There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

As this sweltering North American summer of 2018 drags on, a lot of attention has been paid around the world to a different kind of temperature…the heating up of the relationship between the United States and Russia. Some pundits have looked back to past crises in the twentieth century between the United States and the then Soviet Union (USSR) for analogies, including the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In October 1962, following a failed summit between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, the United States discovered that the USSR had placed ballistic missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the U.S. coast. A period of tense negotiations and brinkmanship followed, as the world held its breath wondering if nuclear war was imminent.

Although the crisis was resolved in time after 13 days, the challenge of communicating in real time between the two governments almost led to the brink several times. For example, by the time the United States received and decoded the USSR’s initial settlement proposal, Khrushchev had sent a less favorable offer, thinking that his first had been ignored. Technocrats on both sides decided that the solution to the technical problem of two nuclear powers with the capacity to destroy each other and the world was more technology—a high-tech, dedicated communications link between the two capitals.

The idea had actually been floated earlier by a number of individuals after a 1958 novel, Red Alert by Peter George, posited a fictional nuclear war based on miscommunication between Washington and Moscow (this book became the basis for the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). The Cuban Missile Crisis gave the idea momentum.

After a period of further negotiations, the two parties signed, in Geneva on 20 June 1963, a “Memorandum of Understanding Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link.” The agreement called for two full-time duplex telegraph (telex) circuits connected through London. Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki. The first leg, Washington to London, traveled by TAT-1 (an IEEE Milestone). There was also a back-up radio circuit put in place.

Each side was technically and financially responsible for their transmissions (which were in the language of the sender), and for translation of received messages. Each side sent the other a set of teleprinters in their own alphabet.

Fifty-five years ago, on 30 August 1963, the system went live when the United States broadcast the test message “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890” (covering all of the Latin characters on their teletype console). It soon grabbed the popular imagination as “the hotline.” Sadly, the first official use of the hot line was on 22 November 1963 when the United States used it to inform the USSR of the assassination of President Kennedy. Ironically, within a few months the Republican Party made it part of their platform for the 1964 presidential election that the hotline demonstrated that the Democratic Party was soft on communism. The first official Soviet transmission was on 5 June 1967 when the Six-Day War erupted in the Middle East.

Although it was a huge improvement, the hotline system was not without flaws. The cable was accidentally cut a few times by construction activity in Europe, though frequent testing and the back-up radio circuit prevented any crises. Therefore, as telecommunication technology advanced, naturally the system was upgraded. In 1971, two satellite communication links were established as backup to replace the radio link. In 1986, high-speed facsimile systems were added to complement the telex systems (the telex systems were finally phased out in 1988 after the faxes proved to be sufficiently reliable). In 2008, the system switched to email using desktop computers as terminals. The satellite links became the primary circuit, while a fiber-optic cable became the back-up. Note that at no time in its long, storied history did the hotline terminals resemble the red telephone of the popular imagination; voice communication was never considered because of the increased opportunity for misunderstanding.

So, as the world enters another interesting phase of U.S.-Russian relations, it’s nice to know that the two sides can still “talk” to each other.


Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: http://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html.


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