The U.S. President’s ‘Big Red Phone’ to Moscow
In the world of cinematic thrillers, the iconic scene of a Cold War disaster often involves the President of the United States desperately reaching for a bright red telephone receiver on his desk. Amidst the chaos of bomber planes circling overhead and missile silos opening, this dramatic moment represents a last resort—a final chance to avert nuclear disaster. On the other end of that call is Moscow, home to the Soviet Premier, holding the possibility of salvation from the brink of Armageddon. But how plausible is this scenario? Could the President truly call a special line and engage in a direct conversation with the Kremlin? Let’s embark on a journey to uncover the reality behind this cinematic myth.
From the earliest days of the Cold War, there was a persistent desire among many individuals and officials to establish a direct communication link between the United States and the Soviet Union. Figures such as defense advisor and Harvard professor Thomas Schelling, Gerard C. Smith, head of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and even the Soviet government in 1958 were proponents of such a channel. Parade magazine editor Jessica Gorkin went as far as to pester Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the subject. However, not everyone in the military and government was on board with the idea of a hotline. Some feared that it might lead to too much understanding and cooperation with America’s archenemy.
The Crucial Cuban Missile Crisis
The necessity of an immediate communication channel between the two superpowers was underscored by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The shocking revelation that the Soviets had positioned medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba, capable of targeting the mainland United States, ignited a crisis that lasted from October 16th to the 29th. President John F. Kennedy responded swiftly by imposing a naval blockade on Cuba. The world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. Yet, amid this crisis, a single Soviet soldier aboard a submarine played a pivotal role, as highlighted in our film “The Man Who Saved the World.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, diplomatic communication between the United States and the Soviet Union was agonizingly slow, taking up to twelve hours for a single message to traverse the vast divide. Diplomatic messages had to rely on commercial telegram systems, and the consequences of this sluggishness were evident. For instance, it took so long for Washington to formulate a response to one Soviet telegram that by the time they were ready to reply, a more belligerent message had already arrived. In a bid to avoid further delays, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev chose to broadcast his message on Radio Moscow, heightening the tension. Ultimately, the crisis was resolved through an agreement: the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets would withdraw theirs from Cuba.
In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union recognized the urgent need for a direct communication link to prevent a similar standoff in the future. Thus, the “Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line” was drafted and signed in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 20, 1963. In August of the same year, the hotline, officially known as the “Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link,” commenced its operation. Contrary to popular depictions in novels and films, the hotline was never a red phone on the President’s desk. Instead, its original configuration featured four text-based Teletype machines and was located at the Pentagon, across the Potomac River from the White House.
Text messages were exchanged in English from Washington and in Russian from Moscow to minimize the risk of miscommunication. The receiving end would translate the messages to ensure accuracy since text messages were easier to encrypt and less prone to misinterpretation than spoken words. To enhance security, a one-time pad scheme was employed for message encryption, with a distinct cipher key used for each communication. These cipher keys were sent via diplomatic pouch to each country’s embassies.
The hotline relied on the 1956 laying of TAT-1, the first transatlantic telephone cable, which connected Washington to London. From there, signals were redirected to Moscow via Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Helsinki. To add an extra layer of security, a parallel network was established, using radio transmissions, connecting Washington and Moscow through Tangier, Morocco.
To ensure the reliability of the hotline, rigorous testing was conducted. Teams of eight were on duty at the Pentagon system around the clock, with a commissioned officer proficient in Russian serving as the main interpreter. The testing involved hourly exchanges of messages, with Washington sending communications on even hours and Moscow on odd hours. Initially, the messages were relatively ordinary, with the first test message reading, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890,” sent from Washington to Moscow on August 30, 1963. However, the response from Moscow was so garbled that adjustments had to be made to the Soviet equipment. Subsequently, the testing took on a playful tone, with both sides exchanging cryptic messages, including excerpts from literary works by Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare. However, these messages underwent thorough screening to avoid any culturally sensitive or potentially misunderstood content.
Overcoming Technical Hurdles
Despite its significance, the hotline faced technical challenges. The transatlantic cable was inadvertently severed multiple times, once by a Finnish farmer plowing his field and once by a Danish bulldozer operator. Yet, the continuous testing and maintenance efforts proved essential.
The hotline saw its first significant use in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, when President Lyndon B. Johnson utilized it to communicate with Moscow. Subsequent critical moments in history, such as the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, saw the hotline in action. President Ronald Reagan employed it during tumultuous events like the Lebanese Civil War, Poland’s fight for independence, and the arrest of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff on espionage charges in 1986. Most recently, President Barack Obama used the hotline to caution Russian President Vladimir Putin against meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Over the years, the hotline underwent several upgrades, although it did not always keep pace with the latest technological advancements. William Stephens, the current head of the hotline at the Pentagon, maintains that this intentional lag in technological updates is a deliberate choice. The hotline’s design was created to ensure that the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union would never engage in direct conversations. Instead, all communications were routed through multiple tiers of diplomatic staff to prevent the potential escalation of tensions driven by ego and emotions.
The hotline, often depicted in popular culture as a dramatic red phone on the President’s desk, is a testament to the real-world efforts to avert catastrophe during the height of the Cold War. While the hotline may not have been the Hollywood version, it served as a vital lifeline of communication, allowing leaders to exchange critical messages and prevent misunderstandings that could lead to disaster. Today, the hotline continues to exist, albeit with technological updates, as a reminder of the importance of clear and direct communication in times of international crisis.