The U.S. President never had a “red phone” during the Cold War.

  • Phone in the oval office
Phone in the oval office
The Color Archives/ Alamy Stock Photo

The ominous “red phone” on the desk of the U.S. President has been portrayed in movies and political commercials, and even makes an appearance in Jimmy Carter’s presidential museum. There’s just one issue: It never existed. Not only was the Cold War-era emergency hotline between the U.S. and Soviet Union not a red phone, but it wasn’t a telephone at all. After a 1963 meeting in Geneva, a communication system was created that linked teletype machines to send written messages via transatlantic cable. The catalyst for the Washington-Moscow “nuclear hotline” was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which led both the United States and the Soviet Union to fear a scenario in which they could not communicate quickly enough during an emergency, leading to nuclear war.

What’s more, the U.S. side of the hotline wasn’t even in the White House; it was installed at the Pentagon headquarters in Virginia on the other side of the Potomac. In 1986, the communication system was upgraded to high-speed fax, and in 2008 both sides shifted into the 21st century with email. In 2013, President Barack Obama’s administration added a new channel to the hotline to be used for communication specifically about cybersecurity. Technicians still test the hotline on an hourly basis, sending messages back and forth. As to where the red phone myth began, most evidence points to Hollywood. In 1964, two movies, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, referenced a “red phone” in the context of the Soviet government and a nuclear emergency. 

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