The President never had a red telephone during the Cold War.

  • Teletype machine
Teletype machine
Credit: BTEU/TEKNISKA/ Alamy Stock Photo

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.

You may also like