In reality, the “hotline” wasn’t a red phone.
It may well have been a lifesaver, though, when it was established on this day, June 20, 1963, between the United States government and the former Soviet Union.
Its purpose? To lessen via nearly instantaneous communication the threat of an accidental nuclear war.
The need became frighteningly obvious during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The United States had discovered that the Soviets were building missile sites in Cuba capable of firing missiles with nuclear warheads.
Eventually, then president John F. Kennedy instituted a naval “quarantine” around Cuba to block the delivery of such missiles.
Days of tensions ensued as the world literally sat waiting to see whether or not World War III was imminent.
Then came a breakthrough: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed that his country would not install nuclear weapons in Cuba; Kennedy, in turn, vowed not to threaten the sovereignty of Cuba.
In designing the hotline, the idea was to expedite written communication and slow down verbal exchanges, so that cooler heads might prevail: if leaders spoke in real time, there could be translation problems, or heated misunderstandings.
Instead, each side got special teletype machines, which zipped written messages straight to official translators.
On August 30, 1963, the Moscow-to-Washington hotline went live.
The first test message from the U.S.? “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back.” It was used because it contains every letter in the alphabet.
The Soviets fired back a description, in Russian, of a sunset.
According to the Arms Control Association, the hotline was first used by the United States and Russia in 1967 during the Six Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria to clarify the intentions of fleet movements in the Mediterranean that could have been interpreted as hostile.
The Soviet Union and the United States intended to reassure each other that they did not wish to be militarily involved in the crisis. Throughout the duration of the Six Day War, the two sides used the hotline almost two dozen times for a variety of purposes.
Richard Nixon also used it during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and again during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
During the Reagan administration, the hotline was used several more times. However, an official listing of the instances when the states used the hotline never has been released to the public.
The hotline between Moscow and Washington still exists today. Over the years, it has been kept up to date using modern-day technology.
Former CIA director and defense secretary, Robert Gates, has said the hotline will remain an important tool for "as long as these two sides have submarines roaming the oceans and missiles pointed at each other."