By: Scott RossPublished: August 30, 2022

Peter George

Peter George was a Welsh author who enjoyed modest success with his 1958 Cold War thriller Two Hours to Doom, which was later republished as Red Alert and subsequently turned into Stanley Kubrick's 1964 classicDr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It's the story of the United States and the Soviet Union teetering on the precipice of full-on nuclear war due to the actions of a rogue actor, a comedy of errors, and a tragic inability to communicate. It's great, you should totally watch it.

The book scared the pants off several eggheads of the era, among them Parade magazine editor Jess Gorkin, who in 1960 published an open letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with the kicker, "Must a world be lost for want of a telephone call?" Gorkin would later hound presidential nominees John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon about the idea of establishing a direct link between the leaders of the two super powers.

But inertia is a powerful thing and so the idea languished, acknowledged but un-acted upon. In 1962, however, the idea was given new currency when the the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of full-on nuclear war due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which it took six hours for messages to get from JFK to Khrushchev--SIX HOURS!!! The Cuban Missile Crisis came to a close on October 28, 1962, an agreement to establish a hotline--the Washington-Moscow Hotline, or MOLINK, as it's known in the US--was signed in June 20, 1963.

The two countries would be connected via trans-Atlantic cable from DC to London, then through Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki to Moscow. They would communicate in their own languages via teleprinters, with each side having one teleprinter in Latin letters and another in Cyrillic, with, of course, a back-up set of each. The original link was secure, cryptographically speaking, thanks to the Norwegian-made Electronic Teleprinter Cryptographic Regenerative Repeater Mixer II, but the line was accidentally cut several times, including once by a Finnish farmer who was plowing his field.

On August 30 the link went fully operational with the US shooting the USSR a quick note: "THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPED OVER THE LAZY DOG'S BACK 1234567890." Yeah, it was in all caps, which is sub-optimal, but still a huge leap forward. The Russkies, for their part, opened communications with a description of the setting sun.

The first official message was sent less than two months later, when the US reached out to the USSR to let them know about the assassination of JFK. The first Soviet use of MOLINK would come four years later, at the start of the Six Day War.

The technology has been upgraded significantly over the decades, with the two countries now using email via satellite link and fibre optic cable, but the system still gets tested every hour of every day. And it's all thanks to Peter George.


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