It’s not very often that a phone line is installed for the express purpose of saving the entire human race, but that’s mission profile implied by the Washington-Moscow Hotline, which was put into action 45 years ago this week. Known also as The Red Phone, the Hotline connects the President of the United States directly with the Premier of the Soviet Union so that the two can, hopefully, resolve any disputes that might otherwise devolve into a global nuclear holocaust.

The Red Phone was created by the laboriously titled “Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line,” which was ratified on June 20, 1963 by both the United States and the Soviet Union. That memo was one of the many political aftershocks from the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw Americans and the Soviets nearly reach the nuke-launching point, in part because President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev could not reasonably exchange messages. And by reasonably, we mean it took several hours to deliver and translate communications between what were then the two most powerful political leaders on Earth.

Under those conditions, one side would still be translating an initial message by the time an abrogating follow-up was already received. The Red Phone was designed to solve the technical aspect of that problem.

The Hotline was first put to the test during the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967. While neither the United States nor the Soviets were direct combatants in the conflict, both superpowers moved naval forces — specifically, the US 6th Fleet and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet — into the region as a contingency. The Red Phone allowed both sides to keep each apprised of each other’s movements and motivations, preventing an inadvertent sparking of U.S.-Soviet hostilities.

Since then, popular culture has often dramatized these scenes — or allegories to them — with images of a stern President and a stoic Premier holding direct conversations over a literal red telephone handset. There’s just one problem with these notions — the original Washington-Moscow Hotline wasn’t actually a telephone connection, as it used a very different method of communication.


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What was the method of communication originally employed by the Washington-Moscow Hotline, a historically significant telecommunications link between the United States President and Soviet Premier that — while called The Red Phone — wasn’t originally a telephone link at all?

The original Red Phone was actually a telegraph circuit, which allowed telegram communications between the American and Soviet heads of state. In fact, the original Memorandum of Understanding that created The Red Phone explicitly required that it be a telegraph circuit, so as not to allow voice communications. The rationale behind this technical decision was that direct voice communications — which were likely to be handled through translators — could be become unnecessarily complex or confrontational, which would defeat the purpose of the Hotline as a tool to avoid dangerous misunderstandings.

Instead, the President and the Premier would dictate their statements to each other and those transcriptions would be teletyped to the other party — at a rate of about three minutes per page — whereupon native translators would pore over the document and interpret it. While not as fast as technically possible, this method was still vastly superior to the pre-Hotline modes of communication available between the United States and the USSR.

Moreover, despite the aforementioned Hollywood predictions, the Hotline never ran directly between the White House and the Kremlin. The American end is housed at the Pentagon, where the military — usually through the Secretary of Defense — relays communications to the President.

The Red Phone was in operation for eight years before an actual phone ever became part of the equation. In 1971, the original duplex telegraph lines were augmented by a satellite link between pairs of U.S. Intelsat and Soviet Molniya II satellites, and an honest to goodness voice phone was installed. The system was upgraded again in 1986 to employ more modern satellites and to swap out the old teletype link with a then cutting-edge fax connection, which is still in operation.

Despite the easing of Cold War tensions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Hotline is still tested every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Russian and American translators send playful test messages back and forth to keep their skills sharp, with a repertoire that includes everything from recipes to magazine articles to obscure literary passages. These games are a lighthearted tradition for a system that — despite its age — still holds a critical place in diplomatic relations, national defense and, of course, Geek Trivia.

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