The nature of the relationship between the United States and Russia has garnered plenty of headlines lately, but a ceremony next week will be a reminder of a time when the two nations were truly hostile.
The 50th anniversary of the hotline between the United States and Russia, which went into use on Aug. 30, 1963, will be celebrated Thursday with a ceremony at Fort Detrick in Frederick.
The ceremony will include former U.S. Ambassador Jack Foust Matlock Jr. and Sergei Khrushchev, the son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Although more commonly known for its laboratories, Fort Detrick also acts as the communications link between the U.S. and Moscow.
The idea of a direct line between the two countries stemmed from the cumbersome communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when messages were sent in multiple parts and even by bicycle delivery boy and Western Union, said James Hershberg, a Cold War historian and professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“It was clearly noticed that this was no way to communicate,” he said.
The agreement in June 1963 to establish the hotline was part of a tentative warming of relations between Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy after the near disaster of the missile crisis the year before that would ultimately lead to the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August 1963.
“The hotline was part of a moment of the first real thaw in Cold War tensions since the Cold War started,” Hershberg said.
Although it has been portrayed in numerous movies and television shows as a red telephone linking the Oval Office to the Kremlin, the original hotline was a trans-Atlantic telegraph wire that ended at the Pentagon rather than the White House.
It changed over the years along with technology, moving from a telegraph to fax machine to the current email-based set-up.
The system’s creators intentionally decided not to make the hotline a verbal system such as a telephone because they were afraid of problems with translation during tense situations, Hershberg said.
Although it was installed in late 1963, the hotline wasn’t used in an official capacity until the Six-Day War in 1967, between Israel and Arab nations, including Egypt and Syria.
Those messages were mostly efforts by the Soviets anxious to stop the war because their Arab allies were losing, Hershberg said.
Over time, the hotline became a method to convey the urgency of a political situation rather than a vital method of communicating, he said.
Eric Lohr, a history professor and chair of Russian history and culture at American University in Washington, said that while Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to occasionally confront the United States with issues such as the Snowden affair, in which Russia has granted temporary asylum to a National Security Administration contractor accused of leaking confidential information to news organizations, the relationship between the two countries is still infinitely better than when the hotline was installed.
“The Cold War was the Cold War. We’re not in the Cold War,” he said.
Putin likes to jab the U.S. in a way similar to how former French president Charles DeGaulle used to, letting the world know his country is still relevant on the international stage, Lohr said.
There are many more links between the U.S. and Russian governments today than there were in the 1960s and ’70s, Lohr said,
Most Cabinet secretaries have direct relationships with their Russian counterparts to handle any issues that come up, he said.
And modern communications technology has allowed the U.S. to have direct communications similar to the ones with Russia with countries around the globe.
“In a sense, we have hotlines to every single country now,” Lohr said.