Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the light of the communications difficulties experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, nuclear superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union, during the height of the Cold War, established an emergency communication line between the two countries.

Summary of Event

On June 20, 1963, in Geneva, Switzerland, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Charles C. Stelle of the United States and Semyon K. Tsarapkin of the Soviet Union, setting up a “hotline” between the two nuclear superpowers. The “line,” which was in place two weeks after the agreement was signed, was routed from Washington, D.C., to Moscow via the capitals of the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. On August 30 of that year the telegraphic line—the hotline, or Red Phone, as it was called, was not an actual telephone until the 1970’s—was operational between the offices of the leaders of the two countries. To ensure around-the-clock communications, a backup radio system was also put in place. Nuclear weapons;U.S.-Soviet hotline[U.S. Soviet hotline] Cold War;nuclear hotline Hot Line Agreement (1963) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Telecommunications;nuclear hotline [kw]Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union (June 20, 1963) [kw]United States and the Soviet Union, Hotline Is Adopted Between the (June 20, 1963) [kw]Soviet Union, Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the (June 20, 1963) Nuclear weapons;U.S.-Soviet hotline[U.S. Soviet hotline] Cold War;nuclear hotline Hot Line Agreement (1963) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Telecommunications;nuclear hotline [g]North America;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] [g]Europe;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] [g]United States;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] [g]Soviet Union;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] [c]Communications and media;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] [c]Cold War;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] [c]Government and politics;June 20, 1963: Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union[07640] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Cold War Khrushchev, NikitaS. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;and Cuba[Cuba] Stelle, Charles C. Tsarapkin, Semyon K.

The implementation of this small but critical agreement marked a milestone in the middle of the “heated” Cold War between the two powers. The memorandum of understanding was the only agreement reached by any of the participants of the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament[Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament] , an international conference that lasted sixteen months.

Although a proposal for better communications had been put forward by the Soviet Union nearly a decade earlier as a safeguard against surprise attacks, it was not until the early 1960’s, when a new round of miscommunications between the United States and the Soviet Union surfaced, that movement on the issue began in earnest. The potential for nuclear air strikes against the United States and its allies was taken seriously at the diplomatic level beginning in 1961.

In September, President John F. Kennedy proposed to the United Nations General Assembly that an international commission be created to study communication failures among governments around the world. Initially, the proposal was not received favorably by the Soviet Union. In April, 1962, at the talks being held by the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament, the United States proposed a separate treaty on communications that contained the mandate to establish reliable communications between governments. This April proposal received a response from the Soviet Union, but not until July. The Soviet’s counterproposal included a provision for better communications among the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union and the secretary-general of the United Nations. However, the Soviet proposal was intended as part of a complete disarmament treaty and not as a stand-alone agreement, as proposed by the United States.

While talks continued in Geneva, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. In what was later known as the Cuban Missile Crisis Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War;Cuba , the United States, which had known the Soviet Union was supplying conventional weapons to Cuba, obtained photographic evidence of nuclear missile installations being developed in the island nation. In light of this new evidence, Kennedy ordered a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba, hoping the pressure would force the Soviets to back down without the need for a military conflict. Ultimately, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev did order the missile sites be dismantled and for the retreat of Soviet ships with military equipment. The crisis was resolved in thirteen days. However, even during that relatively short crisis there were times when communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev were delayed several hours because of poor communication channels between the two countries.

Soviet messages had to travel from Khrushchev’s office to the Soviet foreign ministry. From there the message was communicated to the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which had to translate the document and send it to the U.S. State Department. The State Department then forwarded the message to the White House. The same sort of complicated procedure would take place with messages originating in the United States.

The inability to communicate directly (and thus quickly) likely added to the already heightened sense of fear and suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union. As events unfolded there were times when one country was initiating a new round of communications before it had received a response to an original message.

After the crisis was resolved, it was clear to both leaders that good communications between nations was essential. Adequate, and timely, communications was the key to preventing preemptive, and mistaken, nuclear attack, a “mistake” that would prove catastrophic.

In December, 1962, the United States again submitted a proposal at the disarmament talks, a proposal that included setting up a communication link among capitals of various countries. The United States did not make clear, however, under what circumstances such a link should be used; U.S. officials merely proposed the line be used for “emergencies.”

In April, 1963, the Soviet negotiator stated that the Soviet Union would accept a communication agreement with the United States; however, it would do so only without a mandate that it be part of a general disarmament treaty. The U.S. negotiators agreed in principle, and nineteen meetings were held on the issue over the following two months. On June 20, the agreement was signed in Geneva by representatives of both governments. While the agreement itself was relatively brief, very specific details regarding the equipment to be used were appended to the document. The details even specified that messages from the Soviet Union were to be in Russian and American messages were to be in English. There were to be dual systems for operating the hotline—one supplied by the United States and the other supplied by the Soviet Union. The ongoing cost of the physical transmission lines was to be shared by the two countries according to a predetermined formula. Until the system was upgraded in later decades, it worked efficiently. At one time, however, a Scandinavian farmer accidentally cut the line while plowing a field.

Significance

The agreement was significant both for what it enabled and for its symbolic nature. That leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union could instantly communicate was a major step in international security. Fears over accidental wars, or wars started because of inaccurate communications, were decreased. Within four years the system was put to use. The United States used the hotline to communicate with the Soviet Union during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Even though the 1963 agreement had only four sentences (and a much longer “annex” providing specifics for its implementation), it represented a major step in the right direction. Although the setting for the agreement was a multilateral disarmament conference, the hotline marked the first bilateral agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. Setting up a channel for emergency communications demonstrated that the two sides in the Cold War could negotiate and reach agreement on issues of mutual interest. Nuclear weapons;U.S.-Soviet hotline[U.S. Soviet hotline] Cold War;nuclear hotline Hot Line Agreement (1963) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Telecommunications;nuclear hotline

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen E., and David Brinkley. Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. A historical overview that places the hotline agreement in the context of American global interests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2002. Updated 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Focuses on the complex relationship between the two countries during the Cold War. Includes discussion of various treaties and agreements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ury, William. Beyond the Hotline: How Crisis Control Can Prevent Nuclear War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Provides an overview of communication devices(including the hotline) and committees already in place to prevent the escalation of conflict. Also proposes additional means of communication for future crises.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yenne, Bill. Secret Weapons of the Cold War: From the H-Bomb to SDI. New York: Berkley Books, 2005. A contemporary study of Cold War superweapons and how they have influenced U.S. and Soviet geopolitics and diplomacy.

First Nuclear Bomb Is Detonated

Teller and Ulam Develop the First Hydrogen Bomb

International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations

Canada and the United States Create NORAD

Cuban Missile Crisis

Nuclear Powers Sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty

Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War

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