Technology Mythology: No Red Phone Ever Connected the White House to Moscow

Another case of "direct access" not being quite what you first thought

Not how it really looks (Pete Souza/Rebecca J. Rosen)

If there's one symbol that conveys the power, secrecy, responsibilities, and brinkmanship of the modern presidency it's the red phone, the direct line of communication from the White House to Moscow. Funny thing though: It's a myth. There never was any red phone.

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which messages traveling between the two superpowers could take half a day to reach their destinations, American and Soviet leaders agreed that they needed a faster and more secure way to communicate. In a memorandum from June 1963, the two powers agreed that "for use in time of emergency the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" ought to "establish as soon as technically feasible a direct communications link between the two Governments." But the result was not a red phone. As Tom Clavin writes at Smithsonian:

The use of the word "direct" in the memo's title was a bit misleading; there was no red phone involved. Messages sent to the Soviet Union on the wire telegraph circuit were routed on a 10,000-mile-long transatlantic cable from Washington to London to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Helsinki and finally to Moscow.

Still, it was a start. Soon after the agreement, four American-made teletype machines were flown to Moscow and installed in the Kremlin. An equal number of machines manufactured in East Germany were shipped to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. They were delivered not to the White House but to the Pentagon, which has remained home to the "hotline" ever since. The two sides also exchanged encoding devices so that the Americans could translate received messages into English and the Soviets could translate messages into Russian on their end.

The hotline was up and running by the end of August of 1963. John F. Kennedy, assassinated just three months later, never had cause to use it. The first president to do so was Lyndon Johnson, who used it to communicate with Alexei Kosygin during the Six Day War between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. In the years since, the hotline has been updated with a satellite connection (1971), a high-speed fax capacity (in the '80s), and a fiber-optic link for email and talking (in 2008). The original teletype link was severed five years after the fax came online.

As for the red phone, that's a creation of Hollywood, says Clavin:

The myth of the red phone hotline, that the president could call the Kremlin whenever it suited him, came from a wide-range of pop culture sources. A duo of movies from 1964 lent immediate post-Crisis credence to the visual of a phone. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb features a memorable scene of Peter Sellers' President Merkin Muffley warning Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov about the pending arrival of American bombers. In Fail-Safe, a film with a similar plot, Henry Fonda's nameless President delivered equally horrific news by phone (called a red phone, despite the movie being in black-and-white.) The most well-known television portrayal of a hotline system was the red "bat phone" in the "Batman" series of the late 1960s. It was also an object of humor in the show "Get Smart." In one episode in "The West Wing," Martin Sheen's President Bartlet mentions that the "red phone hotline" was canned before he took office.

Clavin adds that politicians too have perpetuated the myth, such as Mondale's ad in the 1984 Democratic primary, in which a gleaming red phone rotates in the shadows, as an ominous voice intones, "The most awesome, powerful responsibility in the world lies in the hand that picks up this phone." Hillary Clinton too evoked the great weight of this non-existent phone with her infamous 3 AM ad from the 2008 primary, though no red phone appears in the ad at all (at the tail end Clinton appears talking into a gray receiver). Any red phone in that commercial was entirely in the mind of the viewer.

As was, it turns out, any red phone in the Oval Office at all.