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The birth of the hot line
Nuclear fears forced superpowers to set up communications link
By Bruce Kennedy
Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, once summed up his concerns about the possibility of conflict overtaking diplomacy in the nuclear age.
"The greatest danger of war," he said, "seems to me not to be in the deliberate actions of wicked men, but in the inability of harassed men to manage events that have run away with them."
It was sentiments such as these that led to the establishment of the so-called "hot line" between Moscow and Washington in August 1963.
The hot line came into being one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. That confrontation, over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflict. After diplomacy and cooler heads prevailed, both sides were shaken by the realization of how close they had come to annihilation -- and at how primitive their direct communication methods had been. For example, during the tensest moments of the crisis, Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, was forced to rely on a bicycle courier to pick up his urgent messages to Moscow and pedal them over to the local Western Union office.
After the crisis passed, President John F. Kennedy suggested the hot line to the Soviets. Contrary to popular myth and Hollywood portrayal, the hot line has never been a pair of red telephones, one in a drawer in the Oval Office, the other in the Kremlin. At first it was a set of teletypes with messages punched in at a rate of about one page every three minutes. That system was replaced in the late 1970s with two satellite systems, as well as an undersea cable link.
The American end of the hot line is located not in the White House but across the Potomac in the Pentagon -- at the National Military Command Center. When the hot line is used, a message from the U.S. president is sent by coded phone, electronic transmission or messenger from the White House to the command center. The center's officer-in-charge then contacts the White House to verify the message. Once verified, the message is then encoded and sent to Moscow.
The hot line uses the written word, rather than voice or video transmission. It was originally thought that text would reduce the chance of improper translation of an urgent message. It would also give each side time to consider the other's message before replying, and would avoid a person's body language or tone of voice from being misinterpreted.
All messages from the U.S. to Russia are transmitted in English, using the Latin alphabet -- and messages from Moscow to Washington are transmitted in Russian, using Cyrillic characters.
"The translation is always done at the other end, to preserve the nuance," says Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Thurston.
The first message sent on the hot line came into Washington from Moscow in the early hours of June 5, 1967. In his memoirs, President Lyndon Johnson recalled picking up the phone in his White House bedroom -- and hearing the voice of his defense secretary, Robert McNamara.
"Mr. President," said McNamara, "the hot line is up."
Several hours earlier, war had broken out between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Soviet premier, Aleksei Kosygin, wanted to know if the United States had taken part in Israel's surprise attack on Egypt -- which was receiving Soviet support at the time. Johnson denied any involvement and said the U.S. was calling for a truce in the conflict.
For the next several days, until a cease-fire was reached, the two sides sent as many as 20 messages over the hot line, to make sure that what later became known as the Six Day War would not escalate into a global nuclear war.
President Richard Nixon also used the hot line during tensions between India and Pakistan in 1971, and two years later during another Middle East war. President Jimmy Carter tried to use the hot line to relax Cold War tensions during the 1970s. But Carter also used the hot line to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. And President Ronald Reagan reportedly threatened the Soviets over the hot line with "serious and far-reaching consequences" in 1986, following the arrest and brief detention of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff on espionage charges.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has gone a long way to ease tensions between the governments in Washington and Moscow. U.S. and Russian officials now meet regularly. But the hot line continues to function 24 hours a day. It is tested hourly, with the Pentagon sending a message every even hour, and Moscow sending one back every odd hour. Both sides transmit in an agreed-upon code and avoid any political or controversial test messages.
Mostly, operators on either side of the hot line try to test each other's translation skills with selections from obscure texts. For example, the U.S. operators will send their Russian counterparts recipes for chili, or articles on the psychology of pets. The Russians might then respond with excerpts from their great novelists, or a treatise on the history of invention in the ancient world. But the battle of wits is cordial, and some hot line operators have even met face-to-face at government functions.
Even though the Cold War may be fading into history, the hot line is still considered an important tool. Robert Gates, former CIA director, said the hot line should remain up and running "as long as these two sides have submarines roaming the oceans and missiles pointed at each other."