August 30, 2013

The red phone that was NOT on the Hotline

(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:

(photo uploaded to Wikimedia by user Piotrus under CC-BY-SA)

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:, 2013)


Piotr Konieczny said...

An interesting blog. Thanks for investigating the issue!

Few points:
a) "When someone uploaded a picture of this phone to Wikipedia in March 2011"

First, that someone is me. It is clearly stated in the description of the photograph that you link to

I wonder why did you not deem it necessary to attribute this photo, either in the caption, nor in the text, when the second photo you have has a caption with attribution?

Also, please respect the copyright license used on my image (CC-BY). As stated in the article, anyone can reuse the image for any purpose without asking for permission, in exchange for attributing the author. Recently, Scientific American had a blog dedicated to this very issue:
There's a rather visible template that explains this under the picture, too...

b) Yes, I was mislead by the caption and assumed it is the real red phone. The caption was not uploaded to Wikimedia Commons on purpose, because unfortunately all museums captions are subject to traditional copyright and are not allowed to be reproduced without asking for permission, which is too cumbersome (and most of the times the museums won't even bother getting back to you if you submit a request...).

Moving on, a technicality: the photo was never uploaded to Wikipedia. It was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, a Wikipedia sister projet ( It was then linked to from numerous Wikipedia articles.

P/K said...

Thank you for your reaction! In my article I mentioned a few times that the picture was from Wikipedia, and because it's all about the phone itself, I didn't really want to involve the person who made and uploaded the picture, also because on Wikipedia most people prefer to stay behind a nickname. But you are right about the copyright marking, and it's my fault not mentioning the author. Therefore, I now added an attribution in a way that is hopefully okay for you.

Piotr Konieczny said...

Cool. Could you also add "under CC-BY-SA"? Declaration of license, inducing the fact that people can reuse the photo as long as they attribute it (just like you did) is the key part. I am not that interested in promoting myself, but I want to promote the free licenses (btw, have you thought about using a CC license for your blog?).

And yes, I understand your concern about privacy, and I appreciate it, through I belong to the (small) fraction of Wikipedians who eschew anonymity and edit under real life names (I am proud of my involvement with the Wiki and have no desire to hide it).

Piotr Konieczny said...

PS. I don't know if you have noticed, but your blog post is now used as a source in the Wikipedia articles which use this picture to note it is not a pic of the "real red phone" :)

Sylvia Mansour said...

Thanks to Peter Koop's article and verification from Vice President Mondale's office, we will be changing the label on the display prop "red telephone" at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.

Sylvia Mansour Naguib
Museum Curator
Jimmy Carter Library

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone ever trust Wikipedia?