At 7:15 on the morning of June 5, 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reached for a handset, one connected to a secure telephone line to a military switchboard at the White House. He asked the operator to ring the Air Force sergeant on duty outside President Lyndon Johnson’s bedroom.
“Sergeant, this is Secretary McNamara, and I want to talk to the president.”
“He’s asleep, sir.”
“Hell, I know he’s asleep, but wake him.”
After a few minutes, Johnson came on the line.
“God----it, Bob, what are you calling me for at this time in the morning?”
“Mr. President, Prime Minister Kosygin’s on the Hot Line. How do you wish to respond?”
“What did you say?”
Walt Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser, had already awakened the president that morning at 4:35 with news reports of Israeli military attacks on Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Johnson also had spoken with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, but Alexei Kosygin’s attempt to reach him was a surprise. The Hot Line had never been used before.
“What do you think I should do?” Johnson asked.
“I will respond and say that you’ll be down in the Situation Room in 15 minutes. In the meantime, I’ll call Dean and we’ll meet you down there.”
Fifty years ago this month, the Washington-Moscow Hot Line was established, forged by the heat of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Despite the mythology, there has never been a red Hot Line telephone on the president’s desk; the line is a data-only link. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all used it, and it proved to be a useful crisis-management tool during the Cold War.
I say this with confidence as a former director of the White House Situation Room and with the benefit of conversations, since 2001, with just about everyone who had used the Hot Line. That list includes McNamara and Rostow, who told me about that June 1967 morning.
Technicians in the Pentagon sent the first test message on the Hot Line — or MOLINK, Pentagon-speak for “Moscow link” — on Aug. 30, 1963, marking a seminal moment in Cold War history. The communicators sent a rather pedestrian message, one that tested all of the alpha-numeric teletype keys: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.”
The circuit hasn’t been used in a crisis mode since 1982, according to declassified sources. More routine voice communications, a sign of better relations, now dominate U.S.-Russian “situations.” Hot Line foot-stomping has generally gone the way of the Berlin Wall.
Nevertheless, Pentagon personnel continue to test the circuit hourly to ensure instant availability. They work hard at maintaining this reminder of crises past, however anachronistic and unused it may be.
Several hours before McNamara’s call to President Johnson on June 5, Israel preemptively attacked its neighboring Arab countries. That prompted Kosygin’s initial message to Johnson: “We hope that the Government of the United States will ... exert appropriate influence on the Government of Israel particularly since you have all opportunities of doing so.”
As Johnson and his team prepared a reply, Rostow’s staff queried the technicians in Moscow regarding how the president should address Kosygin in the message. The answer: “Comrade Kosygin.”
Johnson replied that he, too, was seeking a ceasefire. “We feel it is very important that the United Nations Security Council succeed in bringing this fighting to an end as quickly as possible,” he said.
Johnson’s staff learned later that the Soviets considered the “Comrade Kosygin” opening as an affront. Fortunately, the Soviets later learned the details.
Johnson and Kosygin exchanged 19 Hot Line messages during the six-day crisis. The link proved most valuable June 8 when Israel inexplicably attacked a U.S. intelligence-gathering ship, USS Liberty, in international waters off Israel. As the U.S. 6th Fleet rushed assistance to the ship, Johnson sent Kosygin a Hot Line message assuring that the naval forces were not joining the hostilities.
Rostow told me in 2001 that he was pleased the Hot Line was only a teletype. “I’m glad the circuit had not been a telephone line, or we might have inadvertently said the wrong thing.”
Johnson also used the Hot Line in a non-crisis situation. He ordered mission updates sent to the Soviets during Apollo 8’s orbit of the moon in 1968.
In the early 1960s, the idea of accidental nuclear war had caught the attention of novelists and an influential news media figure. They found a receptive public, one already digging bomb shelters in the back yard.
Author Peter Bryant wrote “Red Alert” in 1958, a novel about a rogue U.S. Air Force general who unilaterally attempts to start a nuclear war with the Soviets. The book became the basis for the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” Similarly, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler wrote “Fail-Safe,” another accidental nuclear war story, which ironically was published during the Cuban missile crisis.
Parade magazine editor Jess Gorkin published an open letter to President Dwight Eisenhower and Chairman Nikita Khrushchev on March 20, 1960. Gorkin exhorted the two men to create a crisis communications link. Gorkin ended the letter with a rhetorical question: “Must a world be lost for the want of a telephone call?”
Kennedy took a personal interest in Gorkin’s proposal during the Cuban missile crisis, when his staff had to work around communications delays. Khrushchev, for example, sent his crisis-ending message to Kennedy via three parallel routes, including Radio Moscow, to ensure timely receipt at the White House.
The United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement on June 20, 1963, to provide for a combination landline and undersea cable pathway for a teletype circuit. The route connected Washington to Moscow via London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. A backup radiotelegraph circuit linked the capitals via a relay station in Tangier, Morocco.
Nixon first used the Hot Line during the brief 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. The president and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, initially worked through diplomatic channels to ask the Soviets to both restrain India and help the United States end the crisis.
Concerned when General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev failed to respond promptly, Nixon emphasized his point by messaging Brezhnev on the Hot Line. Brezhnev responded positively the next day, and the hostilities wound down.
That same year, the Nixon administration agreed with Moscow to upgrade the Hot Line circuit by adding satellite links: one via the U.S. Intelsat system, and another using the Soviet Union Molniya II satellites.
The outbreak of the 1973 “Yom Kippur War,” another Arab-Israeli conflict, challenged a wounded president in the midst of his Watergate woes.
Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Oct. 6, 1973 — Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Israel fared badly in the early going but later gained the upper hand. That prompted the Soviet Union to threaten intervention in support of Egypt and Syria.
Brezhnev sent a Hot Line message to Washington at 9:35 p.m. on Oct. 24. He threatened Soviet military action if Israel did not stop fighting. Nixon, depressed by the deterioration of his presidency, had retreated by that time to the White House residence and the solace of a few highballs. Taking receipt of Brezhnev’s message, Kissinger, then both secretary of state and national security adviser, spoke on the telephone with presidential Chief of Staff Alexander Haig.
“I just had a letter from Brezhnev asking us to send forces in together or he would send them in alone,” Kissinger said.
“I was afraid of that,” Haig said.
“Should I wake up the president?” Kissinger asked.
Kissinger, Haig and five other members of Nixon’s crisis-management team decided on a response. They raised the worldwide readiness level of U.S. military forces and put the 82nd Airborne Division on alert. After the Soviets had time to observe those actions, Kissinger, on behalf of Nixon, sent a nonconfrontational Hot Line response to Brezhnev’s letter.
The Soviets quickly pulled back, and Israel finally halted hostilities.
Shortly before Nixon’s August 1974 resignation, Kissinger used the Hot Line during a July confrontation between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. With Nixon closeted in his California home and contemplating resignation, Kissinger dealt with Moscow.
Zbigniew Brzezinski talked with me recently about President Carter’s use of the Hot Line. The former national security adviser and I melded my research with his recollections from 34 years ago, and agreed that Carter had used the Hot Line on three occasions.
The first instance, in September 1979, the matter was the purported U.S. discovery of a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba. The intelligence report came during the delicate attempt by Carter to persuade the Senate to ratify the SALT II disarmament agreement. Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), whose support Carter needed, latched on to the issue. He publicly called for Carter to “draw the line on Russian penetration of this hemisphere.”
Carter sent two Hot Line messages to Brezhnev, the first on Sept. 24, then another when the Soviet did not immediately reply. Carter objected to the brigade’s presence and noted that the situation might upset SALT II ratification.
Declassified minutes of the Soviet Politburo’s meeting on Sept. 27 revealed Brezhnev’s reaction: “Last night Carter once again appealed to us via the hot line regarding the issue of the story they have dreamed up about the presence of our military brigade in Cuba.” Brezhnev’s description of Carter’s “dream” wasn’t far off. The brigade was actually a remnant of Soviet forces deployed to Cuba before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The unit was not new to the Caribbean, but Washington politicians made it a new problem.
Brezhnev sent Hot Line assurances about the brigade’s mission. The Washington Post’s Don Oberdorfer reported that the Soviets could “be of little help in resolving what they believed to be essentially an American political problem, not of their making.”
When, on Dec. 25, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Cuban brigade brouhaha — to saying nothing of SALT II — quickly fell off the table.
Within days, Carter sent a Hot Line message to Brezhnev, one he later described as “the sharpest message of my presidency.” Brezhnev replied the next day and waved aside rumors of an “invasion.” He said the Afghan government had requested Soviet help.
The third time Carter fired up the Hot Line occurred on Dec. 3, 1980, a month after Reagan had defeated him. The Soviets appeared ready to invade Poland to quash the Solidarity movement. Carter warned of “serious consequences.” And oddly closed with: “Best wishes, Jimmy Carter.”
The Soviets eventually eased away from an assault.
Problems in Poland continued well into Reagan’s first year in office. On Dec. 13, the Soviet Union imposed martial law in Poland and arrested Solidarity leaders. After 10 days of diplomatic exchanges, Reagan sent a protest to Brezhnev on the Hot Line.
Brezhnev replied on Christmas morning. An aide delivered the message, sans wrapping and bow, to the president in the White House residence. The Soviet reminded Reagan that the Polish matter was “the business of the parties themselves and only them.”
Reagan’s next use of the Hot Line came after the 1982 Israeli military incursion into Lebanon. Israel, seeking to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization from its bases in southern Lebanon, commenced air attacks June 5 and sent ground forces across the border the next day.
The Israelis routed the PLO, then expanded their assault to the Syrian air force and air defense system, both of which they destroyed. Concerned that Israel might threaten Syria itself, Brezhnev rattled the Hot Line. Brezhnev’s bottom line: The United States must restrain Israel, or the Soviets would intervene.
The Soviet military backed up Brezhnev’s bluster by placing selected airborne troops and their airlift forces on alert. The United States did not respond in kind. However, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with Reagan in the White House on June 21, the president leaned on him hard enough to gain a ceasefire.
In 1985, Moscow and Washington again upgraded the Hot Line circuitry by adding a facsimile system. Six years later, they added separate non-crisis voice circuits.
In 1985, when I was running the Sit Room, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev unexpectedly sent a 15-page handwritten letter to Reagan via the Hot Line fax. My senior duty office called me at home on a secure line, and I immediately asked him to patch me though to John Poindexter, the national security adviser. I offered to send the letter to State for translation.
“Not so fast,” Poindexter said. “I don’t want State reading that letter until we know what it says. Can you get it translated?”
The two military noncoms on duty at the White House Hot Line terminal, then located in the East Wing basement, gave the letter their best shot. They were trained in Russian, but Gorbachev’s idiosyncratic usage, and penmanship, gave them quite a challenge.
The letter turned out to be a detailed assessment of the issues the two men faced in their continuing dialogue. For example, Gorbachev took a pot shot at U.S. rhetoric about regional conflicts: “Why apply a double standard here and assert that Soviet aid is a source of tension and U.S. assistance is beneficial?”
Washington and Moscow expanded the scope of the Hot Line system in 1988 when the governments established Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in each capital. The State Department runs the NRRC system, which insiders called the “warm line.” The links have provided a means below head-of-state level to rapidly exchange information about missile tests, exercises, nuclear accidents, arms control agreement monitoring and incidents at sea. State notified Moscow of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks via the NRRC circuit.
In June, the two countries added a cyberspace alert circuit.
CLINTON, BUSH 43
The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and the associated end of the Cold War, at least in traditional terms, changed the context of the Hot Line. Operational use of the data-only line has withered. However, presidents starting with George H.W. Bush have used the “Direct Voice Link,” a non-crisis circuit separate from the Hot Line, for important conversations.
Technical advances permitted communications technicians to patch Bush’s secure voice handset into the Direct Voice Link. During the Soviet coup attempt in August 1991, Bush wrote that he used the line to speak with Gorbachev after his four-day detention. “My dearest George,” Gorbachev said, “I am so happy to hear your voice again.”
The Bill Clinton-Boris Yeltsin communications appear to have been all Direct Voice Link calls. That model continued with George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Several media reports had Putin contacting Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, via the Hot Line, but that communication was instead a Direct Voice Link call.
In late June, Army Lt. Col. Charles Cox escorted me through the heavily guarded entrance to the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon basement. We walked down a hallway and into a one-room facility that contains the Pentagon’s Hot Line terminal. Cox, the officer-in-charge and senior presidential translator, pointed to a couple of workstations and said, “Welcome to MOLINK.”
Modern communications devices now require only two operators on each shift to operate the terminal 24-7 — a translator and a communicator. Of the six translators in the watch standing pool, half are civilians and half military. The six communicators are all senior noncommissioned officers.
Today the Hot Line’s redundant communications pathways are via satellite and fiber-optic cable, and each end uses commercial software for e-mail and chat. Operators use chat protocols for coordination, and the teams send test messages by e-mail. Because substantive messages apparently haven’t been exchanged in years, it’s unlikely that “You’ve got mail” has ever popped up on a president’s desktop.
One end of the Hot Line sends a test message on the even hours, and the other on the odd. The Pentagon sends its test messages in English, using the Latin alphabet; Moscow transmits Cyrillic Russian messages.
Cox was understandably circumspect when I asked about operational use. But in a light moment, he pointed at an old-fashioned red telephone not connected to anything. “When VIP visitors ask to see the ‘red phone,’ ” he said with a chuckle, “we hand it to them.”
The system has another terminal that serves the White House, and a third in a remote facility near Waynesboro, Pa.
In addition to the Washington-Moscow connections, the federal Office of Emergency Communications offers other lines reserved for crises: a voice hot line to China and data lines to former Soviet republics. Telephone lines connect the secretary of defense to his counterparts in 21 countries.
President Obama frequently has used the Direct Voice Link to speak with Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. There is no indication Obama has used the traditional Hot Line. But the president did speak about it in June 2010, although metaphorically.
In a joint news conference in the White House with the visiting Medvedev, Obama talked glowingly about improved cooperation with Russia. “We may finally,” he said, “be able to throw away those ‘red phones’ that have been sitting around for so long.”
However antiquated the Hot Line may seem, and presidential jokes aside, pulling back from the Cold War icon might be tricky. Given the good odds for tension between Washington and Moscow in the future — the Syrian civil war, for example — a suggestion by one side to turn off the Hot Line might signal a degree of unhelpful unilateralism.
The Hot Line may be an anachronism in today’s wired world, but it’s a subject protectively wrapped in symbolism and lasting perceptions. Perhaps Obama, Putin and even the nimble fox should leave the lazily sleeping dog lie.
Michael K. Bohn, a former director of the White House Situation Room, writes regularly for McClatchy Newspapers. He is a nonfiction author now working on “Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions From Truman to Obama.” To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.