Today in 1963, representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union signed the “Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line” in Geneva, Switzerland. The technical details of this agreement were physically manifested several months later when the Moscow-Washington hotline was completed, allowing direct communication between the leaders of the world's two superpowers for the first time. Known as the Hot Line or the Red Phone in popular culture, the system has become part of the mythology of the Cold War.
In the decade following the end of the Second World War in 1945, both the Soviet Union and the United States created enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Bombers armed with freefall nuclear weapons were kept in a constant state of readiness by both sides; later, these bombers would be supplemented by thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles buried deep in silos or carried aboard submarines. At any given moment, the world could be as little as 30 minutes away from nuclear annihilation.
By 1954, leaders in Washington and Moscow realized that a direct, secure line of communications was needed between their two nations. The Soviets floated the idea publicly for the first time that year, and in 1958 the United States proposed that both nations take part in the Conference of Experts on Surprise Attack in Geneva, Switzerland. No agreement was reached during the conference, but the seeds of an understanding had been sown. Things moved slowly in Cold War diplomatic circles, and the next four years saw almost no concrete progress towards establishing any type of communications system meant to act as a safeguard.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, changed that. For two weeks that month, the world stood on the brink of an all-out war, a conflagration that would have undoubtedly included the use of nuclear weapons against the United States, the Soviet Union and most of Europe. The standoff demonstrated how difficult it was for the two nations' leaders to communicate directly. For example, it took the U.S. nearly 12 hours to receive and decode Nikita Khrushchev's 3,000 word initial settlement message. By the time a reply had been written and edited by the White House, Moscow had sent another, tougher message. A faster, more direct means of contact was a necessity if the world was to avoid a third world war.
The Moscow-Washington hotline began operation in August, 1963. When most people think of the hotline, they imagine a serious-looking red phone sitting on the President's desk in the Oval Office and its twin sitting on the desk of the Soviet Premier in the Kremlin. In fact, while voice communications are believed to be technically possible over the line, the device used to send messages when the system became operational was the teletype machine. The use of text removed some of the human traits that can show up during a voice conversation. It is reasonable to assume that a nation's leader could be tired, angry, frustrated, or confused while speaking with his opposite number thousand of miles and eight time zones away. Text would reduce the chance of poor translation, give each side time to consider the others message before replying, and prevent a leader’s tone of voice from being misinterpreted. The telegraph circuit was routed Washington-London-Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Moscow, and a radio link was routed Washington-Tangier-Moscow as a back up.
The establishment of a direct link between Washington and Moscow caused some diplomatic upheaval in western nations, specifically the United Kingdom. Since the physical line between the two capitals ran through London, the British proposed that they be allowed access to any conversation taking place on it. They could then consult with Washington, instead of being informed of disagreements after they had been settled. While this would have gone a long way towards strengthening the special relationship that exists between London and Washington, the administration of President Kennedy believed that a three-way conversation in times of crisis might be counter-productive. It was also obvious that if London were given access to the hotline, other NATO member nations would want the same thing. The tension that arose was abated, however, when both the Soviets and the Americans made it clear that the line was only to be used in the event of an emergency where the failure to communicate directly might lead to an all-out war. It would not be used for situations that called for regular diplomatic channels.
The hotline was first used during the Six Day War between Egypt and Israel in June, 1967. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet and the US 6th Fleet were both operating in the Mediterranean at that time and both fleets had elements located close to the war zone. To avoid any confusion about intentions, Moscow and Washington kept each other informed of their fleets’ operations until the war was over.
The 1970’s saw relatively heavy use of the hotline, much of it outside the agreed-upon parameters put in place when the system was established. It was used during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. None of these events rose to the level of a nuclear standoff between the two superpowers, but the use of the line allowed leaders to discuss events in real time, something that would have been difficult using normal diplomatic procedures.
The hotline was used several times during the 1980’s, but less frequently than during the previous decade. The line had gone through a rolling upgrade between 1971 and 1978, a process that included the addition of fax machines on each end so documents and photographs could be exchanged. It was during this time that the backup radio link was discarded in favor of two geosynchronous satellites, one Soviet and one American. Another upgrade in 1986 saw the use of newer satellites and faster transmission capabilities.
There have doubtless been upgrades to the hotline in the past 25 years, but technical details have yet to be made public. The system is still active and in use, despite the fact that one of the original agreement's signatories, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. Today, the hotline links the governments of the United States and Russia, who between them own the vast majority of the nuclear weapons on the planet. Other hotlines now connect various seats of power around the world, the latest being a direct connection between India and Pakistan, in use since June, 2004.
So did the hotline between Washington and Moscow prevent the Cold War from becoming hot? We may never know for sure. While some of the incidents in which the system was used have been publicized, it is probable that many have not and may never be. What is certain is that the Red Phone, as the Soviets liked to call the hotline, made a nuclear exchange less likely due simply to its existence.