The Moscow–Washington “Hot Line” or “Red Phone” was established on this day in 1963. A Cold War icon, the Hot Line was the direct result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which exchanges between the Kremlin and the White House sometimes took dangerously long to send and decode. As Michael Dobbs makes clear in One Minute to Midnight (2008), a day-by-day and then minute-by-minute chronicle of the Missile Crisis, the world deserved better than to be blown up by slow messaging:
Planes could travel at the speed of sound, television could transmit pictures instantaneously across the oceans, a few shots could trigger a global nuclear war. The world was becoming “a global village,” in the newly minted phrase of Marshall McLuhan. But the revolution was unfinished. Human beings possessed the ability to blow up the world, but they still used the stars for navigation. Americans and Russians were beginning to explore the cosmos, but the Soviet ambassador in Washington had to summon a messenger on a bicycle when he wanted to send a cable to Moscow. American warships could bounce messages off the moon, but it could take many hours to decipher a top-secret communication.
One Minute to Midnight argues that what held off the final ticks of the Doomsday Clock was not “plain dumb luck” (Dean Acheson) but the world’s good fortune to have leaders as “sane and level-headed” as JFK and Khrushchev. The Kennedy-Khrushchev Letters (2002) seems to bear this out. Correspondence between the two men began with Khrushchev’s note of congratulations on Kennedy’s election. Exchanges over the next year are polite but also frank and forceful. After the Bay of Pigs disaster, Khrushchev scoffs at Kennedy’s attempt to justify American actions as support for democratic freedom. “Of what freedom are you speaking?” demands Khrushchev:
Of freedom to strangle the Cuban people with the bony hand of hunger through the establishment of an economic blockade? Is that freedom?
Of freedom to send military planes over the territory of Cuba, to subject peaceful Cuban cities to barbarous bombing, to set fire to sugar-cane plantations? Is that freedom?
But the most persistent tone, on both sides, is one of reconciliation and coexistence. In his letter of September 29, 1961, Khrushchev implores Kennedy to ignore those who “seek to whip up a military psychosis by spreading all sorts of fables about the intentions of the Soviet Government,” so rocking the boat of world peace:
In a certain sense there is an analogy here—I like this comparison — with Noah’s Ark where both the “clean” and the “unclean” found sanctuary. But regardless of who lists himself with the “clean” and who is considered to be “unclean,” they are all equally interested in one thing and that is that the Ark should successfully continue its cruise.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.