Pipped by France over hot line to Moscow

Wilson's bid to emulate the US fell foul of our old rival, writes Christopher Bellamy

It was February 1966. Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, and Andrei Kosygin, the Soviet leader, were heading for Moscow airport in the back of a limousine. Mr Wilson suggested London and Moscow might have a "hot line", similar to the one which already linked Washington and Moscow so that the leaders of the two nuclear weapons states could talk to each other instantly.

Thus began a saga that sounds more like a script from Yes, Prime Minister than an episode in great power relations. The story of the proposed British- Soviet "hot line" gives a wonderful insight into Britain's perception of itself, and into the jostling for position between Britain and the real enemy, General de Gaulle's France.

The British already had a "hot line" to Washington but all communications between the British and Soviet governments passed in traditional fashion through Her Majesty's Ambassador.

The British first considered their own hot line between heads of government in 1963, after the Americans rebuffed suggestions that Britain might tie in to the Washington-Moscow hot line. The idea was not pursued, however, because the Foreign Office believed "it might lead to differences with Britain's allies who might be suspicious of our motives and might be tempted to set up hot lines of their own".

The same arguments surfaced in 1966. It was unclear what exactly the prime minister had in mind. If it were not a nuclear hot line, on the Washington-Moscow model, officials feared it would simply replicate the normal contacts between ambassadors, although it would enable the heads of government to circumvent their diplomatic services. The Foreign Office, predictably, thought this was a bad idea.

The communications would have to be in cypher, to prevent anyone listening in. Here, too, was a problem. To put a British cypher machine in the Kremlin would give the Russians a wonderful opportunity to pull it to bits and analyse it. The Soviets would have the same problems putting one of theirs in Whitehall. One suggestion was to use an obsolescent pair of machines: good enough to stop others from listening in, but without disclosing Britain and Russia's latest encryption techniques to each other. Then it emerged that the machines in question were made in Norway, and that Norwegian approval would also have to be sought.

The system would cost between pounds 20,000 for the most basic and pounds 40,000 for something more sophisticated. But then it had to be manned. A hot line would require competent Russian linguists to man it and to translate whatever message the Russians chose to send. To provide 24-hour cover would require three people. The Foreign Office protested they did not have three Russian linguists of "interpreter" standard to spare.

"One solution might be a small bachelor flat, or a hotel room, in which people might do night or weekend duty on a roster", wrote a Foreign Office official, PH Lawrence, on 12 May. "But I imagine one would have to pay a substantial inducement to persuade people to do this over a length of time". No one was very keen on the idea.

And, still, no-one knew exactly what Mr Wilson had in mind, though they initially thought the hot line would be designed to forestall Armageddon. That caused more problems.

"One of the risks is that it would be used only in an emergency, which we hope would not happen at all often", Mr Lawrence continued. "Machinery that is practically never used tends to break down when it is. But that, I suppose, is a risk that we must face". In other words, there was no guarantee the thing would actually work when needed.

The Foreign Office's draft paper was eventually submitted to its Secretary of State on 10 June. It concluded there were "no insuperable technical problems. But, they noted tactfully, "it is doubtful if the Russians would be willing to use any such link in the manner that the PM probably intends, ie, in the same way as the link with the [US] President."

Then the real point of the exercise emerged. "It is, however, suggested that a further inquiry should be made to the Russians, partly in order to pre-empt any attempt by General de Gaulle to secure a similar facility".

After three months of writing to each other, the British had explored every nook and cranny of the argument. One point that kept coming up was the embarrassment they would face if they binned the idea and the French then got their own hot line.

On 29 June, disaster struck in the form of a short article in the Guardian, headlined: "White phone from France to Soviet Union". The two countries would establish " a direct teleprinter link between the Kremlin and the Elysee Palace".

General de Gaulle had gone to Moscow on a state visit and agreed a link of the type the British had been contemplating for months. Establishing the Paris-Moscow link had been a simple "political decision", wrote Michael Palliser, of 10 Downing Street, on 18 July.

Agreement had been reached very quickly. "Mr Kosygin's replies to the PM in February and July suggest that the Russians are not interested in making a similar political gesture to us", wrote Mr Palliser.

What happened to next will not be known until the 1967 papers are released next January. Downing Street has confirmed that there is now a telephone link to the Kremlin, installed in 1992. A telex or teleprinter link, was installed in 1987. But between 1967 and 1987, it seems that Britain had to use the normal telephone when it wanted the Kremlin's ear.

The Independent thanks the staff of the Public Record Office, in Kew, London, for their assistance in researching this article.

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Sport
sport
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape