OTD in History… June 20, 1963, President Kennedy establishes direct hotline to the Soviet Union

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history, June 20, 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement creating a direct hotline between the two countries, which President John F. Kennedy had negotiated after the slow exchange of messages during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis put the countries at the precipice of nuclear war. The hotline still exists between the United States and Russia; however, the technology has been updated three times since the agreement was signed in 1963.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous October 16–28, 1962, the US and Soviet Union had a confrontation over each other’s nuclear weapons. The Americans had weapons stored in Italy and Turkey and the Soviets were planning to transport nuclear weapons to Cuba, in order to deter another American invasion like the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. After a U-2 spy plane discovered the missile facilities in Cuba, President Kennedy ordered a blockade to deter any further ballistic missiles reaching Cuba and demanding the Soviets dismantle those already in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union. The negotiations between the two nations were long and tense. It took 12 hours for the Kennedy Administration to “receive and decode” Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s 3,000-word settlement. The administration drafted a reply and in the interim, the Soviets sent another message demanding the US to remove their missiles in Turkey.

Quicker communications between the US and Russia might have resolved the crisis more swiftly and with less threat of a nuclear war. The nations decided to establish a “hotline” for faster and direct communications to avert further crises. In June 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed hotline agreement formally called the “Memorandum of Understanding Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link.” The agreement outlined, “For use in time of emergency the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have agreed to establish as soon as technically feasible a direct communications link between the two Governments.”

On June 20, President Kennedy released a statement about the hotline, saying, “This age of fast-moving events requires quick, dependable communications for use in time of emergency…. both Governments have taken a first step to help reduce the risk of war occurring by accident or miscalculation. This agreement on a communications link is a limited but practical step forward in arms control and disarmament.” August 30, 1963, was the first time the system was used. The phrase the US sent was “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890,” because it utilized the entire alphabet and numerals.

The hotline was not a “red telephone” but encrypted messages sent through telegraph wires and using teletype machines. The system consisted of “two terminal points with teletype equipment, a full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit and a full-time radiotelegraph circuit.” Kennedy would send a telephone message to the Pentagon, where they would encrypt the message and then send it through a transmitter. The US first used the hotline to notify the Soviet of Kennedy’s assassination. President Lyndon Johnson, however, was the first president to use the hotline. In 1967, he responded then-Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin during the Six Day War in the Middle East. Johnson warned the Soviet leader who was supporting the Arab nations that he was considering sending the Air Force to aid Israel.

In 1984, the hotline changed over to fax machines, while since 2008 it has been through secure emails on a computer network. The system has worked, and never has the two countries ever been at the precipice of nuclear war as they had been in 1962. In 2010, President Barack Obama joked that social media was replacing the hotline, “We may be able to finally throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long.” Recently American relations with Russia have turned frosty under Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the US should not consider retiring those phones just yet.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.