Did the U.S. President Ever Actually Have a ‘Big Red Phone’ Connected Directly to Moscow?

It is a staple of many a Cold War thriller: as bomber aircraft scramble in the air, missile silo doors slide open and the superpowers hurtle towards all-out nuclear war, the U.S. President reaches for an object of last resort: the bright red telephone receiver on his desk. At the other end, the Soviet Premier in Moscow – and, perhaps, a final chance to pull the world back from the brink of Armageddon. But how realistic is this scenario? Could the President ever actually just pick up a dedicated phone and speak directly to the Kremlin?

Well, yes, sort of, though not quite as commonly depicted.

The need for a direct communications link between the U.S. and U.S.S.R was recognized very early in the Cold War, and was championed by voices as diverse as Harvard Professor and defence advisor Thomas Schelling; Gerard C. Smith, head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff; the Soviet Government itself in 1958; and Parade Magazine editor Jessica Gorkin, who on numerous occasions badgered Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and even Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the subject. However, various factions within the government and the military opposed the creation of a hotline on the grounds that it fostered too much cooperation and understanding with America’s sworn enemy. This sentiment was perhaps most clearly expressed by the 1964 Republican election platform, which compared the creation of the hotline to Britain’s policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s:

“This Administration has sought accommodations with Communism without adequate safeguards and compensating gains for freedom. It has alienated proven allies by opening a “hot line” first with a sworn enemy rather than with a proven friend, and in general pursued a risky path such as began at Munich a quarter century ago.”

In the end, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that would dramatically illustrate the urgent need for a direct communications link between the two governments. Lasting from the 16th to the 29th of October, the crisis was sparked by the discovery that the Soviets had deployed medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba, from where they could be launched against the mainland United States. U.S. President John F. Kennedy immediately ordered a naval blockade of the island, and the world tottered on the brink of nuclear war. In fact, if not for one Soviet man aboard one of their submarines, which we cover on our video “The Man Who Literally Saved the World”, it would have devolved to the point of no return.

During the crisis, diplomatic communications between the two countries relied on commercial telegram services and were painfully slow, with it taking up to 12 hours to receive, decode, interpret, and reply to a single message. So primitive was this system that Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, relied on a bicycle courier to carry his urgent messages to Moscow from the Soviet embassy to the closest Western Union office. This slow speed of communication contributed to the escalation in tensions, as in one case when Washington finished preparing a reply to one Soviet message only for another, more aggressive message to arrive. The situation got so bad that on October 27, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to broadcast his reply via Radio Moscow rather than wait for it to pass through diplomatic channels. But finally, after two tense weeks, the Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US removing its own missiles from Turkey.

Wishing to avoid a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and Soviet Union drew up the “Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line,” which was signed on June 20, 1963, in Geneva, Switzerland. The hotline, officially known as the “Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link,” officially commenced operation in August of that year. But unlike its popular depiction in countless books and films, the Washington-Moscow hotline was never a red phone on the President’s desk. In fact, the system was based not at the White House but across the Potomac at the Pentagon and initially consisted not of a telephone but four text-based Teletype machines. Text communication was considered easier to encrypt and less vulnerable to misinterpretation than spoken words, and to further reduce the risk of miscommunication messages were sent in English from Washington and in Russian with Moscow, with translation taking place at the receiving end so that nuance would be preserved. Messages were encrypted using the Norwegian-built Electronic Teleprinter Cryptographic Regenerative Repeater Mixer II or ETCRRM II, which used an unbreakable one-time pad system wherein a different cipher key was used for every message. The paper tapes containing the cipher keys were dispatched to each country’s embassies via the diplomatic bag. The system took advantage of a recent development in telecommunications technology: TAT-1, the first transatlantic telephone cable, which had been laid in 1956. TAT-1 carried messages from Washington to London, from where they were routed through Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki and finally to Moscow. For added redundancy, a secondary radio-based network was also established which relayed messages between Washington and Moscow via Tangier in Morocco.

At the Pentagon, the system was manned round-the-clock by teams working eight-hour shifts, headed by a commissioned officer fluent in Russian who acted as primary translator. The system was tested hourly by sending various check messages back and forth, with Washington sending messages on the even hours and Moscow on the odd hours. The first such message, sent from Washington to Moscow on August 30, 1963, was the rather mundane“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890,” which contains all the letters and numerals in the Latin alphabet. The reply from Moscow was reportedly unintelligible, requiring adjustments to be made to the Soviet machines. Ever since, both sides have turned the test process into something of a friendly game, challenging each other by sending increasingly-obscure messages including excerpts from Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Anton Chekov, and even cookbooks and first aid manuals. However, these messages are carefully screened to ensure they do not include cultural imagery or innuendo that could be misinterpreted. For example, passages from Winnie the Pooh are forbidden as bears are a common symbol of Russia. This constant testing proved its worth on numerous occasions, as the cable was accidentally severed several times – including once by a Danish bulldozer operator and once by a Finnish farmer ploughing his field.

Once a message was received, decrypted, and translated, the original Russian and translated messages would be transmitted either via Teletype – or, in an emergency, by telephone – to the White House Situation Room duty officer, who would then brief the President. Indeed, contrary to its popular depiction in fiction, the hotline was specifically designed so that the American and Soviet leaders would never speak directly. This was considered a stabilizing measure, as it required all messages to pass through several layers of diplomatic personnel before reaching either leader, preventing their personalities and emotions from escalating tensions.

President John F. Kennedy, who initiated the hotline’s creation, did not live to use it himself. Instead, the first U.S. President to use the hotline was Lyndon Johnson, who first used it to contact Moscow following Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Its next major use would come on June 5, 1967, at the outbreak of the Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. President Johnson used the hotline to assure Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin that U.S. forces were not involved in Israel’s surprise attack against its neighbours. The hotline would be used again by Richard Nixon during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus; and Ronald Reagan during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Lebanese Civil War, Poland’s fight for independence, and the Soviets’s arrest of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff on espionage charges in 1986. More recently, Barack Obama used the hotline to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin against interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Throughout its existence, the hotline has been upgraded several times, though these improvements have not always kept pace with the very latest in technology. According to William Stephens, the Pentagon Division Chief who currently oversees the hotline, this is deliberate, for:

“[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.”

The first such upgrade took place on September 30, 1971 when the transatlantic cable was replaced by two American Intelsat and two Russian Molniya II communications satellites. The system was further upgraded in 1978 with the addition of fax machines, which had completely supplanted the old Teletype machines by 1988. Finally, on January 1, 2008, the fax machines were replaced by a secure fibre-optic based email system, and it is in this form that the hotline continues to operate to this day.

So if the hotline was never a red phone on the President’s desk, why does this image still persist in the public’s imagination? Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of pop culture, especially books and films released prior to creation of the real hotline. Particularly influential was Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert, which formed the basis for the 1964 films Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove – both of which feature extensive scenes of the U.S. President and Soviet Premier speaking directly over the phone. Another possible influence is the 1966-68 Batman TV show, in which Commissioner Gordon contacts Batman and Robin using a glowing red phone. And the image of the “big red phone” is such a powerful one that the U.S. political establishment has long helped to perpetuate it. For example, a 1984 campaign ad for Democratic Presidential nominee Walter Mondale featured an image of a red telephone with the narration:

“The most awesome, powerful responsibility in the world lies in the hand that picks up this phone. The idea of an unsure, unsteady, untested hand is something to really think about. This is the issue of our times. On March 20, vote as if the future of the world is at stake.”

The Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia even features a dial-less red telephone receiver, whose label originally identified it as part of the Washington-Moscow Hotline. It was not until March 2016, after numerous visitors pointed out the error, that the label was finally changed.

But while the hotline has served the United States and Russia well for nearly 60 years, in our modern world of instant communication, the system is beginning to look like an outdated relic of the past. During a 2010 press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, President Obama even joked that Twitter had replaced the hotline and that:

“…we may be able to finally throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long.”

But many continue to insist that the old hotline still has vital diplomatic value, with former CIA director Robert Gates stating that the line should remain in use:

“…as long as these two sides have submarines roaming the oceans and missiles pointed at each other.”

In a 2020 article in the Journal of Global Security Studies, Eszter and Agnes Simon even argue that the hotline’s symbolic status as a tool of crisis management serves to make its users more conciliatory and more likely to deescalate any given situation, stating:

“…understanding the hotline as a swift communication tool offers an incomplete explanation of its use and contribution to crisis stability. After all, the superpowers’ mutual ability to communicate does not, in itself, guarantee that they will send each other vital information; nor does it explain why either party would believe information sent via the hotline… we argue that using the hotline can be interpreted as an attempt to change distrust-based role-taking to trust-based interaction, and the hotline is a shared symbol of trustor-trustee role-taking. By using this private channel of communication, leaders make use of the hotline’s function as a repository of trustworthiness and try to make trust the basis of their interactions.”

Thus, as archaic as it might seem, the venerable Washington-Moscow Hotline remains a vital tool in maintaining peaceful relations between the two countries. For, as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said:

“The greatest danger of war seems to me not to be in the deliberate actions of wicked men, but in the inability of harassed men to manage events that have run away with them.”

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Expand for References

Clavin, Tom, There Never Was Such a Thing as a Red Phone in the White House, Smithsonian Magazine, June 18, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/there-never-was-such-a-thing-as-a-red-phone-in-the-white-house-1129598/

Graham, Thomas & Lavera, Damien, Cornerstones of Security: Arms Control Treaties in the Nuclear Era, https://books.google.ca/books?id=mgHgRQMYu1YC&pg=PA20&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Republican Party Platform, July 13, 1964, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/republican-party-platform-1964

Kennedy, Bruce, The Birth of the Hot Line, CNN, https://web.archive.org/web/20080923200642/http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/10/spotlight/

Arkin, William; Dilanian, Ken & McFadden, Cynthia, What Obama Said to Putin on the Red Phone About the Election Hack, NBC News, December 19, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/what-obama-said-putin-red-phone-about-election-hack-n697116

The Red Phone That Was NOT on the Hotline, Electrospaces, August 30, 2013, https://www.electrospaces.net/2013/08/the-red-phone-that-was-not-on-hotline.html

Simon, Eszter & Simon, Agnes, Trusting Through the Moscow-Washington Hotline: A Role Theoretical Explanation of the Hotline’s Contribution to Crisis Stability, Journal of Global Security Studies, Volume 5, Issue 4, October 2020, https://academic.oup.com/jogss/article/5/4/658/5697355

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