June 20, 1963: The US and the Soviet Union sign an agreement to set up a hotline between the two countries’ leaders. Previously, diplomatic messages could take up to 12 hours to cross the world; during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this was a dangerously long time. As the world stood on the brink of a nuclear war, the need for quick and direct communication between the two nuclear superpowers became urgent. The “hotline” was established following the signing of the “Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line” in Geneva, at the at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee. This hot line linked the White House via the National Military Command Center with the Kremlin, allowing direct communication between the then-leaders John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev .
Although its symbol was a red telephone, the line was a teletype link rather than a telephone link, meaning that messages were sent in typed form which allowed precise translation at either end. This decision was based on the fact that there was no room for error when it came to translation: in matters of diplomacy and especially war, a message could not afford to be lost in translation or misunderstood. At the inauguration of the line, then-President Kennedy declared it would “help reduce the risk of war occuring by accident or miscalculation”, which justifies further the written form of communication through this hotline.
The “red phone” was first used by the Kremlin in 1967 during the six-day Arab-Israeli war, and was reportedly used on the day of then-President Kennedy’s murder.
Also on June 20: Queen Victoria succeeds to the throne of Great Britain (1837), Alexander Graham Bell installs the first commercial telephone line in Ontario, Canada (1877), Mali and Senegal gain independence from France (1960)
Born on June 20: Errol Flynn (1909), Lionel Richie (1949), Nicole Kidman (1970)
Back in the Day: Washington and Moscow invent the 'hotline'