Hotline, now 50 years old, continues to promote dialog with Russians
August 26, 2013
By David Vergun
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Aug. 27, 2013) -- In October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis put America on high alert. That confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union brought with it the possibility of nuclear war.
In the aftermath of that international crisis, a major event in the ongoing Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a hotline was activated, Aug. 30, 1963. The hotline, which turns 50 years old this week, was expected to ensure better communication between the two countries as part of an effort to help prevent "mutually assured destruction."
Maj. Glenn Nordin, now retired, was a presidential translator on one of the teams which manned the hotline.
The hotline, or MOLINK, was actually a teletype with a paper tape reader, he said. MOLINK is short for Moscow link. Teams included an officer translator, an enlisted translator and a teletype communicator.
The translator's job was to translate the Russian Cyrillic text that was transmitted from Moscow into English.
The hotline was used by several presidents including Kennedy and Johnson, but Nordin said he's still not at liberty to give the details of messages he translated during the time he served from September 1963 to February 1966.
However, it is widely reported that the hotline was in use during the Six-Day War in 1967, during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War and during several other conflicts.
HOW IT WORKS
MOLINK is still in use today with terminals in Moscow and the Pentagon. It also has links to the White House and State Department. The actual location of the hotline is the National Military Command Center in the basement of the Pentagon.
To ensure reliability, MOLINK transmissions are tested hourly by the Americans and their Russian counterparts, as they have been doing for 50 years. Computers have since replaced the old teletype machines.
Besides testing all of the alphanumeric keys, Nordin said he transmitted portions of text from an American geography schoolbook to his Soviet counterpart.
The idea, he said, was to provide a vigorous test of MOLINK without transmitting propaganda or anything that might offend the Soviets. To that end, he said they were successful.
To further ensure reliability of transmission, MOLINK traveled on two pathways, Nordin said. A radio link relayed transmission to Moscow via New York and North Africa; and a hard-wire link connected Moscow to the Pentagon via an undersea cable that passed through Finland and Scandinavia.
Nordin did confirm the widely-reported break in the land-line in Finland that occurred when a farmer mistakenly broke it while plowing his field. "It caused us some concern," he said, but communications were quickly restored.
Working at MoLink was interesting and "fun," he said. A number of congressmen, VIPs and flag officers stopped by for visits including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor.
Nordin once asked fellow team member, Marine Sgt. Meech, what his plans were following his tour of duty at MOLINK.
"'I'm going to walk around like I own the place,' he replied, meaning that he felt important in the Pentagon with all the bigwigs stopping by to visit him," Nordin said, adding that he got a chuckle out of the non-commissioned officer's reply.
There was more to the job than just manning MOLINK, Nordin said.
"Apparently, they didn't think we had enough to do there so we also functioned as editors for the Daily National Military Command Center Summary," he said.
The summary was a compilation of the day's military events and activities around the world, he said. It was written on the midnight shift so that it would be in the hands of the secretary of defense by early morning for the president's briefing.
COMMAND OF RUSSIAN
Nordin said the Army prepared him well for duty at MOLINK and later Army service, with high-quality Russian language training.
He spent a year at the Army Language School in Monterrey, Calif., where he learned to speak and write the language. The school is still there and it is still run by the Army, but today it's called the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, where 24 languages are taught to U.S. and foreign service members and law enforcement personnel.
After learning Russian, Nordin served a tour in Germany as a linguist. At the time, he was an enlisted Soldier.
After Officer Candidate School, Nordin attended the Army Russian Institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany. During his two years of post-graduate studies there, he was immersed in Russian-language courses, as all of the instructors taught courses in military history, business and so on in Russian.
They were all Soviet defectors, he said, and most of them couldn't speak English.
Most were Soviet defectors, he said, and most of them didn't speak English to the students. "They were an interesting cast of characters. Some grew up in the old Russia and others during the Soviet era. Listening to them was very interesting."
Nordin, pronounced "Nordeen" in Swedish, said developed an aptitude and interest in languages while growing up in Minnesota where kids spoke "swenorglish," a mixture of Swedish, Norwegian and English.
"I was always fascinated, sitting with the farmers who were from the old country, as they told stories," he said. "I knew early on I had an ear for languages and really enjoyed communicating with people in their own tongues. You really begin to think in that language and get the drift of where that person is coming from and what motivates them.
"If you don't know another language, you depend on someone else's translation and the message can shift with the translator's biases," he continued. "I'm a strong advocate for learning a second language."
Nordin said it would be especially useful for Soldiers to learn a second language, because it could open doors to a better understanding other cultures and other ways of thinking. He said he's encouraged that the Army is taking that direction with its National Guard State Partnership Program with other countries and the recent shift in the Army's strategic focus on regional alignment that includes training and exercises with nations around the world.
Army Col. Charles Fitzgerald, now retired, served as the first director at MOLINK. He advocated military exchange training with the Soviets, Nordin said, adding that his ideas were controversial at the time but his ideas were proven years later when such exchanges with the Soviets and others became commonplace.
"I saw the wisdom of the idea right away," Nordin said. American and Soviet Soldiers and those from other countries share a "brotherhood of arms." Personal relationships across the militaries are valuable and all sorts of problems can be worked out at these lower-level exchanges.
Had there been more such exchanges, Nordin believes détente could have come about sooner, but be as it may, the hotline was a good step in that direction.
Fitzgerald's service to America continued, as he went on to serve as a translator during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement, or SALT I, in 1967, Nordin said.
As for Nordin, he used his language skills in the Army extensively and after his retirement in 1969, he worked as a contractor and an Army civilian, where his command of Russian was put to good use.
Nordin admits having one regret: "I've never met my counterparts in the Soviet Union. I think I'd enjoy meeting with them, even though my Russian has become rusty over time."