate post-Crisis credence to the visual of a phone. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb features a memorable scene of Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley warning Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov about the pending arrival of American bombers. In Fail-Safe, a film with a similar plot, Henry Fonda’s nameless President delivered equally horrific news by phone (called a red phone, despite the movie being in black-and-white.) The most well-known television portrayal of a hotline system was the red “bat phone” in the “Batman” series of the late 1960s. It was also an object of humor in the show “Get Smart.” In one episode in “The West Wing,” Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet mentions that the “red phone hotline” was canned before he took office.

Hollywood hasn’t always gotten it wrong, however. The 2000 film Thirteen Days accurately portrayed the garbled and agonizingly slow pace of transmission during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so slow it almost forced Kennedy to go to war. During that stressful endurance test, it could take up to 12 hours for a message to travel between Moscow and Washington, and the messages themselves between Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were judged to not be completely reliable.

The “red phone” became part of the presidential campaign of 1984—not once, but twice. To raise doubts in voters’ minds of the readiness of Sen. Gary Hart to be chief executive, Walter Mondale’s campaign ran a commercial stating, “The most awesome, powerful responsibility in the world lies in the hand that picks up this phone.”

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