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60 years after the ‘Red Telephone’ that was neither red nor a telephone

October 1962. Washington’s discovery, thanks to photographs taken by spy planes, that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, put the world on the brink of atomic war.

Weeks of tension ended when Moscow withdrew those missiles. In exchange, months later, Washington withdrew others placed in Türkiye. The negotiations were complex, among other things, because the White House was talking with the Russian ambassador in Washington, there was no direct line to the Kremlin.

In addition to situations of real tension, the Soviet Union and the United States were repeatedly about to be attacked by bugs in computer programs that detected missile launches that they never happened.

The solution

The solution came with the implementation of what was called “red phone”the icing on the cake that was the first nuclear treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, which partially prohibited open-air nuclear tests.

On August 30, 1963, a communication system came into operation similar to telegraphic. Known as teletype, it was the predecessor of the fax and allowed to connect directly the Pentagon with some secret place in Moscownot the White House with the office of the Russian leader, as the cinema made us understand.

A text was sent from Moscow in Russian and in cyrillic alphabet which was translated in Washington. At the same time, a text could be sent from the Pentagon in English and the Latin alphabet, which was translated in Moscow. The story, humorously, can be seen in Stanley Kubrick’s film “Red telephone, shall we fly to Moscow?”

At first the connection worked with a transatlantic cable installed in 1956 that called in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki.

The first proposal to create such a system had been American and in April 1962, a few months before the missile crisis. Moscow did not accept it, but after those tense weeks Change of idea.

The system, within the technical limitations of the time, was an advance that allowed in a few minutes Moscow and Washington texts will be sent. Until then they were needed more than 10 hours to get a message from the White House to the Kremlin.

Not even the Soviet Embassy in Moscow had direct telephone contact with the Kremlin and communicated by sending encrypted telegrams via Western Union.

Military manipulating the first version of the direct line between Moscow and Washington.  Photo: archive


Military manipulating the first version of the direct line between Moscow and Washington. Photo: archive

The “red telephone” could have really been a telephone, which would have been faster, but then it was feared that there would be misunderstandings and it was thought that a written message was more secure. The system was updated twice. In 1971 it was added a satellite and radio connection. And in 1986 A fax.

The new line was the hope that crises like the Cuban missile crisis could be averted through direct talks between the US president and the CPSU general secretary. But that August 30, 1963 Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy (who was assassinated three months later) did not speak because that did not allow them to speak but to send texts.

The first text was American and read: The speedy brown fox jumped over the back of the lazy dog ​​1234567890.

In English that sentence contains all the characters of the Latin alphabet: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.

a fake "red phone" at the Carter Museum.  Photo: archive


A fake “red phone” at the Carter Museum. Photo: archive

It served as proof of the proper functioning of the device, which in the United States was also colloquially called hot line (hot line). That first day, the Americans sent as evidence texts taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Russians literary excerpts.

The “red telephone” was used on several occasions for the purpose for which it had been installed. In 1967, in the middle of the war between Israel and the Arab countries. In 1971 due to the Indo-Pakistani conflict, in 1973 due to the second war between Israel and its Arab neighbors and in 1982 due to a crisis in Poland.

60 years of the Red Telephone

It was a direct communication link between the USSR and the United States. This direct line between Moscow and Washington was created in 1963 and continues to this day.

During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR were several times on the verge of a nuclear war due to a lack of communication, as occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This episode was the trigger for the creation of the “red telephone”.

It is a journalistic term. The system was neither a telephone nor was it red. The myth was created by journalists and fueled by movies. At first it was a teletype. The telephone line arrived in the early 70s.

The “phone” was released with a test text with the following message: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back. (A quick brown fox jumped on the lazy dog’s back.) The message contained all the letters of the English alphabet.

The 1967 Six Day War between Israel and the Arab countries. The Kremlin used the system. During the conflict, about twenty messages were transmitted.

Yes. It was used to put George Bush Sr. in contact with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the Gulf War (1991) or Presidents Bush Jr. and Vladimir Putin during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Barack Obama used it with Vladimir Putin on October 31, 2016, but by then it was no longer a phone but an email system, later expanded with video conferencing capabilities. Donald Trump preferred the conventional phone or face to face with Putin. Joe Biden used the Direct Voice Link system on December 7, 2021.

Since then, the communication system between the two countries has become more complex. And the “red phone” remained as a symbolic measure with one of his great objectives fulfilled: to show the world that the White House and the Kremlin spoke to each other.

Brussels, especially for Clarion

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