U.S.-Soviet Communication Link Turns 60

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| By J. Robert Parks |

A red phone sits on a desk, surrounded by people arguing over what to do. Suddenly, one of them picks up the handset and, without dialing (because there’s nothing to dial), suddenly starts talking: “This is the president!” This scene, or something like it, is a staple of movies set during the Cold War, but the reality is much different. There is no red phone. In fact, there’s not even a phone. But there is a direct communication link between the United States and Russian governments—and it was established 60 years ago this week, on August 30, 1963. Librarians and teachers looking to explain the origin of the U.S.-Soviet “hotline” and what the Cold War was like will find a wealth of resources in Gale In Context: World History.

The hotline was a consequence of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which shook the world in October 1962. The precursor to the crisis had occurred in April 1961, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy ordered an invasion of Cuba to try to overthrow Communist dictator Fidel Castro. That fiasco, known as the Bay of Pigs, only strengthened Castro’s hand. Afterward, Cuba’s patron—the Soviet Union—started sending it military assistance.

On October 14, 1962, a U-2 spy plane flew a routine mission over Cuba, but what it discovered was far from routine. It snapped photographs that showed the Soviet Union was placing medium-range nuclear missiles on Cuba that could strike the United States, and they were scheduled to be operational by the end of the month. After a week of determining what to do, Kennedy and his advisors settled on a response to quarantine the island and demand that the Soviet Union withdraw its missiles.

Tensions increased, and the possibility of a nuclear war loomed large—even more after a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba on October 27. But the following day, the United States and the Soviet Union were finally able to come to an agreement: The Soviet Union would remove the missiles from Cuba if the United States removed missiles that it had placed in Turkey. The quid pro quo wasn’t announced. Instead, the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles if the United States promised not to invade Cuba. The following year, the United States did take out its Turkish missiles.

Coming so close to global catastrophe led the two superpowers to take steps to avoid a recurrence. The idea of a hotline had actually been under consideration as early as 1961. A U.S. presidential task force recommended it, but neither the military nor the State Department approved. The danger of the Cuban Missile Crisis overcame those objections, and by summer 1963, the Soviet Union had agreed to the U.S. proposal. Gale In Context: World History brings these critical connections to life for students and educators.

Initially, the hotline was a teletype, rather than a phone. The test message from Washington was the prosaic “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.” The Soviet Union’s initial message was a poetic description of the sun setting over Moscow. Satellite hotline links were added in 1971 to provide redundancy in case something happened with the other link, and today there are three separate links.

The establishment of the hotline was an early part of a growing relationship that became known as détente, a period from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s in which the United States and Soviet Union signed a series of arms-control agreements and attempted to manage their relationship—even as it remained adversarial. During the 1980s, when the Cold War was at its most intense, the hotline was a symbol that the two countries would do their best not to let disaster strike.

The hotline continues to function—and did so even as the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. Tests of the communication line are done every hour of every day and have been conducted for the last 60 years. In addition to articles and primary sources regarding the Cold War, Gale In Context: World History contains images and videos related to the fraught relationship between the superpowers, beginning after World War II.

About the Author

J. Robert Parks is a former professor and frequent contributor to Gale In Context: U.S. History and Gale In Context: World History who enjoys thinking about how our understanding of history affects and reflects contemporary culture.


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