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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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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
iStock
iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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