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The Moscow-Washington red phone wasn't red and wasn't a phone

So why do we remember it that way?

The Moscow-Washington line looked nothing like this.
The Moscow-Washington line looked nothing like this.
Shutterstock

The iconic idea of the direct line from Washington to Moscow is a bright red rotary phone. On this day in 1963, the first DC-to-Moscow hotline was installed in the White House.

The purpose? Opening a line of communication between the United States and the USSR, to avoid a misunderstanding that might lead to war.

But it wasn't a red phone. Instead, it looked like this:

The first "red phone" wasn't red and it wasn't a phone.

The first "red phone" wasn't red, and it wasn't a phone.

AFP/Getty Images

And it came in a case that looks like a really old record cabinet:

The hotline being installed.

The hotline being installed.

AFP/Getty Images

The original Moscow-Washington hotline actually wasn't in the White House, either. It linked the Pentagon and the Kremlin.

It worked by sending messages through teletype from Washington to Moscow, and vice versa, along with a few European routing stops along the way. Messages were sent in each sender's native language and then translated where they were received.

Declassified documents from the National Archives show how the hotline came about to prevent "delays, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations by either side." So the messages were always written to avoid miscommunication.

Over the years, there have been upgrades to the Washington-Moscow system, including a 1986 switch to faxing. But the hotline has stayed a strictly text affair.

So why do we imagine a red phone? Bond, James Bond.

The red phone has become iconic.

The red phone has become iconic.

Shutterstock

Part of the red phone's appeal is pop cultural: TV- and moviemakers realized that a bright red phone is more visually interesting than a dull black teletype system.

In 1955's James Bond novel Moonraker, Ian Fleming wrote about the "thrill of the red telephone" conveying urgent messages, and it became a persistent pop culture image. From there, it had varied appearances, even including a 1960 fairy tale retelling of "Little Bo Peep" (during a nuclear missile launch). Though 1964's Dr. Strangelove was in black and white, it featured a Moscow-to-Washington phone call on a (presumably) red phone.

Why else do we imagine a red phone? Carter, Jimmy Carter.

There have also been a lot of real, politically important red phones — they just didn't run between Moscow and Washington. In 1960, Popular Mechanics reported on a red phone that connected military leaders before nuclear attacks, and by 1966 the concept was so common that the president of Rolex made sure he had a red phone too. In 1976, the New York Times peeked inside the Pentagon's war room and found a bright red phone in use.

There's even photographic evidence of President Jimmy Carter using a red phone with Iran to try to negotiate the release of hostages, according to the National Archives:

President Carter talking on the red phone.

President Carter talking on the red phone.

NARA

All those red phones led to understandable confusion. There have been a lot of red phones in pop culture and a lot of red phones in real, high-stakes political discussions — they just weren't part of the Cuban missile crisis or the hotline from Moscow to Washington.

And that's how it remains today. There are no reports of red-painted iPhones for international FaceTiming — in 2007, the Moscow-Washington hotline switched to a computer network, but the mode of communication is relegated to chat and email, with no red phone in sight.

Update: A reader notes one iconic pop-culture red phone we missed, and though there are probably dozens we could include, this one merits a note: in 1966, the red Bat Phone made its television debut. Our apologies to the residents of Gotham.