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August 9, 2013

Hot Line: Even without a Cold War, the Washington-Moscow link is still up



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.

Hot Line Origins

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.

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