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A Red Phone FAQ

What was the Red Phone?

The Red Phone, also known as the Red Telephone, the Moscow-Washington hotline and the Hot Line, is a "confidence building measure" and communications system designed to decrease tensions and prevent accidental nuclear war by providing direct contact between the leaders of the United States and Russia. It links the White House (via the National Military Command Center) with the Kremlin.

When and why was it established?

The leaders of the Soviet Union first proposed a safeguard to prevent accidental war in 1954. In 1958, they accepted an invitation from the US to take part in a Conference of Experts on Surprise Attack in Geneva, Switzerland; no firm plans were made, but research began on both ends on the technical aspects of a safeguard system. In 1961, President Kennedy addressed the U.N. General Assembly and proposed a "Program for General and Complete Disarmament in a Peaceful World." The program included measures to prevent miscommunication between the US and USSR, including "advanced notification of military movements and maneuvers" and the creation of "an international commission to study "˜failure of communication.'"

A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. While that's scary in and of itself, the way the two nuclear superpowers communicated with each other during the crisis is downright terrifying. It took the US almost 12 hours to receive and decode a 3,000 word telegram from the Soviets, and by the time the Americans drafted a response, the Soviets had already sent another message. Meanwhile, the Soviet ambassador to Washington had have a bicycle courier pick up his messages take them to a Western Union office in order to communicate with Moscow. Hindsight being 20-20, after the crisis was resolved, both the US and USSR realized the situation could have been resolved faster with a modern, efficient communication system. On June 20, 1963, spokesmen from both countries signed the "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line" in Geneva.

So how does it work?

Contrary to its portrayal in pop culture, the system is more than a pair of red telephones. In fact, the system didn't involve an actual telephone until the 1970s. The memorandum that established the system stipulated "one full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit," since it was thought that that text would reduce the chance of poor translation, give each side time to consider the other's message before replying and prevent a person's tone of voice from being misinterpreted. The telegraph circuit was routed Washington-London-Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Moscow, and a second link, routed Washington-Tangier-Moscow, was used a back up.

Identical teletype terminals were set up in Washington and Moscow, staffed by teams of communications experts and interpreters. The Moscow terminal, dubbed the Red Phone by the Soviets, was placed in a cell under the Kremlin, and the Washington terminal was placed in the Pentagon at the National Military Command Center. The memorandum also stipulated that each country provide the other with the necessary equipment for the terminals free of charge.

In 1971, the system was upgraded. A phone line was installed and the secondary telegraph line was eliminated. The main telegraph line was then complemented by two satellite communication lines, formed by two US Intelsat satellites and two Soviet Molniya II satellites.

The system was upgraded again in 1986. The Soviets replaced their satellites with modern stationary Gorizont-class satellites, and high-speed facsimile transmission capacity was added. This allowed the quick exchange of large amounts of information, including images and documents, along with voice and teletype messages.

When the hot line is used on the American end, a message from the president is sent from the White House to the command center via coded phone, electronic transmission or messenger. The officer in charge of the center contacts the White House to verify the message. Once the message is verified, it is encoded and sent to Moscow (in the early years, the teleprinters were only able to send material at the staggering rate of 66 words per minute). Messages from Washington are transmitted in English and messages from Moscow transmitted in Russian, using Cyrillic characters, with translation being handled on the receiving end.

Has it ever been used?

There have been several instances where the hotline has been used that the public is aware of, and probably many more that we don't know about yet. Moscow used the system for the very first time on June 5, 1967, during the Six Day War. President Lyndon Johnson said in his memoirs that he remembered answering the phone in his bedroom and hearing defense secretary Robert McNamara say, "Mr. President, the hot line is up." Just a few hours earlier, war had broken out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the Soviets wanted to know if the United States had taken part in Israel's surprise attack on Egypt. Over the next several days, the two sides used the hot line to send as many as 20 messages, mostly to inform each other of the intentions and maneuvers of their navy fleets, which were in close proximity in the Mediterranean.

Richard Nixon also used the hot line when tensions were sparked between India and Pakistan in 1971, and again two years later during another Middle East conflict. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both used the hot line to flex their muscles; Carter contacted Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and Reagan is said to have threatened the Soviets over their arrest of a US journalist on espionage charges.

Most recently, the system has been used during the post-war occupation of Iraq to allow for discussion of peace-keeping and rebuilding efforts.

While its official uses might be few and far in-between, the hot line functions 24/7 and is tested hourly, with the Pentagon sending a message every even hour, and Moscow sending a response every odd hour. Since something must be said in the messages, operators on both sides have made a game of testing each other's translation skills. The U.S. operators are fond of sending recipes for chili and magazine articles, while the Russians respond with excerpts from Dostoyevsky novels.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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