This Day in History… August 30, 1963

The Moscow-Washington Hotline

US #1287 from the Prominent Americans Series.

On August 30, 1963, the first message was sent on the Moscow-Washington hotline.

In the early 1960s, several people pushed for a direct line of communication between US and Soviet leaders, two of the world’s superpowers.  There was some pushback from members of the US State Department and military as well as the Kremlin, so no action was taken immediately.

Item #M11282 – JFK and Khrushchev signed the test ban earlier in the month.

Then, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the situation changed.  While the US and Soviet Union were locked in an intense standoff, official diplomatic messages between the nations could take six hours to arrive.  Often, they turned to television news reporters to send their messages because it was quicker.

Soviet Union #5038 pictures the Kremlin.

In fact, it took the US almost 12 hours to receive and decode the initial 3,000-word message from Nikita Khrushchev.  By the time they decoded it and wrote a reply, Khrushchev had sent another, more threatening message, urging the US to remove its missiles from Turkey.  This crisis led many to believe that if the two governments had a faster form of communication, they might have been able to avoid the crisis altogether and work out their issues much faster.

Soviet Union #2260-61 – The blue stamp was issued for Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the US.

Both nations agreed they should establish better communications to avoid unintentionally starting a nuclear war. So in June 1963, they signed the Hot Line Agreement.  The first message sent over the hotline came from the US on August 30, 1963.  They sent the message “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.”  This phrase was chosen because it included all the letters, numbers, and an apostrophe, to test that the keyboard and printer worked. 

US #1250 was issued for Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

For a while, the hotline was tested every hour.  American messages included excerpts from Shakespeare, Mark Twain, encyclopedias, and a first-aid manual.  Over time, these test messages were replaced with occasional messages on New Year’s Eve and the hotline’s anniversary, August 30.  The first official message sent over the hotline was to announce President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.  The Soviet’s first official message came on June 5, 1967, during the Six-Day War.

Although it’s called a hotline and has sometimes been dubbed the “red telephone,” there is no phone.  The hotline only transmits text, as speech could be misunderstood.  The leaders of each nation would write a message in their own language, have it sent over the hotline, and then get translated on the other end.

US #3106 was issued for the 50th anniversary of computer technology.

The hotline is housed at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon and is usually manned by a two-person team.  A non-commissioned officer maintains the equipment while a commissioned officer that speaks Russian handles the translations.  When messages arrive, they are marked “Eyes Only – The President.”

When the hotline was first installed, it used Teletype.  In the 1980s messages were sent by fax.  And since 2008, messages have been sent by the computer.

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