The White House to Kremlin Hotline: Avoiding War for 50 Years

Sep 06, 2013

by Ashley Byrne
[posted on on September 5, 2013]

The famous ‘hotline’ between the White House and Kremlin turns 50 this summer.

It was in 1963 when President Kennedy and his Russian counterpart, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided they needed direct contact to deal with times of crisis and emergency between the two super powers.

But the image often depicted in films and novels of a red telephone was not reality. It was actually a tele-typewriter equipped for written messages not voice calls.

“It was a data line from the very beginning and still is,” says former US Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock. “It was calculated to be that because the idea being is that if you put something in writing it tends to take some of the emotion out of it and in a crisis situation you didn’t necessarily want a situation where tempers might flare.”

It was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war which originally prompted the setting up of the hotline.

Jack Matlock says the process of getting messages between the two leaders before it was installed could be a hugely tedious process. He remembers: “To translate the entire message could take around two hours and of course we had to check everything. But then it had to go on a telegraph form and that go to our code room which in turn would be rekeyed and then transmitted. President Kennedy was upset it took so long. So, it was thought we needed something more instantaneous to get a message between the leaders.”

So, the Russians agreed with Kennedy and the Hotline was installed on August 30, 1963. read more