Moscow–Washington hotline

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The Pentagon, outside Washington D.C.
The Kremlin in Moscow

The Moscow–Washington hotline (formally known in the United States as the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link[1]) is a system that allows direct communication between the leaders of the United States and Russia. This hotline was established in 1963 and links the Pentagon with the Kremlin (historically, with Soviet Communist Party leadership across the square from the Kremlin itself[1]).[2] Although in popular culture known as the "red telephone", the hotline was never a telephone line, and no red phones were used. The first implementation used Teletype equipment, and shifted to fax machines in 1986.[3] Since 2008 the Moscow–Washington hotline is a secure computer link over which messages are exchanged by email.[4]



The idea for a hotline had originated with several people, including Harvard professor Thomas Schelling, who had worked on nuclear war policy for the Defense Department previously, and who credits the pop fiction novel Red Alert with building governmental awareness of the issue.[1] In addition, Parade magazine editor Jess Gorkin personally "badgered" 1960 presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and "buttonholed" Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev during a U.S. visit to adopt the idea.[1] Objections from the State Department, the U.S. military, and the Kremlin stalled it before it could come to fruition.[1]

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, with its six-hour delays in passing official messages through diplomatic channels and the need to resort to passing messages through unofficial channels, like television network correspondents, led to a prioritizing of the hotline proposal.[1]

During the crisis, it took the United States nearly twelve hours to receive and decode Nikita Khrushchev'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 led to the two countries signing the Hot Line Agreement in June of 1963 in order to make communication more fluent in order to prevent another close call. This agreement was the first time two countries would sign an agreement in order to reduce the possibility of entering into a nuclear war unintentionally. [5]


The "hotline", as it would come to be known, was established after the signing of a "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line" on June 20, 1963, in Geneva, Switzerland, by representatives of the Soviet Union and the United States.[3]

Technical Details[edit]

At the Pentagon, the hotline system is located at the National Military Command Center, and those staffing the hotline are known as the MOLINK ("Moscow Link") team.[1] Historically, each team served an eight-hour shift, and was composed of a communicator, a non-commissioned officer to attend to the equipment, and a commissioned officer-translator required to maintain fluency in Russian and in world affairs.[1]

All incoming messages automatically carry the U.S. Government's highest security classification, "Eyes Only - The President".[1]

Historically, the hotline was tested on an hourly basis throughout its use.[1] Test messages sent from the NMCC have included excerpts of William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, encyclopedia passages, and a first-aid manual.[1] Test messages from the Soviets sometimes included excerpts from the works of Anton Chekov.[1] MOLINK staffers take special care not to include innuendo or literary imagery that could be misinterpreted, such as from Winnie the Pooh.[1] The Soviets also requested, during the Carter Administration, that more routine communications not be sent through the hotline.[1]

On New Year's Eve and on August 30, the hotline's anniversary, the test messages are replaced by greeting messages.[1]

Upon receipt of the message at the NMCC, the message is translated into English, and both the original Russian and the translated English texts are transmitted to the White House Situation Room.[1] However, if the message were to indicate "an imminent disaster, such as an accidental nuclear strike," the MOLINK team would telephone to convey the gist of the message to the Situation Room duty officer so that the president could be apprised of the situation prior to the message being painstakingly translated.[1]

Political criticism[edit]

The creation of the hotline was criticized by the Republican Party in its 1964 national platform, which said that the Kennedy Administration had "sought accommodations with Communism without adequate safeguards and compensating gains for freedom. It has alienated proven allies by opening a 'hot line' first with a sworn enemy rather than with a proven friend, and in general pursued a risky path such as began at Munich a quarter century ago."[6]


The Moscow–Washington hotline was intended for printed communications only, based on the idea that spontaneous verbal communications could lead to miscommunications and misperceptions. Leaders would state their message in their native language, which would be translated at the receiving end.[7]

An East German Siemens T63-SU12 teleprinter from the hotline, as displayed in the National Cryptologic Museum of the NSA. The black box behind the teleprinter is an ETCRRM II encryption machine.


The first generation of the hotline consisted of a full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit. This was routed Washington, D.C.LondonCopenhagenStockholmHelsinkiMoscow. The Washington–London link was originally carried over the TAT-1, the first submarine transatlantic telephone cable. A secondary radio line was routed Washington, D.C. – Tangier – Moscow, and served as a back-up and for service communications. This network was originally built by Harris Corporation.[8]

In July 1963 the United States sent four sets of teleprinters with the Latin alphabet to Moscow for the terminal there. A month later the Soviet equipment, four sets of German teleprinters with the Cyrillic alphabet made by Siemens, arrived in Washington. The hotline between both capitals became operational on August 30, 1963.[9]


The encryption of the teletype transmissions was realized by a device called Electronic Teleprinter Cryptographic Regenerative Repeater Mixer II (ETCRRM II), which used the unbreakable one-time pad cryptosystem. Each country prepared the keying tapes used to encode its messages and delivered them via its embassy in the other country. A unique advantage of the one-time pad in this case was that neither country had to reveal more sensitive encryption methods to the other.[10]


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.[11][12][13] 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 to 1978, and in the process the Washington–Tangier–Moscow radio line was eliminated.


In May 1983, President Reagan proposed to upgrade the hotline by the addition of high-speed facsimile capability. This was followed by bilateral negotiations, leading to an agreement signed by the United States and the Soviet Union on July 17, 1984.

According to the agreement, upgrades were to take place through use of INTELSAT satellites and modems, facsimile machines, and computers. [14] The facsimile terminals were operational by 1986.[3] After several years of testing and use, it proved to be so reliable that the teletype circuits were turned off in 1988. As part of the facsimile upgrade, the Soviets transferred the hotline link over to the newer, geostationary Gorizont-class satellites of the Statsionar system.[15]


In 2007 the Moscow–Washington hotline was upgraded to a dedicated computer network, linking the Washington and Moscow terminals. This network runs over the two existing satellite links and a new fiber optic cable, which replaced the old back-up cable link. Commercial software is used for both chat and email. The chat function is used for coordination of link operations, while email is used for sending the actual messages. Transmission is nearly instantaneous. These capabilities became operational on January 1, 2008.[4]


The hotline became operational on August 30, 1963, by transmitting the first test messages. Washington sent Moscow the text "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back 1234567890", which is a so-called pangram of all letters and numbers of the Latin alphabet, along with the apostrophe, which made sure that all the keys on the teletypes were operational. The Soviets sent back a poetic description of Moscow's setting sun.

The next use of the hotline was in 1967, during the Six-Day War, when both superpowers informed each other of military moves which might have been provocative or ambiguous.[16] 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.

The Moscow–Washington hotline was also used in 1971 during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War; during the Yom Kippur War (1973 Arab–Israeli War), when there was a United States nuclear alert; in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus; in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and several times during the Reagan Administration, with the Soviets querying about events in Lebanon and the United States commenting on the situation in Poland.[1]

Other hotlines with Moscow[edit]

Another hotline for record communications between Washington and Moscow is part of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, which was initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1988.[17]

In 2012 it was announced that a proposal was being negotiated with Moscow to add cyber warfare to the topics to be discussed on the hotline.[17]

In popular culture[edit]

A non-dial "Red Phone" which is on display in the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. This telephone is actually a prop, erroneously representing the hotline between Washington and Moscow.[18]

In numerous television series, movies, video games and other places, the hotline between Washington and Moscow is represented by a red phone, although the real hotline never was a telephone line. More realistic was Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears from 1991 and the movie The Sum of All Fears from 2002, in which a text-based computer communications system was depicted, which very much resembled the actual Hotline equipment from the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1990 HBO film By Dawn's Early Light, the White House Situation Room equipment that receives the (translated) hotline message, apparently relayed by the Pentagon-NMCC MOLINK team, is depicted as a teleprinter[19] (and not as a fax machine, the technology already in use at the NMCC itself by that year[3]).

Perhaps the most well-known reference is from the 1966 Batman TV series, so popular that even now the term Bat phone is often interchangeable with the actual "Red Phone" reference. Though the fact the Bat-phone concept itself is similar enough to the Red Phone (a way of direct communication in a crisis), its similarity is solidified in that the phones were almost identical in appearance on the TV show to the actual Red Phone as the public knew it at the time.

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

A hotline telephone was depicted in the film Fail-Safe as the "Red 1 / Ultimate 1 Touch phone", and also in Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove, both from 1964 and both loosely based on Peter George's Cold War thriller novel Red Alert from 1958.

A red telephone appears in at least five of the James Bond films. In Thunderball from 1965 it is said that the British prime minister and the American president had "talked over the hotline", but there was no red telephone yet. The head of MI6 has a green and a black telephone set on his desk, one of which was replaced by a red one in at least the following films:

  • in On Her Majesty's Secret Service from 1969, where there are a white and a red telephone at the desk of the head of MI6.
  • in Moonraker from 1979, the head of MI6 uses a bright red phone set for conversations with military commanders.
  • in For Your Eyes Only from 1981, a bright red telephone is used by senior MI6 officials to report to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.[20]
  • in Die Another Day from 2002, there's a modern red colored push-button telephone on the desk of the head of MI6.
  • in Casino Royale from 2006, there's also a bright red telephone in modern style, but this time without any buttons.

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 with a deadly neurotoxin.

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 shows Yuri using his mind control technology over a secured phone line to NORAD, causing US military personnel to turn on each other and thus preventing a nuclear counter-attack on the Soviets.

In the 2004 video game, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev calls U.S. President Lyndon Johnson over the red phone demanding explanations of a fictional nuclear explosion committed on Soviet soil by a rogue US unit and a turned Soviet colonel.

The "red phone" was the centerpiece of television commercials used in the 1984 Democratic primary and 1984 presidential 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.[21][22]

The red 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."[23][24][25] Roy Spence revived the "red phone" idea in 2008 in an advertisement for candidate Hillary Clinton.[26][27]

In the TV Series Doctor Who, in the episode "World War Three", a bright red telephone is used as a direct connection between 10 Downing Street and the United Nations. At one point, character Margret Blaine exclaims; "The phone is actually red!"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Stone, Webster (September 18, 1988). "Moscow's Still Holding". New York Times. Archived from the original on October 28, 2014. Retrieved October 28, 2014. 
  2. ^ Clavin, Tom (19 Jun 2013). "There Never Was Such a Thing as a Red Phone in the White House". Smithsonian (magazine). Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  3. ^ a b c d Graham, Thomas; La Vera, Damien (2002). "The "Hot Line" Agreements". Cornerstones of Security: Arms Control Treaties in the Nuclear Era. University of Washington Press. pp. 20–28. ISBN 9780295801414. 
  4. ^ a b Paul E. Richardson, "The hot line (is a Hollywood myth)", in: Russian Life, September/October issue 2009, pp. 50-59.
  5. ^ Encyclopedia of Russian History
  6. ^ Republican Party Platform, Section Two, "Weakness Before Communism" (adopted July 13, 1964). See
  7. ^ Kennedy, Bruce (1998). "CNN Cold War – Spotlight: The birth of the hot line". Archived from the original on 23 September 2008. Retrieved 18 March 2011. 
  8. ^ Council on Foreign Relations (1990). International Affairs Fellowship program 1967-1990 directory. Council on Foreign Relations Press. Retrieved 28 June 2013. 
  9. ^ David K. Barnhart; Allan A. Metcalf (16 August 1999). America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 252–. ISBN 978-0-618-00270-2. Retrieved 28 June 2013. 
  10. ^ David Kahn, The Codebreakers, pp. 715-716
  11. ^ Jozef Goldblat (International Peace Research Institute) (2002). Arms control. Sage. pp. 301–302. ISBN 0-7619-4016-2. 
  12. ^ Coit D. Blacker, Gloria Duffy (Stanford Arms Control Group) (1984). International arms control. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-1211-5. 
  13. ^ James Mayall, Cornelia Navari. The end of the post-war era. Cambridge University Press. pp. 135–137. ISBN 0-521-22698-8. 
  14. ^ Larsen, Jeffrey Arthur; Smith, James M. (2005). Historical Dictionary of Arms Control and Disarmament. Scarecrow Press. p. 107. ISBN 9780810850606. 
  15. ^ Stephen L. Thacher, Crisis Communications between Superpowers, US Army War College, Carusle Barracks, 1990, p. 10.
  16. ^ "Cold War hotline recalled", BBC News, June 7, 2003, retrieved March 24, 2006.
  17. ^ a b "US, Russia plan hotline to prevent cyber war". Total Telecom. 30 April 2012. Retrieved 5 September 2012. 
  18. ^ The red phone that was NOT on the Hotline, August 30, 2013
  19. ^ Lisboa, Maria Manuel (2011). The End of the World: Apocalypse and Its Aftermath in Western Culture. Open Book Publishers. p. 28. ISBN 9781906924508. "...the Americans receive a teletype from their counterparts in the Soviet Union stating that they have now determined that the first missile was not launched by NATO." 
  20. ^ See also film set pictures at
  21. ^ YouTube – US Democrats – Walter Mondale 1984 Video 10
  22. ^ Kurtz, Howard (March 1, 2008), Clinton Plays the Fear Card, Washington Post: A08 
  23. ^ YouTube – Mondale/Ferraro Commercial 1984
  24. ^ Kaid, Lynda Lee; Anne Johnston (2000). Videostyle in Presidential Campaigns: Style and Content of Televised Political Advertising. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 59. ISBN 0-275-94071-3. 
  25. ^ Beckel, Bob (March 19, 2008). "Superdelegates: Whiners or Deciders?". Real Clear Politics. Retrieved 2008-03-20. 
  26. ^ YouTube – Hillary Clinton Ad – 3 AM White House Ringing Phone
  27. ^ Kornblut, Anne E.; Murray, Shailagh (March 1, 2008), Clinton Ad Hints Obama Is Unprepared for Crisis, Washington Post: A01 

External links[edit]