Fifty-one years ago today, on June 20, 1963, a document was signed at the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland, by representatives of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, providing for the establishment of a secure hotline between Moscow and Washington, D.C. The need for quick, no-nonsense communication between superpower heads of state was chillingly demonstrated the previous October during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A little more than two months later the first message went out on that hotline. It was what we might call today a text message, sent for testing purposes: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.” Moscow texted back with a description of the sunset. With these innocuous messages, one of the most enduring icons of the Cold War was born.

Contrary to what most people believe, the Moscow-Washington hotline was not, and never was, a “red telephone.” In many popular depictions of the Presidency, set designers or scriptwriters just can’t resist putting an ominous-looking red telephone on the desk of the U.S. President, whose ring, invariably unexpected, signals doom. In fact, the system was designed specifically not to permit telephonic communication: the American and Soviet diplomats who negotiated the details during the summer of 1963 decided that it was too dangerous for either superpower leader, American or Russian, to speak contemporaneously with his (or her) opposite number and perhaps misread or misunderstand something in the other’s voice. From 1963 to 1988 the hotline was an old-fashioned Telex machine, which, when activated, would type English text on the terminal in Moscow and Russian Cyrillic text on the one at the White House–presumably translators would be on-hand to assist. During the late Reagan administration the Telex was switched to a fax machine, and in 2007, the age of the Internet, it became a secure email channel. Thus, if there was ever a nuclear accident or something serious that could raise the risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, Barack Obama would be able to email Vladimir Putin in real time. John F. Kennedy could only have dreamed of something like that 50 years ago.

Also contrary to popular belief, the hotline was used during the Cold War–several times. An imminent nuclear holocaust is not the only circumstance that can cause a President or Premier to (metaphorically speaking) pick up the red telephone. The first game-time use of the hotline occurred in June 1967 during the Six Day War, when LBJ and Brezhnev decided to notify each other of naval maneuvers in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, just to make sure neither side misunderstood or misinterpreted what was going on. This happened again six years later during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. A historical anecdote–not entirely substantiated–has it that Nixon, depressed over Watergate, was too drunk to communicate on the hotline, so the duty fell to Henry Kissinger. A president drunk-dialing the Soviet premier on the brink of nuclear war was a nightmare unique to the Cold War era.

A version of the “red telephone” appears in the 1963 nuclear war comedy Dr. Strangelove, where the President (Peter Sellers) uses it to discuss a nuclear threat with Soviet Premier Kissov.

Ronald Reagan got a lot of use out of the hotline. It’s easy to see why; tensions between the U.S. and Soviets were at their all-time high in the early 1980s, especially after the shootdown of Korean airliner KAL 007 in September 1983. Reagan’s predecessor Carter also got to use it in December 1979 to demand an explanation from the Russians for their invasion of Afghanistan. While I don’t know for sure if the hotline has been used since the end of the Cold War, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it was, possibly as recently as this year, given the very serious crisis occasioned by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine this spring.

I think the cultural iconography of the hotline is every bit as interesting as its real history. Jimmy Carter did keep a red telephone on his desk, though it was not connected to the hotline; it was a prop, perhaps a joke, though the reason the joke works is deadly serious. The meme of the ominous “red phone” has crept into our popular culture as well as our political one; as recently as 2008 Hillary Clinton, while running for President, ran a campaign ad involving a red telephone ringing in the middle of the night, demonstrating that the idea still scares us even after the Cold War has receded. Indeed, the “red telephone” is a piece of technology that is part and parcel of the nightmarish toy box of nuclear destruction that we’ve built up since 1945, along with the B-52, the ICBM and the bomb shelter. The only difference is that the “red telephone” itself is mythical, but still a powerful shorthand for nuclear tension.

The image of the red telephone (at the Carter Presidential Library) is by Wikimedia Commons user Piotrus and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.