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BBC Monitoring
Forty Years on Official Translator Looks Back on Russia-US Hotline
Source: Moscow Channel One TV in Russian 1700 GMT 6 Jun 03

[Announcer Yekaterina Andreyeva] Forty years ago, the leaders of the two nuclear super-powers had survived the Caribbean crisis [Bay of Pigs] and decided to set up a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington: the red telephone or, as it was called in America, the hotline. The name itself speaks of the emergency nature of the link - for use in the event of a nuclear incident, an error in launching a missile or a surprise strike by a third state. Maksim Bobrov reports on how the hotline works and who has the right to pick up the receiver:

[Correspondent] The Caribbean crisis. In 1962 the world was mere steps away from nuclear war. According to one version, there was a direct link even then between Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy albeit not by telephone but through particularly trusted agents, Fokin and (?Skalle). Once the crisis had been happily resolved, however, it became clear that it was better for the top men to communicate without going through anyone else, not through letters that took a long time but directly, by phone.

In 1963, Moscow and Washington approved the setting up of a hotline but it was used for the first time only four years later. On 5 June, 1967, the Six-Day War broke out in the Middle East. Israel was evidently defeating Egypt and Syria. Events were followed closely on both sides of the Atlantic. Moscow was worried by the Arab countries lack of success.

Translator to three general secretaries [of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] Viktor Sukhodrev [captioned] recalls that on the first day of the war he was summoned urgently from the Foreign Ministry to the Kremlin. His task was to translate the first conversation in the history of the hotline between Soviet Prime Minister [Aleksey] Kosygin and US President [Lyndon B.] Johnson. There were three rooms in the Kremlin basement, two typists, two communications operators, a duty officer and a KGB general.

Kosygin arrived direct from a Politburo sitting, with Yuriy Andropov and Andrey Gromyko - chairman of the KGB and minister of foreign affairs. And then came the first surprise - the red telephone turned out to be not a telephone at all.

[Sukhodrev] There was no telephone just basic teleprinters that you'd find at any telegraph office. Kosygin was surprised. In a word, I realized that even in the Politburo the opinion was that there was a direct telephone line. You pick up the receiver and there's the US president on the other end. Kosygin said: "How are you meant to get in touch?" "Well, if you give us the document you want sent, our operators, will put it all into the teleprinter, we'll press the button and it'll all be in Washington, at the White House, a minute later."

[Correspondent] Half a page of text from the Soviet prime minister went off to Washington. Half an hour later the White House confirmed that the message had been received. President Johnson's own reply came later. Kosygin, Andropov and Gromyko had to wait in front of their frightened subordinates.

[Sukhodrev] The mere appearance of the three of them, Kosygin, Gromyko and Andropov in the building caused great alarm for the unfortunate young ladies, the translators and operators, who'd never seen such eminent leaders. Their hands were shaking as the operators transmitted it all to Washington.

[Correspondent] In the remaining five days of the war, the Kremlin and the White House used the red telephone about twenty times.

In Brezhnev's day, the hotline did turn from a teleprinter into a telephone.

[Sukhodrev] The phone rang, the red line itself, from the United States and the president of the United States, it was Mr. Carter, as I recall, asked Brezhnev a question. He was being told that Soviet troops were being concentrated on the border with Afghanistan. "Really?" Brezhnev said, "I hadn't heard. Let me ask the defense minister." He pretend to ask the minister then said, "The minister here says no such thing's going on."

[Correspondent] A red telephone doesn't necessarily imply trust. Incidentally, over the past 40 years, it's not just communications technology that's changed. The world's changed too. My friend, John or my friend, Nikita were inconceivable terms of address for Khrushchev and Kennedy.

Times change but history is full of associations. On the first hotline, Kosygin and Johnson talked about the Six-Day War in the Middle East. Today, Vladimir Putin and George Bush are discussing plans for the peaceful restoration of Iraq after another war in the Middle East.

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