Today, a time lag almost started a war.
It was October in 1962, and Soviet warships carrying nuclear-tipped missiles were heading toward Cuba. American military forces were on high alert, having already blockaded the tiny island; we’d vowed that we would go to war before allowing the ships to reach their destination. The Soviets had publicly declared their willingness to fight, too, but their leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had sent a secret message to the U.S. State Department proposing a mutual stand-down on the crisis. It took nearly 12 hours to receive, decode, and draft a response to the cable…time that the Soviets assumed meant that the note had been rejected, so they went public with a tougher, belligerent demand. Representatives of both sides agreed to meet at a Chinese restaurant in Washington to try and sort things out. In the meantime, a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and the Soviet ships drew closer. Nuclear bombers on both sides scrambled and took to the air. It took another 24 hours for the sides to negotiate a settlement, most of those hours spent in transmitting messages.
Delayed communications have played a role in many geopolitical events. The War of 1812 was settled by the Treaty of Ghent on the day before Christmas in 1814, but since it took weeks for the news to reach America, the Battle of New Orleans — hundreds of soldiers would die in what was Andrew Jackson’s greatest military triumph — would be fought when the countries were technically at peace. Each sorry event that led to the start of World War I would take weeks to become known, allowing for everyone involved to get angrier and more committed to their respective causes. Japanese soldiers who didn’t get the word that World War II had ended stayed holed up in caves dotting islands in the Pacific, the last of whom surrendered in 1974. So when, on this day in 1963, the U.S. and Soviet Union established the first-ever direct phone line between the White House and the Kremlin, it was hoped that communications lag might lose its place at the negotiating table.
The key quality of the accomplishment was that it wasn’t just immediate, but two-way.