Geek Trivia: A phone to pick with you

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?

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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