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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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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