(UPDATED: March 5, 2016)
Today, it's exactly 50 years ago that the famous Washington-Moscow Hotline became operational. Allthough this link has always been for written communications only, many people think there are red telephones on the Hotline, as this is often depicted in popular culture.
One wide-spread image is from the article about the Hotline on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. It shows a non-dial red telephone which is on display in the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia:
Much of the confusion about the real purpose of this phone was due to the fact that in this picture, the text on the plate below the phone wasn't readable. But now, upon request of this weblog, the curator of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum kindly provided the text, which reads as follows:
During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the “red phone” was a hotline to the Kremlin in Moscow. A U.S. president could pick up the phone and speak directly to Soviet leaders in times of crisis.
The text is about a red phone used for the Hotline, but more important is the fact that the telephone which is on display, is just a reproduction. This is also confirmed by the curator, who said that this phone is a prop that the exhibition designer wanted to use.
Now it's clear that the actual red phone in the picture was never used on the Hotline between Washington and Moscow, nor on any other secure telephone network (allthough red phone sets were regularly used for predecessors of the Defense Red Switch Network, which is the main secure voice network of the US military).
The picture on Wikipedia shows just an ordinary phone set, like the ones that are quite commonly used for emergency telephone lines of any kind which don't require a dialing capability. Probably because the designer of the exhibition at the Jimmy Carter Museum also thought there were red telephones on the Hotline, such a common phone set was used to represent this.
For people visiting the museum it must have looked like a confirmation of their idea of the red phone hotline. When someone uploaded a picture of this phone to Wikipedia in March 2011, it soon found its way to articles about the Washington-Moscow Hotline in eleven languages, most of them erroneously saying the Hotline also having a voice capability. It was only after research done for this weblog, which resulted in an extensive article about the Hotline last year, that some of the Wikipedia articles were corrected.
After the issue of the wrong attribution of the red telephone was raised here on this weblog, the Jimmy Carter Library noticed this, and replaced the description of the phone as of March 2016 with the following text, which is now accurate:
"During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the “red phone” was used to communicate with U.S. military command centers in a crisis. It was not the hotline to Soviet leaders, as is often shown in movies."
What the Washington-Moscow Hotline looks nowadays: the terminal room
at the Pentagon showing the secure computer link equipment
(photo: www.army.mil, 2013)