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
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.”
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.”