WASHINGTON – During the Cold War, the famous telephone hotline between the White House and the Kremlin was actually a teletype machine (with backups). The U.S. president or Soviet premier would dictate a statement, asking or answering a question, or possibly clarifying what might be considered a threat of military action.
Then it would be edited by the appropriate advisors and experts.
Then and only then would it be translated into English or Russian and sent via teletype.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis (the only time the U.S. has gone to DEFCON 1 — the last step before nuclear war itself), Nikita Khrushchevv, the Soviet leader, sent a very conciliatory message to President Kennedy.
But within minutes, he sent a second message, which insiders say was a warlike rant. The second message scared everyone. They didn’t know how to answer it.
A top aide to JFK reportedly came up with a solution: Ignore the second message and pretend it didn’t happen. Answer the first, nice message — so JFK did, and the crisis, which could have easily led to war, was over.
I suspect Washington and Moscow have the same deal today. I just hope they are using the right technology.
For example, my youngest son, John, is the high-tech expert in the family. He has got an important job with a major communications outfit. He now uses — with sometimes limited success — something called Voice-to-Text. You speak into the phone and it translates your words to a text message.
Last week, John was supposed to meet a friend, Rod, for lunch. That’s Rod with a ‘d.’ Rod had a change of plans because he thought his daughter might be in town. He dictated a voice-to-text message which came out like this:
“Hey, John it’s Rob. It’s going to be 4 p.m. on Wednesday here I am going to probably have pushed off once left. If you even the story but hello. My raising your daughter and banana issues this is shock waved. But they are gonna actually bedroom group this more about not under agreement. More about on that anyway. Gonna call daughter don’t tell lunch and drink your son down here. Take back care, Rob.”
Clearly, something was lost in translation, including his name, which is “Rod.”
Now, imagine if President Obama intended to send the following message to Russian leader Vladamir Putin:
“Wishing you and the Russian people a Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year. The greatest gift we could give our peoples, and the world, is to ensure peace on earth and a better life for everyone. My family and myself send our warmest greetings.”
But in text form, after translation, it came out like this:
“Bald boy. Live up a little and bring me presents owing and deserving. All is stinking meat pile. Answer this ditto and shove it where the sun in Siberia don’t shine.”
Given the internal problems in Russia, this could be a problem.
I think there is a guy up the street that has an up-to-date fallout shelter. I may start chatting him up to strengthen our friendship. I think I’ll start by learning what his name is, then go from there.
The problem is that I am a little shy in social situations like this.
Maybe I should text him first.
What could possibly go wrong?
Mike has spent the majority of his life inside the Beltway and has an interesting and humorous perspective that he will share every Wednesday. Mike has spent his career covering the federal government for the Washington Post and now for Federal News Radio.