In A Nutshell
Established nearly a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, there is a direct hotline between Washington and Moscow—intended mainly to prevent disaster due to miscommunication—that remains in working condition today.
The Whole Bushel
In October 1962, the revelation that the USSR had managed to place nuclear missiles on the Communist island of Cuba—a stone’s throw from Miami—was followed by days of the most tense diplomatic negotiations ever seen by humankind. Said missiles were easily capable of raining fire on the United States, and though the situation was (obviously) resolved peacefully and resulted in a longtime nuclear test ban, matters weren’t helped by painful communication delays during negotiations. One incident, though, particularly highlighted the need for better communication between the superpowers.
Literally right in the middle of the crisis, American U-2 pilot Charles Maultsby became disoriented by the aurora borealis as he was flying an atmospheric sampling mission close to the North Pole. Maultsby actually strayed into Soviet airspace (American and Soviet radar operators actually gave conflicting orders over his radio as to which way he should go). The Americans were able to get him re-oriented as the sun began to rise, and friendly fighters found him in American airspace just before he ran out of fuel. Had the Soviets become aware of an American fighter in their airspace at the height of the crisis, they might have reasonably assumed that the US was preparing to drop the first bombs of World War III, and responded in kind.
It was in an effort to prevent any future such misunderstanding that the hotline was established in August 1963. The first president to use the system was Lyndon B. Johnson, who notified the Soviet premier that he was considering US Air Force intervention in the Six Day War in 1967. Then, it was just a teletype—an actual phone wasn’t used until the early ’70s, with a satellite system supplementing the physical line in 1978. Today, though the line isn’t in use—heads of state probably just all have each others’ cell phone numbers—it remains in working condition.