What is true in the legend of the red telephone, the line that communicated the United States and the USSR

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The tense relationship between the United States and Russia over the war in Ukraine has brought to the fore an old Cold War myth: the direct communications link between Washington and Moscowpopularly known as the “Red Telephone”.

Hollywood creations, like the movie ‘Red phone? We fly to Moscow‘ (1964), give credence to the legend. But is there any truth to all this? Could the heads of the major nuclear powers communicate instantly over a secure line?

The Washington-Moscow direct line is born

The idea of ​​a system of direct communication between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) had arisen in the early 1960s, but the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 highlighted the urgent need to address the issue.

At the dawn of the conflict, it took the United States almost 12 hours to receive Nikita Khrushchev’s 3,000-word message to establish an initial agreement and defuse tension. When Washington issued his response, Moscow had sent another one with much harsher conditions.

In view of the risk that existed due to delays in communications in critical situations, and to avoid a possible military outcome involving the use of nuclear weaponsthe two countries signed the Direct Line Agreement in June 1963.

In 1963, guidelines were established to create a direct communication link between Washington and Moscow.

The document established initial guidelines to “establish direct communication as soon as technically feasible” so that the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics could communicate “in times of emergency.”

At that time, the request to establish a secure international communication represented a real challenge. The first generation of the line between Washington and Moscow used, in part, the TAT-1, the world’s first transatlantic telephone cable.

Although the cable had certain protections that guaranteed its reliability, the system also had a radio backup system. Physical communications were cut several times. For example, when a Danish excavator operator damaged the cable while working.

Hotline Direct Line United States Soviet Union 1 2

The line began operations on August 30, 1963. It had four sets of Latin-alphabet teletypes in Moscow and four sets of Cyrillic-alphabet teletypes manufactured by Siemens in Washington. These were located in strategic buildings in each country.

As it was communications with highest security rating a device called Electronic Teleprinter Cryptographic Regenerative Repeater Mixer II was used, which was in charge of protecting the line with a single-use cryptographic system.

To guarantee its operation, the line was tested periodically. While the American test messages included excerpts from William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and encyclopedias, the Soviet ones contained passages from the works of Anton Chekhov.

updates arrive

By the early 1970s, communications had advanced substantially. As a result, Moscow and Washington agreed to upgrade the system to start using secure satellite links and maintain the backup land line.

The first update was launched in 1971. The United States decided to use two Intelsat satellites and the Soviet Union two Molniya II satellites.. Later, in July 1984, the system gained the ability to send messages by fax, and the teletype stopped working in 1988.

In whose hands are the world's communications satellites

In 2008, the Moscow-Washington hotline applied its last major update, which is still active. The communication system adopted a dedicated computer network to send written communications between both countries that involved satellites and fiber optics.

Hotline Direct Line United States Soviet Union 1 3

Throughout its history, the line received various updates but, contrary to what legends and film culture say, it never involved phone calls between the leaders, so the “Red Phone” as such does not exist.

However, a product of popular culture, at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum a red phone is displayed what represents the direct line between Washington and Moscow.

The first official use by the United States occurred after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The Soviet Union officially launched the system on June 5, 1967 during the outbreak of the Six-Day War. .

Pictures | pixelbay | Wikimedia Commons | cryptomuseum| US Department of Defense

The tense relationship between the United States and Russia over the war in Ukraine has brought to the fore an…

The tense relationship between the United States and Russia over the war in Ukraine has brought to the fore an…

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