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Happy Anniversary to the Hotline That Kept the Cold War from Going Nuclear

The 'red phone' wasn't really a phone at all.

by Michael Byrne
Aug 30 2015, 11:00am

Image: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

The Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link, the legendary transglobal hotline intended to ensure that a Cold War nuclear holocaust would never be the result of a communications fuck-up, didn't involve red telephones or even telephones at all. It was a teletype system—a telegraph—until 1988, when the Soviet and American leadership agreed to upgrade the system to fax machines. In 2007, the link became a dedicated pipeline for email and instant messaging.

We're talking about this today because it's the anniversary of the system's 1963 inauguration. Every August 30 (and on New Years Day), operators at either end of the system celebrate by exchanging greetings rather than the literary passages otherwise employed hourly to test Moscow-Washington link.

Image: Dr. Strangelove still

Red Alert

Curiously, the hotline began not as some Pentagon secret, but as the result of a popular outcry. In 1958, Peter George published a novel called Red Alert, which would become source material for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Not long after, the editor of Parade magazine published an open letter demanding the installation of a direct, immediate communications link between Moscow and Washington DC, concluding with, "Must a world be lost for want of a telephone call?"

Despite an deluge of reader letters in support of the link, the idea collected dust until the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the doomsday potential of miscommunication almost became very real.

"Messages between Kennedy and Khrushchev took more than six hours to deliver through regular diplomatic channels, so both Governments resorted to public statements as the fastest way to communicate," a 1988 New York Times article describing the system explained. "The Soviet Union went so far as to have one of its embassy counselors, Aleksandr Fomin, a K.G.B. officer, give the ABC-TV correspondent John Scali several messages to convey to the White House."

At one crucial point, it took the US 12 hours to respond to Nikita Khrushchev's 3,000 word initial settlement pitch. By the time it was delivered, the Soviet Union, assuming it had been snubbed,rescinded its original offer, now demanding in tougher terms the removal of US missiles from Turkey. The US managed to diffuse the situation by just pretending it never saw the second communication.

In June of 1963, with the risk in clear view, the two nations signed the Hot Line Agreement.

Image: cryptomuseum.com

Redundancies

From Washington to London, the link followed the Transatlantic No. 1 line, the first submarine transatlantic cable system, which was by then only a few years old. Underneath London, the line connected to its Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Moscow segment within a giant complex of tunnels and bunkers used to protect the UK's telephone exchanges in the event of a nuclear war.

While the line was well-protected under London, it proved to be quite vulnerable as it continued on to Moscow. "This cable connection was for the political communications, but appeared not fully fail safe," the Electrospaces Top Level Communications blog notes. "The cable was accidentally cut several times, for example near Copenhagen by a Danish bulldozer operator and by a Finnish farmer who plowed it up once." The line's hourly testing protocol was hardly frivolous.

In addition to the cable, the line had a back-up radio link, which connected Washington to Moscow via Morocco. Messages were encrypted via a bulletproof one-time pad system, in which encodings were generated randomly and passed back and forth between the two countries via their embassies. To avoid misinterpretation and-or hot-headed overreaction on the part of either country's leadership, messages have always been text-based rather than speech-based. They're sent in each country's native languages and are decoded and then translated meticulously on either end.

But first, the two nations had to exchange equipment. From Electrospaces:

On July 13, 1963, only a month after signing the agreement, the United States sent four sets of teleprinters with Latin alphabet to Moscow for their terminal. This was done via US ambassador Averell Harriman's plane. Another month later, on August 20, the Soviet equipment, four sets of teleprinters with Cyrillic alphabet, arrived in Washington. The cipher machines for encrypting the Hot Line messages came from Norway. According to the agreement, all these machines should be accompanied by a one years supply of spare parts and all the necessary special tools, test equipment, operating instructions and other technical literature.

Image: flightjournal.com

The warm line

So, did it make any difference? Based on information culled from presidential memoirs, the link was used many times through the 70s and 80s: the Indo-Pakistani War, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Turkey's 1979 invasion of Cyprus, and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, as well as several events during the Reagan administration and certainly many more that remain classified.

One 1967 episode was especially sketchy, during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. "The very first official message ever transmitted was received in Washington on June 5," the Times notes. "Just before 8 A.M., President Johnson recalled in his memoirs, The Vantage Point, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called him in his White House bedroom and announced: 'Mr. President, the hot line is up.'"

Following an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Arab countries, the Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin told Johnson that his country's forces would stay out of the pending conflict if the United States would agree to do the same. The deal was struck and, presumably, very bad things were avoided.

In the late 80s, the Soviet Union and the United States took the hotline concept further, each establishing a Nuclear Risk Reduction Center. These centers offer a continuous 24 hour channel, dubbed the "warm line," for low-level diplomatic communications regarding non-crisis arms control matters. The US NRRC still exists and connects to numerous foreign powers, both unilaterally and bilaterally, and deals with 15 different nuclear, chemical, and conventional arms control treaties and security-building agreements, according to the US State Department.

It's a curious and hopeful thought that the thing that may well have kept us from the brink of complete and total annihilation was just better communication. After all, better (and better) communication is what the whole world is premised on now, right?