President Jimmy Carter speaking on a red telephone. (CSIS / flickr)


Revisiting the Red Phone

While it is dubbed the “Red Phone,” the Moscow-Washington hotline is not a physical red phone.
<a href="" target="_self">Akhil Vallabh</a>

Akhil Vallabh

July 22, 2022
The Cold War was a decades-long period of high tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The conflict was primarily spurred on by the two countries’ competing ideological systems — the U.S. championed democracy and capitalism, while the U.S.S.R. adhered to strict communism. But in the midst of all of these tensions emerged a hotline, one that played a major role in the mitigation of tensions throughout the Cold War.

After an all-out nuclear war almost came to fruition during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line, which established the Moscow-Washington hotline in June 1963. The goal: Prevent future conflicts between the two superpowers from turning nuclear by providing the nations with a direct line of communication.

As the Cold War continued, the Red Phone was used by various presidents in multiple conflicts. The first official use of the Red Phone was to announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963; Lyndon B. Johnson made the announcement and thereby became the first president to send the Kremlin a message on the hotline.

Johnson used the phone again in 1967 during the Six-Day War, reassuring the Soviets that the United States played no part in the war. Johnson’s successor President Richard Nixon would have his turn with the hotline throughout the early 1970s, during which both the Indo-Pakistani and Yom-Kippur Wars occurred, as well as Turkey’s attack on Cyprus.

Next on the phone came President Ronald Reagan, who had a penchant for using the phone to navigate crises throughout the early 1980s. But the Red Phone’s use did not end with the Cold War. President Barrack Obama used the hotline to warn Russian leader Vladimir Putin against interfering with the 2016 U.S. election.

However, while it is dubbed the “Red Phone,” the Moscow-Washington hotline is not a physical red phone. So, where did this idea come from? The answer: Pop culture. Television shows and books in the latter half of the twentieth century perpetuated the idea that the hotline was made up of two phones, one in the Kremlin and one in the Pentagon. 

In the 1964 filmDr. Strangelove,” President Merkin Muffley of the U.S. dials up the President of Russia on a physical phone and discusses the possibility of an attack. Historians largely credit this movie as the source for the public perception of the Moscow-Washington hotline as a physical red phone.

During the Iranian Hostage Crisis, President Jimmy Carter was photographed discussing the release of American hostages on a red telephone. Although Carter was unsuccessful in liberating the hostages, the photographs of him speaking on a red phone largely influenced the media’s perception of the Moscow-Washington hotline.

Decades later, in 2008, Hillary Clinton alluded to the Red Phone in one of her campaign ads: “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep, but there is a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something is happening in the world.”

Starting as just a simple pair of telegraph lines, the Moscow-Washington hotline has evolved over the decades. In 1971, eight years after its establishment, the hotline was upgraded to include two satellite communication lines.

Then, 12 years later, the Soviet Union agreed to upgrade the hotline with the addition of a facsimile machine. Most recently, the hotline was enhanced with the establishment of computer networks in 2008, allowing for emails to be sent between the nations. Today, the hotline continues to be maintained and adapted as both nations understand the significance it plays in foreign diplomacy.

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