Although, most of us think of the Moscow-Washington hotline as the “red telephone,” the actual hotline was never a telephone, and the communication link did not connect the White House with the Kremlin at all.
More accurately, this communication system consisted of teletype equipment located in the Pentagon.
Cuban Missile Crisis
On October 24, 1962, in response to the Soviet Union placing nuclear missiles in Cuba aimed at Washington, D.C and President Kennedy placing nuclear missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow, Khrushchev wrote a 3,000 word letter to President Kennedy that took nearly twelve hours to receive and decode.
By the time President Kennedy had drafted a reply, a tougher message from Moscow had been received demanding action.
White House advisor’s at the time thought the crisis could have been resolved more quickly and perhaps even averted if direct communication had been faster.
After the crisis was over, an agreement was signed in Geneva, Switzerland on June 20, 1963 titled “Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communication Line.”
This agreement set out to create reliable, direct communications between the two nuclear super powers.
The Moscow–Washington hotline
The Moscow–Washington hotline was originally intended for hard copy print communications only, based on the idea that spontaneous verbal communications could lead to misunderstandings.
American and Soviet Leaders would dictate their message in their native language, which would then be translated at the receiving end.
In July of 1963, the United States sent four sets of teleprinters with Latin alphabet to Moscow for their terminal.
A month later the Soviet equipment, four sets of German teleprinters with Cyrillic alphabet made by Siemens, arrived in Washington.
The hotline became operational on August 30, 1963, by transmitting the first test messages.
Washington sent Moscow the text “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890”, which is a so-called pangram of all letters and numbers of the Latin alphabet, which made sure that all the keys on the teletypes were operational.
The Soviets sent back a poetic description of Moscow’s setting sun.
This secure hotline consisted of a full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit linking the Pentagon (not the White House) with Moscow, however the hotline also routed in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki.
The National Military Command Center (NMCC) in the Pentagon became responsible for the operation, maintenance and testing of the hotline.
The Washington–London link was originally carried over the TAT-1, the first submarine transatlantic telephone cable.
A secondary radio line was routed from Washington, D.C. through Tangier to Moscow, and served as a back-up and for service communications.
The hotline was used for real immediately after President Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963.
Although in popular culture the hotline is known as a “red telephone” sitting on the President’s desk in the oval office of the White House, reality is much more mundane.
The encryption of the teletype transmissions was realized by a device called Electronic Teleprinter Cryptographic Regenerative Repeater Mixer II (ETCRRM II), which used the unbreakable one-time pad cryptosystem.
Each country prepared the keying tapes used to encode its messages and delivered them via its embassy in the other country.
A unique advantage of the one-time pad in this case was that neither country had to reveal more sensitive encryption methods to the other.
The first real hotline crisis came in 1967, during the Six-Day War, when both superpowers informed each other of military moves which might have been provocative or ambiguous.
The main concern at hand was the close proximity of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and the US 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean and how to prevent possible misunderstanding between the two groups.
In September of 1971, it was decided to integrate the Moscow–Washington hotline system with more modern technology.
The participating countries also agreed for the first time under what circumstances the hotline should be used.
Specifically, they agreed to notify each other immediately in the event of an accidental, unauthorized or unexplained incident involving a nuclear weapon that could increase the risk of nuclear war.
The main telegraph line was complemented by two new satellite communication lines, one formed by two US Intelsat satellites and the other composed of two Soviet Molniya II satellites.
This upgrade lasted from 1971 to 1978, and in the process the Washington-Tangier-Moscow radio line was eliminated.
Usage of the hotline
The Moscow–Washington hotline has also been used during December of 1971 during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War; during the Yom Kippur War (1973 Arab–Israeli War), when there was a United States nuclear alert; in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus; in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and several times during the Reagan Administration, with the Soviets querying about events in Lebanon and the United States commenting on the situation in Poland. In 1991 during the Gulf War, and again in 2003 with the Iraq War.
Of course these are the events that have been made public, there may have been instances where the hotline was used and the details remain classified.
Then in May of 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed to upgrade the hotline by the addition of high-speed facsimile capability. This was followed by bilateral negotiations, leading to an agreement signed by the United States and the Soviet Union on July 17, 1984.
According to this agreement, facsimile Direct Communication Link (DCL) terminals were installed at each end of the hotline in 1985.
The image above shows the Direct Communication Link room in the NMCC at the Pentagon. The Siemens M-190 is clearly visible in the foreground, whilst an operator is typing a message on one of the Teletype machines. The picture was taken on 2 August 1985, shortly before the next upgrade of the hotline.
After several years of testing and use, it proved to be so reliable that the teletype circuits were turned off in 1988.
As part of the facsimile upgrade, the Soviets transferred the hotline link over to the newer, geostationary Gorizont-class satellites of the Statsionar system.
Then in 2007, the Moscow–Washington hotline was upgraded to a dedicated secure computer network, linking the Washington and Moscow terminals.
This network became operational on January 1, 2008 and runs over two existing satellite links and a new fiber optic cable, which replaced the old back-up cable link.
Commercial software is used for both chat and email.
The chat function is used for coordination of link operations, while email is used for sending the actual messages.
Transmission is nearly instantaneous, and still in use today.
Other hotlines with Moscow
Another hotline for record communications between Washington and Moscow is part of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, which was initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1988.
Since the 1990s, it has been possible to have a direct voice conversation with the other end, but this is not considered part of the Hotline.
It is likely that for voice conversations the so-called Direct Voice Link (DVL) is used.
This link has terminals at both ends near the offices of the Presidents and is routed (multiplexed) over the same satellite links as the DCL.
In 2012, it was announced that a proposal was being negotiated with Moscow to add cyber warfare to the topics to be discussed over the hotline.
Now WE know em