Hotline: Linking Washington to Moscow Since 1963

A non-dial "Red Phone" which is on display in the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. This telephone is actually a prop, erroneously representing the hotline between Washington and Moscow. (Photo by Piotrus via Wikimedia Commons)
A non-dial “Red Phone” which is on display in the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. This telephone is actually a prop, erroneously representing the hotline between Washington and Moscow. (Photo by Piotrus via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1963, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to establish direct communication between Washington and Moscow.

Here are some things you may not have known about the hotline.

One inspiration for the hotline was the novel “Red Alert,” which dealt with a nuclear standoff between the two countries.

During the The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, messages between Washington and Moscow could take up to six hours to deliver via official channels. It was slightly quicker to use unofficial means, such as television news correspondents in each capital. The Soviets’ initial settlement message took 12 hours to receive and translate, leaving the Soviets with time to change their settlement offer. After the crisis, White House advisers suggested that faster communications could have eased the crisis sooner.

As a result, the two countries signed the Hot Line Agreement on June 20, 1963, the first measure by either country to reduce the risk of starting a nuclear war  unintentionally.

First, there’s a myth to bust. The hotline never involved a red telephone. As a matter of fact, the hotline has never used phone lines, or voice communication, for that matter. It also doesn’t connect to the White House.

The nation sending a message transmits in its native language. The message is translated by the receiving country. The system uses text only, as voice communication can be misinterpreted.

The hotline, which is still used today, links the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, to the Kremlin in Moscow. Originally, the system used encrypted teletype machines, linked via London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. There was also a radio line for back up which ran via Tangier, Morocco.

In 1971, the system was updated to link the system via satellite, making the radio link redundant. In 1986, the system was updated to use high-speed fax machines instead of teletype. That system remained in place until 2008, when an email-based service began.

The first message transmitted over the hotline was “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890” The message included the entire Latin alphabet, all Arabic numerals and an apostrophe as a test to make sure the keyboard and printer were correctly working. The Soviets sent back a description of the sun setting over Moscow.

The first official use of the hotline was when the U.S. notified the Soviets of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The Russians sent their first official message in 1967 during the beginning of the Six-Days War.

The line is tested every hour, with the U.S. sending test messages in even numbered hours, and the Soviets/Russians sending in odd-numbered hours.

The line has been cut several times. It was broken when a Danish bulldozer operator accidentally cut the line. Another time the line was cut by a Finnish farmer who plowed up the line.

Our question: What movie was adapted from the novel “Red Alert”?

Today is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. It’s also World Refugee Day.

It’s unofficially National Ice Cream Soda Day, National Vanilla Milkshake Day and International Surfing Day.

It’s the birthday of musician Brian Wilson, who is 74 today; musician Lionel Richie, who is 67; and actress Nicole Kidman, who turns 49.

This week in 1963, the top song in the U.S. was “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. The only song in Japanese to top the U.S. charts. It has nothing to do with the food sukiyaki, the title was chosen by the American record label because it was easy for Americans to pronounce. Newsweek magazine said it would be similar to the song “Moon River” being released in Japan under the name “Beef Stew.”

The No. 1 movie was “Donovan’s Reef,” while the novel “The Glass Blowers” by Daphne du Maurier topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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