Pipped by France over hot line to Moscow

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