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

A scene from 1964's Dr. Strangelove(Courtesy Everett Collection)

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Later that year, as the Democratic nominee, Mondale and his team made a sly allusion to Ronald Reagan being in his 70s by featuring the fictional device ringing (and glowing) repeatedly while a narrator intones, “There will be no time to wake a president—computers will take control.” A member of Mondale’s advertising team, Roy Spence, revived the red phone tactic in an ad for Hillary Clinton during her primary battle with then-Senator Barack Obama. As with Mondale’s efforts, this one wasn’t enough either.


In the three months between the implementation of the hotline and his assassination, President Kennedy never had the occasion to use it, so it was Lyndon Johnson who became the first president to use the hot line to call Moscow in 1967. During the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Johnson messaged Soviet president Alexei Kosygin to let him know that U.S. Air Force were being sent to the Mediterranean Sea, warding off any unnecessary tension with the Soviet fleet in the Black Sea.

In September 1971, a satellite communication line was added to complement the main telegraph line, just three months before the outbreak of the war between India and Pakistan that forced President Richard Nixon to contact his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev. World events brought Nixon back on the hotline twice more, first during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and then again in July of the following year when Turkey invaded Cyprus.

Reagan seemed to have a special interest in the hotline. In 1983, he initiated negotiations that resulted in upgrades to the system that included high-speed fax capability; the ’60s-era teletype circuits were discontinued five years later. President Jimmy Carter had used the system just once, in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, but Reagan used it several times to discuss events in Lebanon and unrest in Poland.

The end of the Cold War did not mean the end to the hotline, nor did the technological advancements that came with the Internet age. Willie Stephens, division chief in the Pentagon department that oversees the hotline, says that the “goal of the modernization program has never been to be at the bleeding edge of the technology, but to provide a permanent, rapid, reliable and private means by which the heads of the governments of the United States and Russian Federation may communicate directly.”

A new, fiber optic-enabled system became operational on January 1, 2008, including software for both talking and sending email messages, with a transmission taking only moments. Also that year, the previous hotline agreements were consolidated into a single “Secure Communications System Agreement,” signed by Russia and the U.S. As part of that agreement, operators of the hotline on both sides test the system every hour of every day to ensure it is always good to go.

But there may soon come a time when the hotline may not be necessary. During a 2010 joint press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, President Obama joked that Twitter had replaced the hotline, “We may be able to finally throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long.”


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