WASHINGTON — At 7:15 on the morning of June 5, 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reached for a handset, one connected to a secure telephone line to a military switchboard at the White House. He asked the operator to ring the Air Force sergeant on duty outside President Lyndon Johnson's bedroom.
"Sergeant, this is Secretary McNamara, and I want to talk to the president."
"He's asleep, sir."
"Hell, I know he's asleep, but wake him."
After a few minutes, Johnson came on the line.
"God----it, Bob, what are you calling me for at this time in the morning?"
"Mr. President, Prime Minister Kosygin's on the Hot Line. How do you wish to respond?"
"What did you say?"
Walt Rostow, Johnson's national security adviser, had already awakened the president that morning at 4:35 with news reports of Israeli military attacks on Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Johnson also had spoken with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, but Alexei Kosygin's attempt to reach him was a surprise. The Hot Line had never been used before.
"What do you think I should do?" Johnson asked.
"I will respond and say that you'll be down in the Situation Room in 15 minutes. In the meantime, I'll call Dean and we'll meet you down there."
Fifty years ago this month, the Washington-Moscow Hot Line was established, forged by the heat of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Despite the mythology, there has never been a red Hot Line telephone on the president's desk; the line is a data-only link. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all used it, and it proved to be a useful crisis-management tool during the Cold War.