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August 15, 2013

Hot Line: Even without a Cold War, the Washington-Moscow link is still up

WASHINGTON — At 7:15 on the morning of June 5, 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reached for a handset, one connected to a secure telephone line to a military switchboard at the White House. He asked the operator to ring the Air Force sergeant on duty outside President Lyndon Johnson's bedroom.

"Sergeant, this is Secretary McNamara, and I want to talk to the president."

"He's asleep, sir."

"Hell, I know he's asleep, but wake him."

After a few minutes, Johnson came on the line.

"God----it, Bob, what are you calling me for at this time in the morning?"

"Mr. President, Prime Minister Kosygin's on the Hot Line. How do you wish to respond?"

"What did you say?"

Walt Rostow, Johnson's national security adviser, had already awakened the president that morning at 4:35 with news reports of Israeli military attacks on Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Johnson also had spoken with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, but Alexei Kosygin's attempt to reach him was a surprise. The Hot Line had never been used before.

"What do you think I should do?" Johnson asked.

"I will respond and say that you'll be down in the Situation Room in 15 minutes. In the meantime, I'll call Dean and we'll meet you down there."

"Fine."

Fifty years ago this month, the Washington-Moscow Hot Line was established, forged by the heat of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Despite the mythology, there has never been a red Hot Line telephone on the president's desk; the line is a data-only link. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all used it, and it proved to be a useful crisis-management tool during the Cold War.

I say this with confidence as a former director of the White House Situation Room and with the benefit of conversations, since 2001, with just about everyone who had used the Hot Line. That list includes McNamara and Rostow, who told me about that June 1967 morning.

Technicians in the Pentagon sent the first test message on the Hot Line - or MOLINK, Pentagon-speak for "Moscow link" - on Aug. 30, 1963, marking a seminal moment in Cold War history. The communicators sent a rather pedestrian message, one that tested all of the alpha-numeric teletype keys: "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back 1234567890."

The circuit hasn't been used in a crisis mode since 1982, according to declassified sources. More routine voice communications, a sign of better relations, now dominate U.S.-Russian "situations." Hot Line foot-stomping has generally gone the way of the Berlin Wall.

Nevertheless, Pentagon personnel continue to test the circuit hourly to ensure instant availability. They work hard at maintaining this reminder of crises past, however anachronistic and unused it may be.

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