HD and the 50 year legacy of President Kennedy's Moscow hotline

by Jeff Pulver and Daniel Berninger

President Obama’s embrace of technology innovation should include an upgrade of the Moscow hotline.  Implementation of HD voice represents the best way to honor the legacy of President Kennedy’s hotline as it approaches 50 years of service. The type of emergencies justifying use of the hotline do not arise often, but, even idle, the link provides a source of confidence and trust building.  The communication link still gets tested every hour 365 days per year and remains an essential deterrent to nuclear war, but the absence of an upgrade since 1988 leaves it woefully out of date.  The million dollars spent annually to maintain the link represents a tremendous bargain relative to the usual cost of nuclear deterrence activities.

The implementation of the Moscow hotline required a triumph of common sense over those in the State Department and Department of Defense that feared a loss of influence.  A committee headed by 2005 Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling proposed the Moscow hotline in 1961.  The committee, charted to minimize the risk of war by accident, surprise, and miscalculation, argued for the communication link as a simple matter of prudence.  As Professor Schelling noted in a recent private correspondence “…all of us were astonished that there was no secure immediately available system for communicating between the US and Soviet governments.”

Implementation of the hotline moved slowly until the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the risks posed by the absence of such a link.  The “Memorandum of Understanding Between the United States of American and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link” was signed in Geneva on June 20, 1963.  The original hotline involved teletype equipment.  Voice and fax functionality were added in subsequent upgrades.  Preparations for the 50th anniversary should include incorporation of the state of the art in communication technology which has progressed significantly since 1988.

The emegence of high definition voice represents one of the the most significant of these changes.  HD voice provides twice the usual telephone voice quality achieving a much closer approximation to meeting in-person. The improved prospects for comprehension make HD voice an imperative for the most important communication link in the world.  Advances in communication technology from telegraph to telephone and high definition voice soften territorial distinctions and reduce the potential for miscommunication that contribute to global conflicts.  It seems a safe bet that the level of communication between countries reflects the extent of peace or conflict.

The 50th anniversary activities should include a broad review of the role played by the Moscow hotline and other direct communication links connecting world leaders.  The UK and France have their own connections to Moscow.  The State Department’s Nuclear Risk Reduction Center operates communication links in support of nuclear, chemical, and conventional arms control treaties.  We believe the results of any assessment will argue strongly for investment in communication tools as an essential element of diplomacy and as a strikingly cost effective means of promoting peace.

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