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The Moscow-Washington hotline is a system that allows direct communication between the leaders of the United States and Russia. It was originally designed by Harris Corporation for communication between the United States and the Soviet Union. Also known as the "red telephone", it linked the White House via the National Military Command Center with the Kremlin during the Cold War.


Early implementation

The "Hot Line", as it would come to be known, was established following an agreement on June 20, 1963, by the signing of the "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line" in Geneva, Switzerland, by representatives of the Soviet Union and the United States at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee, after the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis made it clear that reliable, direct communications between the two nuclear powers was a necessity. During the crisis, it took the U.S. nearly 12 hours to receive and decode Nikita Khruschev's 3,000 word initial settlement message—a dangerously long time in the chronology of nuclear brinkmanship. By the time the U.S. had drafted a reply, a tougher message from Moscow had been received demanding that U.S. missiles be removed from Turkey. White House advisors at the time thought that the crisis could have been more quickly resolved and easily averted if communication had been faster. This link was encrypted using the information-theoretically secure one-time pad cryptosystem.[1]


Technology and procedure

The first generation of the hot line had no voice element at all; the memorandum called for a full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit, based on the idea that spontaneous verbal communications could lead to miscommunications and misperceptions. This circuit was routed Washington - London - Copenhagen - Stockholm - Helsinki - Moscow. The Washington - London link was originally carried over the TAT-1, the first submarine transatlantic telephone cable. A secondary radio line was routed Washington - Tangier - Moscow.

Leaders would state their message in their native language, which would be translated by the receiving end after it was received.[2]


The first use of the hotline was in 1967, during the six-day Egypt-Israel War, when both superpowers informed each other of military moves which might have been provocative or ambiguous.[3] 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.

Second implementation

In September 1971, it was decided to upgrade the system with better technology. The countries also agreed for the first time when the line 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.[4][5][6]

A phone was installed, and 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 phase of upgrade lasted from 1971-1978, and in the process the Washington-Tangier-Moscow radio line was eliminated.

Modern implementation

The most recent round of upgrades occurred in 1986. The Soviet Union used geostationary Gorizont-class satellites in the Statsionar system to replace the Molniya II satellites, and a high-speed facsimile capability. This allowed the leaders of the two countries to quickly share documents and other information alongside the teletype and voice forms of communication.

Museum display

An original East German teleprinter used in the initial 1963 "hotline" setup is currently on display at the National Cryptologic Museum located on the National Security Agency (NSA) campus at Fort Meade, Maryland.

In popular culture

The hotline was depicted in the 1964 film Fail-Safe as the "Red 1 / Ultimate 1 Touch phone".

The text-based communications system is depicted in Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears and its film adaptation.

The "red phone" was the centerpiece of television commercials used in the 1984 Democratic primary and 1984 general election and the 2008 Democratic primary elections. In 1984, an advertisement made by Bob Beckel and Roy Spence on behalf of candidate Walter Mondale suggested that, "The most awesome, powerful responsibility in the world lies in the hand that picks up this phone." The advertisement was intended to raise questions about candidate Gary Hart's readiness for the presidency.[7][8] The phone was also featured prominently in an advertisement from that year targeting President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. In the second ad, the ringing phone goes unanswered while the narrator says, "there will be no time to wake a president – computers will take control."[9][10][11] Roy Spence revived the "red phone" idea in 2008 in an advertisement for candidate Hillary Clinton.[12][13]

A "red phone" has been shown in the fictional Stargate SG-1 series, linking Stargate Command directly with the President.

In the video game Portal, the "red phone" system is installed so that people monitoring the AI GlaDOS could send out a warning if it became hostile. The system failed as GlaDOS managed to cut the line to the phone and kill everyone in the Enrichment Center.

In the real-time strategy game Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 by Westwood Studios the "red phone" is shown in the opening sequence to the game where the US President is seen calling Premier Alexander Romanov (the Russian President) to call off an apparent invasion by the Soviet Military on the United States. The sequence changes showing Yuri using his mind control technology on Premier Alexander Romanov. The story line continues with Yuri using his mind control technology over a secured phone line to NORAD causing US military personnel to turn on each other thus prohibiting the nuclear missiles from getting launched towards Russia.

See also


  1. ^ David Kahn, The Codebreakers, pp. 715-716
  2. ^ CNN Cold War - Spotlight: The birth of the hot line
  3. ^ "Cold War hotline recalled", BBC News, June 7, 2003, retrieved March 24, 2006.
  4. ^ Jozef Goldblat (International Peace Research Institute) (2002). Arms control. Sage. pp. 301–302. ISBN 0761940162. 
  5. ^ Coit D. Blacker, Gloria Duffy (Stanford Arms Control Group) (1984). International arms control. Standford University Press. ISBN 0804712115. 
  6. ^ James Mayall, Cornelia Navari. The end of the post-war era. Cambridge University Press. pp. 135–137. ISBN 0521226988. 
  7. ^ YouTube - US Democrats - Walter Mondale 1984 Video 10
  8. ^ Kurtz, Howard (March 1), "Clinton Plays the Fear Card", Washington Post: A08, 
  9. ^ YouTube - Mondale/Ferraro Commercial 1984
  10. ^ Kaid, Lynda Lee; Anne Johnston (2000). Videostyle in Presidential Campaigns: Style and Content of Televised Political Advertising. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 59. ISBN 0275940713. 
  11. ^ Beckel, Bob (March 19, 2008). "Superdelegates: Whiners or Deciders?". Real Clear Politics. Retrieved 2008-03-20. 
  12. ^ YouTube - Red Phone Moment - TV AD
  13. ^ Kornblut, Anne E.; Murray, Shailagh (March 1), "Clinton Ad Hints Obama Is Unprepared for Crisis", Washington Post: A01, 


External links


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