August 30, 2014

The origins of the Cold War term “hot line” and the mythical “red phones”…


Many books and websites note that the famed “hot line” communication link between the Pentagon and the Kremlin was established on August 30, 1963.

Press reports about this new tool, intended to provide a possible way to avoid a nuclear war between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), soon cemented the term hot line into our language.

It also added a new plot device and the image of the red phones into movies and TV shows.

Two of my favorite examples were in movies released not long after the new link was established: Fail-Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

The term hot line (sometimes given as the single word hotline) had actually been used previously in other contexts, but not in the sense of the international hot line established in 1963.

That use is generally credited to Jess Gorkin (1936-1985).

Gorkin was the respected and influential editor of Parade Magazine, the widely-circulated Sunday newspaper insert. 

In the March 20, 1960 issue of Parade, Gorkin published an open letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev, titled “RE: ACCIDENTAL WAR.”

In it, he urged them to consider: “the establishment of a direct telephone line between you...to prevent the possibility of an accidental war.”

He ended his letter with the rhetorical question: “Must a world be lost for want of a telephone call?”

Gorkin didn’t use the term hot line in that open letter, but he did use it in a subsequent series editorials in Parade in 1960, promoting the idea to presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

According to language maven William Safire’s great Political Dictionary, Gorkin’s editorial in the October 30, 1960 issue of Parade mentioned an internal “hot line” that the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) maintained for emergency communications.

Gorkin suggested that SAC’s “red telephone” system was a model for the communication link he believed the US and USSR should establish.

After Kennedy was elected President, Gorkin ran more editorials pushing the hot line idea.

And, after the US and USSR came to the brink of nuclear Armageddon in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev decided it was indeed a pretty good idea.

On April 23, 1963, Kennedy sent a personal letter of thanks to Gorkin for promoting the concept, calling it “an excellent example of the most constructive aspects of our free press.” 

Gorkin proudly published the letter in Parade.

On June 20, 1963, in Geneva, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev signed an agreement to create the crisis communication system Gorkin had suggested. The Washington-Kremlin hot line officially went live on August 30, 1963.

However, despite what we’ve seen in movies and TV shows, there never were red phones in the offices of the President of the United States and the Premier of Russia.

The hot line was actually a secure teletype connection between the offices of the Pentagon and the Kremlin. No phones, red or otherwise, were involved.

Sorry, movie fans.

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August 25, 2014

“The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” become official


The fracturing of the Christian religion into various churches and doctrines with different beliefs started in the early centuries of Christianity.

One source of division was a debate between Christians who believed in Trinitarianism and those who believed in Arianism.

Trinitarianism was based in part on Matthew 28:19, a verse in the Bible which says:

     “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the 
        name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

In the fourth century A.D., some Christian leaders used this and other Biblical verses to develop the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, or Trinitarianism.

Trinitarianism maintains that, although there is only one God, he has three forms: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Ghost, aka “the Holy Spirit.”

Another early Christian leader named Arius disagreed with that view. Arius and his followers, called Arianists, believed Jesus was the Son of God but was himself human, not divine like God.

The Roman Emperor Constantine I, who had converted to Christianity, was annoyed by this doctrinary dispute. So in 325 A.D. he convened a meeting of more than 300 Christian bishops in the Turkish city of Nicaea (now named Iznik) and charged them with clarifying what the official Christian beliefs would be.

The meeting came to be called the First Council of Nicaea.

On August 25, 325, after two months of discussion, the Council issued what is referred to as the original or first Nicene Creed.

It established the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as the official Christian doctrine and Trinitarianism was adopted by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and several smaller Christian subgroups.

The First Council of Nicaea also condemned Arianism as heretical anathema and ordered all Arianist writings to be burned. Arius himself was banished from the Roman Empire and took refuge in Palestine.

Despite all that, some Christians refused to reject Arius’ teachings. Arianism continued to have its followers and, in one form or another, still does today.

In 336 A.D., Arius was pardoned by Constantine I and invited to come to Constantinople. While traveling there he died unexpectedly under suspicious circumstances.

According to a contemporary account: “his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood.”

Some historians theorize that Arius was poisoned by anti-Arianist Christian zealots.

If that’s what happened, I suspect Jesus would have disapproved.

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August 13, 2014

“No man is a hero to his valet” – the backstory on a famous proverb and misquote...


Charlotte Aïssé (1693-1733) was quite a celebrity in France in the early 18th Century — part heroine, part sex symbol, part intellectual.

As a child, her father’s palace was raided by the Turks. They took her captive but soon sold her to Count Charles de Ferriol, the French ambassador at Constantinople.

She was raised by Ferriol's sister-in-law in Paris and became a beauty who attracted the attention of several prominent French aristocrats.

After her death, her fame grew. Three French plays were written about her. The letters she wrote to a friend were edited by Voltaire and published in book form in 1787 (Lettres de Mademoiselle Aïssé a Madame Calandrini).

In one of those letters, dated August 13, 1728, Aïssé mentioned a quip she’d heard.

It was a comment by another prominent French lady, Anne-Marie Bigot de Cornuel (1605-1694), who was once the mistress of King Louis XIV.

A simplified English translation of part of what Madame Cornuel said became cited as a famous quotation:

      “No man is a hero to his valet.”

Many books of quotations attribute this quote to Cornuel by way of Aïssé’s letter. However, it seems to be a case of something gained in translation.

In the original French, what Aïssé actually wrote in her letter was:

“Je vous renvoie à ce que disoit madame Cornuel, qu’il n’y avoit point de héros pour les valets de chambre, et point de pères de l’Église parmi ses contemporains.”

A literal English translation of is something like:

“I refer to what Madame Cornuel said, that there were no heroes to valets, nor to the Fathers of the Church among their contemporaries.”

Somewhere along the line, in English translations, the valet part of Aïssé’s comment morphed into “No man is a hero to his valet.”

That may be because it already existed as a proverbial saying.

Indeed, “No man is a hero to his valet” is listed in many sources simply as an old French or English proverb

The meaning of the proverb is that a servant (such as a valet) does not usually have the same grand, positive view that other people may have of the servant’s master or employer.

My own conclusion is that “No man is a hero to his valet” is proverbial, with no clear origin, and that what Madame Cornuel said was an allusion to the proverb — which was then misquoted in translation to fit the English version of the saying.

Je suis désolé, Madame Cornuel. I’m sorry. But you don’t get credit for coining it — and may not even deserve credit for saying it.

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August 03, 2014

“I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”


On August 3, 1966, the brilliant, boundary-stretching and, unfortunately, drug-addicted American comedian Lenny Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his home in Hollywood, California.

A syringe and other drug paraphernalia were on the floor next to him. The cause of death was ruled to be an accidental overdose of morphine.

Bruce was just 40 years old.

It was the sad fulfillment of a famous quote about the peril and pleasure of drug addiction that is widely credited to Bruce:

       “I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”

Many books of quotations simply cite the quote as “attributed.”

Those that give a specific source for the attribution cite the 1970 book Play Power: Exploring the International Underground by Richard Neville.

Neville is himself a legendary 1960s counterculture celebrity.

He initially gained notoriety in Australia as editor of the underground magazine OZ.

In Play Power, Neville used the Bruce quotation at the end of a point he made about the unintended consequences of public hysteria over marijuana.

“When one discovers that cannabis is harmless, exposing society’s lie, heroin by analogy may seem tempting,” Neville wrote. “Moral: Tell the truth about pot and there will be fewer junkies.”

Neville then inserted Bruce’s “kissing God” quote, without giving any source information other than Bruce’s name.

It’s possible that Neville heard Bruce say the line in a conversation.

He mentioned in an interview in DUKE magazine that he’d met Bruce briefly in 1962, when the comedian came to Australia for an ill-fated tour that was shut down after one performance for “obscenity.”

I emailed Neville and asked him if Bruce used the “kissing God” quote when they met.

He emailed back saying he didn’t remember hearing it from Bruce himself.

“I can’t recall the first time I heard it,” Neville told me, “though I do remember the saying being quoted in the London OZ office in the late Sixties.”

I’ve been unable to find the “kissing God” quote in anything written by Lenny Bruce.

Nor could I find any evidence that he said it in any of his stand-up comedy routines.

However, a version of the quip is mentioned in the 1974 biography Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!, written by Albert Harry Goldman and Lawrence Schiller.

According to an anecdote recorded in that book, Bruce once told his friend, writer Terry Southern:

“You start off with one or two pills, then it’s three or four and pretty soon to get that flash, you gotta have a whole handful. An’ shit! Who wants to shoot without the flash? You understand? It’s like kissing God!”

On August 3, 1966, Lenny Bruce “kissed God” for last time.

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