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Was there really a red phone in the Cold War?

The president never had a red phone during the Cold War

Despite being an enduring symbol of the conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, there was never a red telephone on the U.S. President’s desk during the Cold War. While it’s true that a Moscow–Washington hotline was established in 1963 to, as the White House put it, “help reduce the risk of war occurring by accident or miscalculation,” it has never been red or even a phone. Instead, it was originally Teletype, which allowed encrypted messages to be sent between the two countries within minutes rather than hours. The system changed to fax machines (remember those?) in 1986 and has been a computer link for secure emails since 2008. 

All of this came about as a result of the Cuban missile crisis, a 13-day conflict widely considered the closest America and the Soviet Union ever came to starting a nuclear war — in part because of simple miscommunication. In order to reduce the risk of such a thing happening again, negotiators representing the two nations wrote a memo titled “Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link,” and signed it on June 20, 1963. As for how the image of a red phone entered our collective imagination in the first place, you can thank pop culture in general and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in particular. The red phone has appeared in many a spy novel, as well as a crucial scene in Kubrick’s Cold War satire.

George Orwell coined the term Cold War

Though it had been used before in other contexts, the term “Cold War” was first used in relation to the post-World War II nuclear threat by writer George Orwell. The 1984 and Animal Farm author wrote his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” in October 1945, just months after the United States dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, warningof a world “which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” As tended to be the case with Orwell, this prediction proved especially prescient. The term was further popularized by Walter Lippmann’s 1947 book The Cold War, and has been common parlance ever since. 

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