In 1963, John F. Kennedy becomes the first U.S. president to have a direct communications line to the Kremlin in Moscow. The "hotline" was designed to facilitate communication between the president and Soviet premier.
The development of the hotline came in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the US and USSR had come dangerously close to a nuclear war. The US had discovered that the Soviets had planted Cuban missiles capable of launching nuclear warheads. The tense diplomatic exchange that followed was highly troubled by delays caused by slow communication systems. Although Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to resolve the crisis and both signed a nuclear test-ban treaty on August 5, 1963, fears of future "misunderstandings" led to the installation of an improved communications system.
U.S. Ambassador Charles C. Stelle and Soviet negotiator Semyon K. Tsarapkin
sign the U.S.-Soviet agreement in Geneva, Switzerland on a hot line between
Washington and Moscow (06/06/1963).
On August 30, the White House issued a statement that the new hotline would "help reduce the risk of war occurring by accident or miscalculation." Instead of relying on telegrammed letters that had to travel overseas, the new technology was a momentous step toward the very near future when American and Soviet leaders could simply pick up the phone and be instantly connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was agreed that the line would be used only in emergencies, not for more routine governmental exchanges.
John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev
An article in The New York Times described how the new system would work: Kennedy would relay a message to the Pentagon via phone, which would be immediately typed into a teletype machine by operators at the Pentagon, encrypted and fed into a transmitter. The message could reach the Kremlin within minutes, as opposed to hours. Although a far cry from the instantaneous communication made possible by today's cell phones and email, the technology implemented in 1963 was considered revolutionary and much more reliable and less prone to interception than a regular trans-Atlantic phone call, which had to be bounced between several countries before it reached the Kremlin.
The hotline was also known to the general public as the "red telephone" although there was never a direct connection by phone. It was considered by both superpowers but there were strong arguments against using a telephone connection. All parties concerned preferred a teletype link.