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Hot Line : Superpowers Chat of War, Golf, Salt

September 15, 1985|SAUL PETT | Associated Press

They arm against each other, they threaten and denounce each other, they spy, issue ultimatums, draw lines and thoroughly distrust each other. Through it all, they stay in touch.

Every hour of every day, whether Armageddon looms or recedes, they communicate by satellites 600 and 22,500 miles above the Earth.

Washington to Moscow:

"Interference by casual water, ground repair or a hole, cast or runway made by a burrowing animal, a reptile or a bird occurs when a ball lies in or touches any of these conditions or when the condition interferes with the player's stance. . . . A ball is 'lost' if (a) it is not found or. . . ."

Moscow to Washington:

"So-called simple machines were developed in the cradles of civilization. . . . Not only the simple implements for lifting water (the shadoof ) in Egypt and the ( chigir in Mesopotamia) but also the so-called sakiz ."

Although this may suggest a celestial game of trivia, it is part of a serious business. The messages belong to a varied repertory of texts used to test the "hot line," the direct, secret form of communication by which the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union hope to avoid unintentional war while not forswearing intentional war.

It is one of several ways the two superpowers have agreed to try to prevent war by accident, mistake or misunderstanding. It is a process that operates quietly, well below the passing thunder of Cold War rhetoric.

"The greatest danger of war," said Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, "seems to me not to be in the deliberate actions of wicked men, but in the inability of harassed men to manage events that have run away with them."

The hot line is intended to keep an avenue open by which opposing leaders can reach each other quickly and privately, away from public scrutiny and pressure, to control events that might otherwise make a mushroom cloud out of a molehill.

To make sure the line is working, the Pentagon sends a test message every even hour on the hour. Every odd hour on the hour, the Soviets send one back. Each side transmits in code and supplies the other with the decoding formula. This makes for a split-level Cold War; the global pursuit of secrets and spies continues on land, sea and air, but in this instance the opposing protagonists share codes.

Although they rarely run out of things to say about each other, they do face a problem in what to say to each other, every hour of every day. By agreement, the test messages carefully avoid anything political or controversial.

So the Pentagon has sent the Kremlin the rules of golf, which the Soviets do not play, making the message a good test of their translators as well as the hot line. Moscow has returned the favor with an esoteric view of the inventive genius of the ancients.

Washington has discoursed on the glories of chili, which the Soviets do not eat, and Moscow has enriched us with an encyclopedic view of Russian coiffures of the 17th Century. We have given them the rules of the National Football League and they have regaled us with tales from the steppes.

Over the years, the two sides have traded quotations from Robert Frost and Ivan Turgenev, as well as homilies and data about tsetse flies, the Pharaohs of Egypt, medieval tilting, the uses of color, aging, cooking, state and provincial capitals and superstitions relevant to spilling salt, sneezing and other calamities. Many of these gems have been repeated many times before they were retired.

The hot line is not what many people think it is: a wire connecting two red telephones in the White House and the Kremlin. Although it is a direct and private link between leaders, it is designed to exchange printed, not spoken, messages. It involves two satellite systems backed up by land lines and cables, but no direct telephones.

In setting up the system 22 years ago, both governments agreed that it would be less than prudent if the leaders actually talked to each other in time of crisis. Conversational translation risks error, and a man's voice, it was thought, could be too easily misinterpreted. A passing tone of anger or impatience might seem a threat. A case of heartburn might sound warlike. Printed exchanges, they agreed, would permit more time to think and consult for a more reasoned response.

Although it is tested 24 times a day, every day, the hot line actually has been used sparingly in its 22 years. Official secrecy cloaks the full count, but several former Presidents have revealed four gathering crises in which it was used to brake the wild spin of events.

"Mr. President, the hot line is up."

Lyndon B. Johnson was the first President to hear that, and he heard it in his White House bedroom early on June 5, 1967, the start of the Six-Day War. Premier Alexei N. Kosygin was on the line.

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