Truth is often less amusing than fiction. The 1964 dark-comedy movie, “Dr. Strangelove” utilized the newly installed hotline between Moscow and Washington. President Merkin Muffley confers with his counterpart in Moscow during the height of the nuclear crisis.
The movie’s telephone setup was only a dramatic device. On the actual hotline, there is no direct voice line between the two capitals. The actual, original hotline was basically, just a dedicated Telex system intended as a means to exchange written communications and data between the governments of the US and the USSR.
On August 30, 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first US chief executive to have a direct link to the Kremlin. The stated purpose of the hotline was to enable communication between the White House and the Soviet Premier.
The system was promoted as a way to reduce the risk of war by accident or miscalculation. It was agreed that the system would only be used in the event of a tactical emergency but not for routine diplomatic communications.
The hotline was installed following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The two superpowers had edged towards all-out nuclear war. After the Kennedy administration discovered the Soviet Union had installed missile systems on the island nation of Cuba, a highly intense diplomatic exchange between Washington and Moscow ensued.
The message exchange was hampered by inefficient communications. Encrypted conversations had to be telegraphed or radioed between the Pentagon and the Kremlin. The transmission and reception was sluggish and unwieldy. Thankfully, the two leaders resolved the crisis peaceably. Still, as one result, officials feared that another misunderstanding could escalate to crisis level if the nations had to rely upon the outmoded technology of the day.
The original idea for a hotline between Washington and Moscow was born in 1954 when officials realized some sort of direct communication was necessary. They understood that the huge nuclear arsenals were in a state of constant readiness.
Bureaucratic sluggishness and procrastination on both sides of the Atlantic stalled the hotline. Even though both the US and the USSR attended the “Conference of Experts on Surprise Attacks” in Geneva, Switzerland in 1958, few efforts were made to develop a system. In fact, military advisors in both Washington and Moscow were dead set against any direct communication between the President and the Premier.
When the 1962 missile crisis erupted, the existing communication roadblocks seriously hampered the negotiation process. Shockingly, it took about twelve hours to receive and to decode the first settlement message in Moscow. When the communique’ was finally decoded, interpreted, and a reply prepared, another, more threatening message had been sent from Moscow.
Only because Kennedy kept a cool head was the situation salvaged. The President tactfully ignored the second message by pretending he never saw it. Kennedy answered only the first message. In the process, the Cuban Missile Crisis simmered down. Once relations had normalized, officials in both nations decided to step up work on a direct communication link.
The first version of the hotline system used four “full-duplex” teleprinter link-ups. Washington and Moscow had one each of the devices. One utilized the Latin alphabet, the other the Cyrillic alphabet. Because of the use of Cyrillic and Latin telex machines, each staff could write in their own languages.
Each telex machine was protected by a cipher machine, as well. In an effort to maintain objectivity, the cipher equipment was manufactured in Norway. That nation was considered to be neutral and impartial.
The two stations were linked via Transatlantic Cable to London, then by landline to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, and finally Moscow.
In the summer of 1984, the US and USSR agreed to upgrade with fax machines. Identical “Group III” fax machines, running at 4800 baud were connected at both capitals. By the next year the upgrade was operational.
Due to increasing rates of technological obsolesence, another upgrade was initiated in 2007. The fax link was replaced by a computer network. The old cable was replaced by a fibre-optic link with a redundant satellite link. The improvements became operational the following year. That technology comprises the current hotline system.
Even though a conventional “red” phone is not an actual componant of the hotline, there is a separate voice link that was installed in the 1990s. The current “red” phone is used for normal diplomatic and routine communications between Russia and the US. Of course, the “red” phone could possibly be used by special arrangement during a crisis.
До свидания (Dasvidania)
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes the first messages sent over the hotline. “THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPED OVER THE LAZY DOG’S BACK 1234567890″ In reply, the Soviets wrote a romantic description of the setting Sun in Moscow.