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Answer the red phone!

United States representative N. Stelle (L) and his Soviet Union counterpart M. Tsarapkin (R) sign, 20 June 1963 in Geneva, the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line, an agreement to set up a hot line communications link between the two superpowers, or "red phone."

It was 50 years ago this week that the Moscow-Washington Hotline, known popularly as the “red phone,” was established. The red phone never existed but the technology that allowed the Kremlin and Washington communicate directly did, and it’s advent signaled a thawing in the Cold War.

But let’s back up. The catalyst for the hotline was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. For 13 days, the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear war. And as mind-boggling as this sounds, during the crisis, there was no way for President John F. Kennedy to communicate directly with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, said James Hershberg, a history professor at George Washington University. In order to send a message, they literally sent it by Western Union,” Hershberg said.

And that took hours. President Kennedy would send his note to the Soviet Union’s embassy in Washington, DC, where they’d transcribe it. Then, they’d dispatch a bicycle messenger to take the note to Western Union. Khrushchev went through a similar process on his side.  But as tensions mounted, it became clear that this outdated way of communicating could have catastrophic consequences. So, at the brink of war, Khrushchev ditched Western Union and went on the radio. The message resolving the crises in which Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles was broadcast over Radio Moscow,” said Hershberg.

Khrushchev was afraid that -- if he took the Western Union route -- Kennedy might miss his message and dispatch ships to Cuba, which could have set-off a nuclear war. And so the hotline was born, said Steve Weber, a professor at UC Berekeley.

There was never a red phone,” Weber said. The super powers stuck to the written word and used teletypes. The thinking was that on the phone tempers could flare and words might get lost in translation. Weber says the hotline was a signal that that relations between the two superpowers was thawing. And perhaps more importantly, it gave people hope. I think it symbolized a shared belief that neither one of these countries wanted a nuclear war,” he said. And that they were taking concrete steps to prevent it.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.
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