A Short History of USAF’s Strategic Air Command in the Cold War

wallpaper_SAC_logoDuring the latter 1940s, although some demobilization took place after World War II, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union precipitated the creation of a strategic force that could strike an enemy with nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. The U.S. Army Air Forces established the Strategic Air Command (SAC) on March 21, 1946, for the specific purpose of executing “long-range offensive operations in any part of the world, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces.” Under its first commander, Gen. George C. Kenney, SAC began the effort of creating a strategic strike force.

Armed mostly with the B-29—and a few nuclear delivery variants, the B-50—any capability to strike an enemy worldwide proved at best a hollow threat. It would take many years to develop the global reach necessary to accomplish SAC’s mission of attacking any potential enemy either before that enemy had a chance to inflict significant damage on the United States through its own attack or in retaliation for a nuclear attack. Not until the mid-1950s did SAC truly possess such a capability.

Although American leaders always denied the possibility of making a first strike against a foreign nation with nuclear weapons, SAC’s war plans always offered that scenario. And on more than one occasion Air Force leaders advocated using it. For example, Gen. Nathan Twining advocated deploying SAC to use nuclear weapons to relieve the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 before the French withdrew from Indochina. He argued that three tactical nuclear bombs would have allowed the French to win the battle and thereby remain in control in Southeast Asia. The use of nuclear weapons in Indochina, Twining also suggested, would have done more than just allow the French to hang on. It would have demonstrated the resolve of the United States to employ these weapons in virtually any combat scenario. Such a demonstration, he believed, would ensure that the Soviet Union would treat the possibility of U.S. interventions in other theaters more seriously.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay advocated air strikes against the Soviet missiles in Cuba, but President John F. Kennedy refrained believing that such an action would result in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. LeMay believed that would have been better than the alternative, which he told the president was “the greatest defeat in our history” as he pounded the table where they met. Political leaders, fortunately, did not accept these arguments. SAC’s ability to decimate the world remained a potent fear in the public consciousness; perhaps most famously stated when film director Stanley Kubrick satirized its first strike mentality in “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” released in 1964.

Even so, the very public idea of massive retaliation for any attack on the United States carried out by SAC was an important part of the nation’s overall Cold War strategy. This doctrine of deterrence guided significant expenditures for weapons systems within the Department of Defense (DoD), with SAC always at the head of the line for new aircraft, missiles, and support elements. Ensuring the health of the so-called nuclear triad of U.S. continental-based long-range strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) operated by SAC, as well as the Navy’s sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) carried on submarines, dominated thinking about Cold War nuclear strategy. All of these could strike the Soviet Union—or anywhere else on the globe—and therefore ensure an enemy’s nuclear annihilation. Sometimes referred to as mutual assured destruction, this doctrine was known by the most appropriate acronym ever used by the military—MAD.

Ensuring SAC’s global strike capability received a boost with the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” at national defense. As a means of reducing the cost of the military, Eisenhower chose to rely less on traditional combat arms and to invest in air power, especially SAC, and to rely more on the nation’s nuclear arsenal with the threat of “massive retaliation” should anyone attack the United States or its allies. This led to the development of an exceptionally capable strike force. The first truly capable intercontinental bomber, the B-36, came into SAC inventory in the latter 1940s, but it was the most famous and exceptional strategic bomber ever, the B-52 “Superfortress,” that made SAC such a powerful force.

A B-52 strategic bomber is being aerial refueled a KC-135. This refueling capability gave SAC global reach.

A B-52 strategic bomber is being aerial refueled a KC-135. This refueling capability gave SAC global reach.

In all, 744 B-52s of seven different models have served with SAC over the years, with the last model, the B-52H, being delivered between May 1961 and October 1962. Some of the B-52Hs remain in the Air Force inventory to the present. Based in northern tier bases in the United States, the crews for these bombers stood continuous alert from the point they became operational in 1954 and served through the 1980s. These alerts required precise requirements for ever-faster takeoffs dependent on the type of scenario, and by 1961 they could launch within 15-minutes of receiving an order.  To keep the B-52s airborne for long periods, refueling aircraft performed perfected the art of aerial refueling. Later, SAC received the B-1 bomber in the 1970s and the B-2 stealth bomber in the 1980s.

A U.S. Air Force LGM-25C Titan II ICBM undergoes a test launch from an underground silo. Unlike Titan I missiles, which had to be raised to the surface before launch, the Titan II’s liquid rocket engines were ignited while it was still in the silo. Therefore the silo had to be constructed with flame and exhaust ducts as shown in this photograph.

A U.S. Air Force LGM-25C Titan II ICBM undergoes a test launch from an underground silo. Unlike Titan I missiles, which had to be raised to the surface before launch, the Titan II’s liquid rocket engines were ignited while it was still in the silo. Therefore the silo had to be constructed with flame and exhaust ducts as shown in this photograph.

Land-based ICBMs also entered operational service with SAC beginning the 1960s, particularly the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman. Hardened missile launch sites, eventually placed underground throughout the central and northern U.S., provided launch capability within minutes of receiving an attack order. The Atlas ICBM, first test fired on June 11, 1955, entered service in 1959 and served on alert until 1964. The Titan entered operational use in 1963 and enjoyed a long service life until finally retired by SAC in 1986.

The Minuteman, however, enjoyed the most extended use. As a solid-fuel rocket it proved much easier to maintain over long periods, entering service in 1962 in small numbers but 500 of a more recent variant are projected to remain operational through 2012. The most recent ICBM to be developed, the solid-fuel Peacekeeper, entered service 1986 and 50 remained in use until September 19, 2005. In the middle of the cold war during the latter 1960s and 1970s, SAC had 1,054 ICBMs in its operational inventory with more than 2,000 nuclear warheads.

More than any other individual, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay is identified with transforming SAC into an effective nuclear strike force. Commanding SAC between 1948 and 1957, LeMay may well have been as coarse and irascible an officer as the Air Force possessed. He argued that the nation’s first line of defense—perhaps its only line of defense—was the nuclear deterrent that SAC provided. SAC’s bombers, and later its missile forces, had to be prepared to carry out effectively the nuclear strike mission at any time for the deterrent to have any viability. With a broad mandate to resolve SAC inadequacies in the latter 1940s, LeMay embarked on an aggressive program of intense training, alerts, and realistic exercises. Headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, LeMay’s SAC also refined the procedures for strategic bombardment, both with ICBMs and strategic bombers, and made them increasingly effective.

The preparedness of SAC to execute its mission in the LeMay years was legendary and the organization achieved standards of excellence still idealized within the Air Force, as it maintained a state of extreme readiness throughout the Cold War era between the 1940s and 1980s. To extend SAC’s global reach, LeMay secured the first jet bombers and tankers for aerial refueling, at the same time increasing the SAC infrastructure to support the impressive strategic bombardment capability he built.

Possession of a strong nuclear deterrent certainly served the purpose with the Soviet Union for which it had been created. Fortunately, nuclear war never did take place. In an effort to create a more “flexible response” during the 1960s SAC accepted a reemphasis of more conventional warfare. Its B-52 force served in Southeast Asia and engaged in such bombing missions as Operation Rolling Thunder conducted against targets in North Vietnam in 1965 and the Linebacker 1 and 2 aerial interdiction campaigns executed against North Vietnam in 1972. In the early 1980s 98 SAC B-52s received modifications to carry air launched cruise missiles (AGM-86), enhancing their flexibility in conducting a range of strategic bombardment operations, both nuclear and conventional.

With the end of the Cold War on December 25, 1991—when the Hammer and Sickle Flag of the Soviet Union was lowered for the last time above the Kremlin and replaced with the flag of the Russian Federation—SAC’s traditional role in the national military establishment ended. Accordingly, on June 1, 1992, the Air Force inactivated the Strategic Air Command, assigning its aircraft to the Air Combat Command, and a year later it assigned the ICBM force to Air Force Space Command. Also on June 1, 1992, the Department of Defense activated the United States Strategic Command, containing vestiges of the old SAC, under the Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than the Air Force to coordinate planning and targeting of strategic forces into the future.

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NASA’s Overestimates of Soviet Lunar Capabilities During the Moon Race

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1968 and 1968.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1961 and 1968.

Many times NASA officials used the national security intelligence on the Soviet Union to sustain their case for an aggressive effort to complete Apollo by the end of the 1960s. In a few instances these public statements aroused within the administration charges of NASA complicity in overestimating Soviet capabilities as a means of ensuring the agency’s budget.

The most serious incident took place in the fall of 1968 when NASA Administrator James E. Webb was battling within the Executive Branch over budgetary issues and losing. The NASA budget had started a downward trend from a peak in 1965 of $5.2 billion and would not bottom out until 1974. The NASA budget for fiscal year (FY) 1968 had been $4.6 billion, but was reduced to $3.99 billion in FY 1969. Out-year projections looked even more bleak and the NASA administrator went on the offensive.

Although previously cooperative with the White House in these matters, Webb had been more or less ramrodded by the president on September 16th into announcing his retirement from NASA effective October 7, 1968. Threafter he had nothing to lose in publicly complaining about the lack of American resolve to continue aggressive space flight funding.

Webb complained about the reductions in NASA’s funding, and argued that it may have already allowed the Soviet Union to retake the lead in the space race. He tagged his concern to the circumlunar flight of Zond 5, which began on September 15, 1968, and emphasized a downward trend for the American effort in space while the Soviets were pressing forward with major initiatives. He envisioned serious consequences for NASA’s efforts arising from the Johnson administration’s decision to cut the space agency’s budget. As Webb wrote to the President:

  1. After deducting the 40,000 construction workers who were released as our facilities were completed, the work force now engaged in our program is about two-thirds the level reached in the peak year 1966. This means that a number of key design and engineering teams have already been broken up.
  2. Our rate of successful space launchings has fallen off sharply since the peak year 1966: we launched a total of 30 in 1966; 26 in 1967; and 11 to date in 1968. For 1969 the projection is higher because of a concentration of launches in support of the Apollo program.
  3. As things now stand we are terminating production of both the Saturn IB and Saturn V boosters as soon as the Apollo requirements are clearly met.
  4. Similarly, we are marking time in the development of a nuclear rocket engine pending your 1970 budget decisions.
  5. We have had to limit our planetary programs. We will fly two probes to Mars in 1969, are beginning work on two Mars orbiters for 1971, and will urge that the 1970 budget permit us to develop two Mars landers for 1973.

Webb contrasted these reductions, and in general limping along to the finish line in the Moon race, to what he thought of as a vigorous Soviet program. He noted:

  1. The Soviets show every indication of continuing to build upon their capabilities to demonstrate their power in astronautics and to master space. In the process, they are propelling the total base of their technological competence forward.
  2. The Soviet space program continued to expand in size and scope as indicated by the steady increase in successful space launches.
  3. We have the best of reasons to believe that the Soviets are nearing the end of a long developmental period in aerospace technology which will give them the ability to advance significantly ahead of us in space and challenge us in important areas of aeronautics.

Webb punctuated his attack by concluding that the Soviet’s seem bent on demonstrating a “capability that could change the basic structure and balance of power in the world.” Zond 5 demonstrated that the U.S. was behind the Soviets again and that they might possibly beat the U.S. to a lunar landing.

Donald Hornig, the President’s Science Advisor, became so upset with Webb’s public statements that he fired off an angry letter to LBJ about the “NASA Distortion of Where the U.S. Stands in Space.” He claimed that Webb exaggerated the importance of Zond 5 and the overall state of the Soviet space effort while minimizing the accomplishments and capabilities of the U.S. program. He claimed that these “unconscionable statements” were “undoubtedly motivated by their [NASA’s] budgetary programs.” Hornig countered Webb’s “doomsday” pronouncements with his own more rosy analysis:

In the manned lunar landing program, for example, we have successfully flown the Saturn V launch vehicle twice, the first flight in November 1967, while the equivalent Soviet vehicle has yet to fly. We expect the first Soviet launch in the next few months. Out best estimate of their capability indicates that before a manned lunar landing can be attempted it will be necessary to rendezvous and dock the payloads from two vehicles of the type they have not yet launched.

I conclude from this and other supporting evidence that we are at least one year ahead of the Soviets in this area—and not behind.

Hornig told the President that he would discuss this difference of opinion with Webb and try to get him to retract his statements. He closed the matter by informing LBJ that he would have the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a coordination organization assigned to the White House, investigate the matter and prepare an analysis.

Donald Hornig

Donald Hornig

Hornig also asked if the president would like to release that analysis as an official statement. In the lower left corner of the memo is a set of decision options and by the option, “Drop the matter,” Johnson placed a check. Hornig didn’t, and the Space Council sent to the President a report on the relative position of the Soviet and American space programs on September 30.

Immediately thereafter, LBJ dictated a note back to Hornig that took him to task for the attack on Webb. The president said, “It is hard for me to believe that Jim Webb would make ‘unconscionable statements’ or be ‘motivated’ entirely by budgetary problems.” He commented that Webb had reason to be concerned about the NASA budget, but that he fully understood the national commitment to completing Apollo on schedule. “I wanted him to succeed,” LBJ wrote, “and it was only with great reluctance that for the past two years I have taken action to meet the overall fiscal requirements laid down by a determined group in the Congress by accepting cuts made in the House Appropriations Committee.”

Then Johnson offered one of the most damning comments I have seen in writing among Washington politicos. He told Hornig that if he persisted in attacking Webb and NASA that his function could be open to criticism from other quarters, especially if there was some great Soviet triumph as Webb predicted might take place. “This would inevitably bring into question the judgment of your group in a way that might impair its usefulness.”

At the same time that LBJ was piqued at Hornig for attacking Webb, Webb’s statements clearly irritated the President as well. He went back to Webb and asked him about his public disagreement over the administration’s budget. He asked him for the basis of his charges and clearly challenged his loyalty to the Johnson administration.

James Webb and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

James Webb and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

On October 1st, only a week before his scheduled departure from NASA, and again on October 5, Webb responded to Johnson with detailed memoranda outlining his position on NASA, budgets, and the Soviet space effort. He again expressed concern about the downward trend in spending for space exploration in the U.S. and the perceived upward trend in the Soviet Union.

Webb closed by quoting his comments to the American Astronautical Society in July 1968, indicating that these trends “will have many serious effects on the U.S. position in aeronautics and space.” Webb did not budge from that belief to the end of his federal career, but ultimately he was proven wrong about the Soviets’ capability in space.

Of course, and hindsight it 20/20 here, the Soviet Union was nowhere near achieving a lunar landing in 1968. The Americans won that race to the Moon easily. Webb did not know that in the latter 1960s, however.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Evolution vs. Creationism”

Evolution-vs-Creationism-9780520246508Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction. By Eugenie C. Scott. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

For many years the author of this book, Eugenie C. Scott, oversaw the activities of the National Center for Science Education. In that capacity she battled all manner of ridiculous ideas relating to science ranging from denial of global warming to the presumed dangers from genetically-modified foods to the belief that autism was caused by vaccines. None of those battles, however, was ever as wild, and as broad as the denial and denunciation of evolutionary biology.

Scott ranges broadly over the landscape of the evolution/creationism debate, filled as it is with polemics attacking evolution and advancing the cause of creationism/intelligent design, or vice versa. The manner in which scientists hesitantly accepted the theory over its first 50-75 years has been told and retold. The reaction to the evolutionary idea from the religious community has also been documented, whether it be rejection, accommodation, or otherwise.

Many people of faith observed that scientific findings in geology, biology, astronomy, and other disciplines seemed to assault the traditional ideas of Christianity. For centuries most people a part of Western Civilization had believed that the Earth had been created by God about four thousand years before Christ, often applying the dating system developed by Bishop Usher to record biblical generations. Aside from a few cataclysms, some of which were divinely induced such as the “Great Flood,” the Earth had remained pretty much the same from the time of that creation. Humanity, as well as all of the other creatures on the planet, had been specifically created by God and that humankind held a special place in this creation as being in the image of God.

Geological studies were the first to challenge these assumptions. James Hutton was an exceptional amateur geologist who was the first to put together a compelling explanation of the age of the Earth. He first raised the issue that the Earth must be far older than the 6,000 years usually thought in 1785 and elaborated on this in his two-volume Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations in 1795. Charles Darwin’s ideas did for biology what Hutton’s had done for geology. He argued several key premises based on incontrovertible observational and experimental evidence. But Darwin also demonstrated the nature of change over time in species and made clear the connection between The Origins of Species.

This book is an attempt to explore the history of this debate and, most importantly, to debunk all of the major arguments used by creationists against evolutionary theory. Scott does so with some humor, some biting wit, and some pointed rebuffs. As Scott lays out the case, she also calls attention to sources that may be used to parry the creationist thrust. It is very much a “battle book,” designed to arm those who debate creationists. Of course, it is fundamentally “young Earth creationists” who are at issue here. Most of the people of faith in the Christian world accommodated to Darwin’s ideas more than a century ago.

That accommodation was accomplished by using quite interesting, ingenious, and complex arguments to support a convergence of scientific evolution and religious creation. They tended to accept the ancient origins of the Earth as geologists laid out the timeline—as well as the record of cataclysm and change over the eons—by questioning time as stated in the Bible. How long was a day in God’s sense, an entity that stood outside time and space? They developed a “day-age” theory that allowed for eons to pass for a day in God’s time scale. They offered a series of possibilities in reconciling the Genesis account with scientific knowledge. Some also argued for a “gap” of “ruin and restoration” theory that included multiple cataclysms in the history of the Earth with matter and life created repeatedly. This allowed for fossils and extinctions. This might also have been followed by an Edenic restoration.

At sum, the religious response to Darwinian thought could be predicated on the higher criticism of the Bible then emerging from universities and theological schools of the latter nineteenth century. In such a climate, biblical literalism could be overturned and replaced with a perspective that viewed the book more as a work of revealed truth but not necessarily one containing absolute truth. They argued over the search for truth, whatever that meant and if it could ever be known. They found reinforcement everywhere and took comfort in the exchange recorded in the Bible between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ two millennia ago. Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Those versions of “truth” not accepted are often called “myths,” as Pilate obviously thought about the truth espoused by Jesus, but they might have relevance nonetheless. They have given and continue to offer meaning and value to individual human lives and to create a focal point for explaining the sufferings and triumphs of humanity.

“Young Earth creationists” have never sought to accommodate their religious ideas to scientific knowledge and with this the stage is set for battle. It is far from over as Eugenie Scott makes clear.

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Timing of the Apollo Landing in Relation to the Soviet Lunar Program

Patrick Vantuyne "Impossible Picture" of Neil and Buzz at Tranquility Base.

Patrick Vantuyne “Impossible Picture” of Neil and Buzz at Tranquility Base.

Americans have long known that the American effort to land on the Moon served as an enormously effective response to a Cold War crisis with the Soviet Union. When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in July 1969 few recalled at the time that it had been successful in accomplishing the political goals for which it had been created.

President John F. Kennedy had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961 brought on by several separate factors—the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them—that Apollo was designed to combat. At its core, therefore, Apollo very directly responded to a perceived challenge from the Soviet Union.

While the United States engaged in a very public race to the Moon in the 1960s, the Soviet Union’s leadership claimed it was not trying to get their at all. Indeed, they castigated American officials for heightening Cold War tensions with Apollo while they claimed peaceful intentions in a measured space exploration effort. The American public largely accepted these arguments and public opinion polls at the time showed hesitancy to “race” the Soviets to the Moon. At no time did even 50 percent of the public support the program, and opposition was always greater than support except for brief periods.

But the intelligence data NASA and other governmental leaders possessed suggested that the Soviet Union had every intention of engaging in a “race” to the Moon. In 1960 the CIA concluded that the Soviet Union fully understood the prestige associated with space accomplishments.

Just a month before President John F. Kennedy’s announcement of his commitment to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, a CIA intelligence estimate concluded: “Contingent upon successes with manned earth satellites and the development of large booster vehicles, the Soviets are believed capable of a manned circumlunar flight with reasons chance of success in 1966; of recoverable manned lunar satellites in 1967; and of lunar landings and return to earth by about 1970.”

Later reports from the CIA were even more dramatic in their conclusions. In a comprehensive review of the Soviet space program published in 1962, analysts concluded:

Some Soviet statements indicate that a program for a manned lunar landing is under way in the USSR,…The top Soviet leaders have not committed themselves publicly to a lunar race with the US, and it is highly unlikely that they will do so. However, the prestige attached to the first manned lunar landing, its probable political impact, and its importance for future advances in space, would probably lead the Soviet leadership to compete unless the cost were considered prohibitive or the US seemed to have an insurmountable lead….we cannot say definitely at this time that the Soviets aim to achieve a manned lunar landing ahead of or in close competition with the US, but we believe the chances are better than even that this is a Soviet objective. Given their ability to concentrate human and material resources on priority objectives, we estimate that with a strong national effort the Soviets could accomplish a manned lunar landing in the period 1967-1969.

One specific instance concerning the Soviet program tangentially affected early planning for the timing of the first Apollo landing. Many people in NASA, and in other government organizations, speculated that the Soviet Union would attempt a major space spectacular during the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in the fall of 1967. It was a realistic scenario for policymakers in the spring of 1961. Soviet leaders had taken the opportunity of the revolution’s fortieth anniversary to launch Sputnik 1, and had engaged in a series of space stunts thereafter, sprung upon the West at opportune times. Why not undertake a Moon mission and scoop the Americans again in 1967? The question arose in both congressional hearings and in formal reviews of what NASA could do with the lunar landing schedule.

Because of this concern the reviews on the feasibility of Apollo, conducted in April and early May 1961, considered the option of landing by 1967. Clearly the president wanted to beat the Soviets. He confided in a press conference on April 21 that he was leaning toward committing the nation to a large-scale project to land Americans on the Moon. “If we can get to the moon before the Russians, then we should,” he said.

Wernher von Braun led the developemnt of the Saturn V. Here he stands in front of Apollo 11 on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Wernher von Braun led the development of the Saturn V. Here he stands in front of Apollo 11 on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Wernher von Braun, director of NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and head of the big booster program needed for the lunar effort, addressed this concern. He told the vice president that “we have a sporting chance of sending a 3-man crew around the moon ahead of the Soviets” and “an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon (including return capability, of course.)” He added that “with an all-out crash program” the U.S. could achieve a landing by 1967 or 1968.

Notwithstanding these NASA analyses for a target landing date of 1967, as the project became more crystallized in May 1961 agency leaders recommended not committing to such an early deadline. NASA Administrator James E. Webb, realizing the problems associated with meeting target dates based on NASA’s experience in space flight, suggested that the president commit to a landing by the end of the decade, giving the agency additional time to solve any problems that might arise.

The White House accepted this proposal and the ringing announcement, “I believe this Nation should commitment itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” entered the American lexicon on April 25, 1961. Sustained by this commitment, the nation’s leaders assigned Apollo to the “highest national priority category for research and development and for achieving operational capability” in  National Security Action Memorandum 144, dated April 11, 1962.

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The Conspiracy Theme and the Late Twentieth Century RLDS Church

The Reorganized Church peace seal.

The Reorganized Church peace seal.

The conspiracy theme is still present in the modern Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), which was renamed the Community of Christ (CofC)in 2000. This time it can be seen most frequently among some RLDS fundamentalists who charge that the highest leaders of the church are “liberal heretics” who launched a devilish plot to subvert the Restoration and to make it into another Protestant church. As a result of several key controversies in the 1960s and early 1970s many fundamentalists began to speak in terms of a conspiracy of insiders who want to destroy the gospel. This has been a persistent theme every since.

In one of the most detailed and eloquent of the works detailing the conspiracy leitmotif, The Saints at the Crossroads (1974 with many editions thereafter), Richard Price asserted that the church’s hierarchy was conspiring to reject distinctive Restoration beliefs, making the church’s theology consistent with the liberal Protestant theology held in the leading ecumenical churches, His rationale for taking this action: so that the RLDS could be admitted into the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. He asked in a true conspiracy challenging fashion:

Do you know that the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Inspired Version of the Bible are being discarded, and that the Church is being changed into a Protestant denomination? Do you know that the New Curriculum actually teaches vulgar, profane, and Communistic material to our children? Have you noticed that Joseph Smith is no longer really upheld as a true prophet?

He added that “the leaders had been a decade in the process of secretly abandoning the Three Standard Books and other distinctives of the Church’s heritage—and taking the Church into the ecumenical movement.” Price concluded, harkening back to the century-old conspiracy leitmotif against Utah Mormonism voiced by the Reorganization, that “This big change has caused a problem which is greater than the one created by Brigham Young. He set aside the Three Standard Books and led the Saints into the heresies of polygamy, the Adam‑God theory, and blood atonement, causing a split in the Church from which it is still suffering. Today’s problem is greater because the leaders are not just setting the Three Books aside, but they are discarding them.”

Even more pointed was a 1986 pamphlet that outlines the conspiracy thesis in exceptionally clear language:

During the past quarter of a century, the highest officials of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have introduced liberalism, humanism, and ecumenism into the Church. They have also conspired to gradually remove all traces of the Restoration Movement of 1830 from the Church’s beliefs. After women’s ordination was officially adopted by the World Conference of 1984, it became apparent that the Liberal Faction had permanently departed from the Faith and entered into complete apostasy. It also became apparent that the Church (the saints as a body) is now divided, and that the only part of it that shall survive this apostasy is that part which shall reject the liberal officials and their paid appointees, and shall cling to the original beliefs of the Church as they are found in the Three Standard Books of Scripture.

Those accepting this theory have moved to the barricades to fight a determined, resourceful, and merciless enemy made all the more sinister because the conspirators had once been considered friends. For those who accept the conspiracy theme, the fight against the forces of evil continues.

At present there are estimated to be more than 150 fundamentalist congregations in the United States, all trying to make a place for themselves in the nether-world between the RLDS/CofC and Mormonism, convinced that conspirators in both groups have altered the gospel and led the church into apostasy.

Wallace B. Smith, RLDS President between 1978 and 1996.

Wallace B. Smith, RLDS President between 1978 and 1996.

For those holding tight to such conspiracy theories, the total condemnation of the conspirator is paramount. There is no room for admission that perhaps the other side might have valid points. Such revelation opens the door for discussion and perhaps compromise. The opponents, therefore, are the most heartless of rogues having not just bad intentions in the situation under consideration but lacking in total moral character. When truth is at stake, of course, there can be no bargaining over it. It is also a defense mechanism. The opponent’s flaws are highlighted, and those holding to the theory are always judged to be sound, opponents themselves are defective. Conspirators are conspirators because of personal weakness and sin. They can not be tolerated.

An example is the recent, and hilarious, suggestion by Richard Price that he found a photograph of Alger Hiss, a supposed communist spy of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, standing with Wallace B. Smith during a recent photograph taken in Washington. Although it turned out that the person standing with Smith was another RLDS member, the implication was clear, Smith—the senior conspirator of the RLDS’s apostasy—was a communist and deserving of Cold War scorn.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Mormons and their Historians”

2738079Mormons and their Historians. By Davis Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988.

Although this book is rather long in the tooth, and both authors have passed on, it is still a fine short and breezy discussion of the historians who have dominated the writing of Mormon history from the 1840s to the 1980s. It is relatively short and succinct with chapters on Willard Richards, Orson Whitney, Edward Tullidge, Andrew Jenson, Joseph F. Smith, B.H. Roberts, and others.

The purpose of this work was, at least in part, to create legitimacy for the “New Mormon History” that emerged in the 1960s and was championed by the authors in official roles in the Latter-day Saint church. Leonard J. Arrington became LDS church historian in 1972 and served for a decade. He modernized the archives, opened collections, and sponsored soul-searching histories that tackled many difficult historical questions for the faithful. Davis Bitton was his strong associate in this process. Both received censure for some of their activities from self-proclaimed protectors of the faith.

The more open approach was officially attacked by Apostle Boyd K. Packer in 1981 when he invoked an espousal of the progress of the dominant line of Mormonism as a religion as the primary purpose of historical investigation, telling church educators that “Your objective should be that they will see the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now.”

In reality, no LDS historian has ever done this, and Bitton and Arrington make that clear in this work. But they were faithful Mormons nonetheless, seeking to help all understand their past “warts and all.” The so-called “New Mormon Historians” were pretty much like those who went before them, at least in terms of their objectives.

This is an easily read and understood book. Surveying it remains a profitable use of time nearly thirty years after it was first published.

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The Conspiracy Motif and the Nineteenth Century RLDS Church

The Reorganized Church peace seal.

The Reorganized Church peace seal.

While the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) emerged from elements in the early Mormon movement that accepted more mainstream American religious and social ideals its membership also spun its own formidable conspiracy theory. An early and persistent theme in early Reorganization apologetics was the “usurpation” of spiritual authority by Brigham Young and the Apostles at the time of Joseph Smith Jr.’s death.

Those who had known the Mormon founder best and who had experienced the fruits of the gospel, this theory suggested, now conspired to rob Joseph Smith III of his birthright as successor to his father and to enslave the Saints by, among other things, fostering the “evil” practice of polygamy. Joseph Smith III vowed at the time of his ordination as RLDS prophet in 1860 to seek to correct the errors that had been introduced into the church by Young and his cronies, and to call those who had followed them to repent and return to a more reasonable religious vision.

Smith inaugurated a vigorous missionary program to “rescue” those Latter-day Saints enmeshed in what the RLDS believed were the “evil practices” originated by Young. Simplistically, they believed that all the Reorganized Church had to do to redeem these people was to offer an alternative, pointing out the errors of plural marriage and other speculative doctrines, as well as by showing the illegitimacy of the leadership of Young. Smith sent the first RLDS mission to Utah in 1863 with the express mission of teaching the residents of the great conspiracy by the Apostles, and to call them to repentance toward “orthodox Mormonism.”

Edmund C. Briggs and Alexander McCord, the first two RLDS missionaries in Utah, had several scrapes with LDS authorities for trying to show the errors of the Utah brand of Mormonism. In so doing, they stirred up conflict. In fact, a few weeks after their arrival Briggs attended a public service were Brigham Young was denouncing the upstart RLDS. In the course of the sermon Briggs rose to debate Young as an usurper and evil tyrant. The police were called to restore order and as they escorted him from the building Briggs turned to the officer and whispered that “he recognized his [police] authority but not that of Brigham Young.”

Thereafter, the Reorganization maintained a missionary effort in Utah for the purpose of showing the errors of the Apostles and to call the “conspiracy to account.” In addition to missionary contact, the Reorganization published and distributed hundreds of tracts, pamphlets, magazine articles, and books designed to show the evil designs of the Apostles and to influence his followers. None of these efforts, much to the chagrin of the Reorganization’s leadership, were particularly effective.

Joseph Smith III (1832-1914) late in life.

Joseph Smith III (1832-1914) late in life.

The conspiracy motif was fundamentally stated in 1879 by William B. Smith, the brother of the founding prophet and one of the early apostles. “The Church was robbed of her prophet and patriarch, by a most hellish plot that had been in vogue for not only months, but years previous to the time of their deaths,” wrote Smith to his nephew, Joseph III. He added: “The persons who were most conspicuous in this work . . . were no other than John Taylor and Willard Richards, who by constant importunities prevailed upon your father to sign his own death warrant….Thus these men…ensnared the prophet from off his watch tower, and led him like a lamb to the slaughter.” With the success of this conspiracy to rid the organization of its founder and guiding force, Young and his cohorts were able to take over and do whatever they wanted. What they wanted to do, he added, was to engage in polygamy, introduce all manner of theological innovations, and to control the resources of the church.

In this capacity, the Reorganized Church’s membership, believing they were faithful to the goals and aspirations of the early Restoration movement, went to the barricades of the gospel to defend it from destruction at the hands of conspirators. David H. Smith, son of the prophet and arguably the poet laureate of the early Reorganization, wrote a powerful poem that took as its theme the apostasy of the Apostles and the reorganization of the church to preserve the gospel. He wrote that the RLDS was seeking to protect the church from those

Who would lead it from precepts of virtue so plain,

Once taught her by Joseph the Seer.

A final indicator of this theme can be found in the case of David H. Smith’s insanity. During a 1869 mission visit to Utah Smith came unglued and was eventually hospitalized for mental illness. Many RLDS believed that David had somehow been drugged or something by the Mormons—they were never, however, very clear how this was done—to get him out of the way because his message on behalf of the RLDS was so powerful.

This was so much poppycock, believed by far too man in the RLDS movement of the nineteenth century.

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Toward a Theory of Conspiracy Theories


The recent conspiracy theories surrounding the military exercise, Jade Helm 15, being planned by the U.S. Department of Defense in the summer of 2015 has led me to consider the place of conspiracies in American history.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories in the nation’s past, but what are their general attributes? A central issue, therefore, revolves around how to define a “conspiracy.” At its most innocuous a conspiracy is simply the planning and execution of some activity by a group of people. All actions require some planning with others and could be considered conspiracies. The dictionary definition of conspiracy, however, is “a joining secretly with others for an evil purpose” and most planning efforts, therefore, do not qualify.

One could argue that conspiracies do indeed exist, even when using the dictionary definition. Even so, much rides on what defines an “evil purpose,” for very often that is a matter of perspective. From the American perspective, whether or not Roosevelt was involved matters not, in the strictest sense of the term Pearl Harbor was attacked as a result of a conspiracy for the Japanese high command struck an evil plot against the U.S. From a Japanese perspective it was not so much a conspiracy as good strategic planning. The definition of a conspiracy, therefore, is subjective.

At least in the minds of conspiracy theorists, however, there is always a belief that there is or has been a vast and well-organized plot to carry out some sinister goal, often the very destruction of a way of life. At its extreme form the theorist might consider the conspiracy the vast and prime mover of history. Thus, Americans on the political right have interpreted many of the world’s events in the twentieth century as a “communist conspiracy” against which the “free world” had always to react. As a result, the opponents fighting a perceived conspiracy see themselves as the last bastion of what is good and just and true in the world. There is an especially powerful apocalyptic vision that motivates those who accept conspiracy ideologies. These opponents have often had an almost messianic belief in the rightness of their cause and that the time remaining to salvage whatever is at stake is running out.

This sense of imminent doom from the forces of the conspiracy frequently arouse much passion and militancy on the part of those who believe the theory. They hardly ever see the issues at stake as anything to be mediated and compromised. This makes them strikingly different from most Americans who usually view as critical to their work a give and take to hammer out a conclusion that most people can accept, if not fully embrace. In spite of whatever wishes individuals might have to the contrary, maintaining the system and one’s place in it has nearly always been an important ingredient in American society. Without a certain minimum level of stability, anyone’s position regardless of its justness would be undermined and could never be realized.

Those who believe that a conspiracy has been afoot do not have any interest in talking over differences. They are at war with a malicious, sinister, powerful, ubiquitous personification of evil. That evil is responsible for most of the negative events that happen. It makes crises, starts economic depressions, wars, and disasters; and enjoys the misery foisted upon the culture under attack. Advocates of conspiracy assign demonic omnipresence to whatever and whomsoever they have decided are a part of the conspiracy. They possess a special source of power which is used malevolently against others, especially those who have learned about the conspiracy and are seeking to combat it. Any suggestion from non-believers that a presumed conspiracy might be just as easily and accurately explained by some less diabolical method is met with a sharp rebuke that the non-believer is either a willing participant or a dupe being used by the conspirators.

This sense of “us” or “them,” has led to a belief that those accepting the conspiracy theory are at the barricades of the culture fighting a determined, resourceful, and merciless enemy. At the same time it creates an incredible paradox. Supposedly committed to high ideals—indeed, the very ideals that are under attack—against a powerful threat that has rejected those values, the opposition begins to take on the characteristics of the enemy.

Those manning the barricades themselves become increasingly like the supposed conspirators. Historian David Brion Davis summarized this phenomenon using the example of those seeking to halt immigration in the early nineteenth century:

As the nativist searched for participation in a noble cause, for unity in a group sanctioned by tradition and authority, he professed a belief in democracy and equal rights. Yet in his very zeal for freedom he curiously assumed many of the characteristics of the imagined enemy. By condemning the subversive’s fanatical allegiance to an ideology, he affirmed a similarly uncritical acceptance of a different ideology; by attacking the subversive’s intolerance of dissent, he worked to eliminate dissent and diversity of opinion; by censuring the subversive for alleged licentiousness, he engaged in sensual fantasizes; by criticizing the subversive’s loyalty to an organization, he sought to prove his unconditional loyalty to the established order. The nativist moved even farther in the direction of his enemies when he formed tightly-knit societies and parties which were often secret and which subordinated the individual to the single purpose of the group. Though the nativists generally agreed that the worst evil of subversives was their subordination of means to ends, they themselves recommended the most radical means to purge the nation of troublesome groups and to enforce unquestioned loyalty to the state.

Does those fighting a perceived conspiracy foment their own in the process? An interesting idea deserving of further consideration.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Journey of a People, 1820-1844″

Journey of a peopleThe Journey of a People: The Era of Restoration, 1820 to 1844. By Mark A. Scherer. Independence, MO: Community of Christ Seminary Press, 2013. vii + 535. Acknowledgments, illustrations, footnotes, bibliographic essay, selected bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-8309-1381-7. Hardcover with dustjacket. $30.00.

This book has been a long time coming. It has been underway for some 15 years and the author has been talking about it at conferences and elsewhere for more than a decade. It is a basic history of the first generation of the Mormon Church between the time at which Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) formed the church until his assassination in Illinois. It is a competent general history that will be of interest largely to members of the Community of Christ (CofC), an organization known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from the 1850s until 2000, an offshoot of the original Mormon Church. Written by the Community of Christ’s official historian, it presents a gentle, relatively priestly, and often faith-promoting account of the church’s early history.

Scherer is honest in his assessments, but he often soft-petals difficult issues. One of the most important was Joseph Smith Jr.’s “First Vision,” long a subject of considerable controversy. Some have suggested that Smith fabricated it in 1838 when he began dictating his history to provide a starting point for his prophetic career that would counter charges that he was nothing more than a treasure seeking charleton. Scherer recounts at least some of the controversy but then asserts a conclusion that ignores all of that in favor of CofC members dealing with it as “subject of introspection.” He offers only that it is “important to find in the First Vision the key elements of Restoration heritage that are useful today” (p. 66). Scherer suggests that rejection of creeds, God’s love for all, forgiveness and salvation, and the search for the divine represent the sum of what might be appropriately taken from this story. That is a result that essentially sidesteps the necessity of trying to deal with the historical reality. I find it strikingly unhelpful.

A second area considered is the whole issue of Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking and its relationship both to the Smith family and Mormon origins. In the case of The Journey of a People, Scherer discusses this difficult subject by casting it as a part of the cultural heritage of early America, linking the family to vernacular expressions of enchantment and the occult. While he expended 17 pages on explanations of the “First Vision” he only used seven pages to cover the treasure-seeking, money-digging aspects of Smith’s early career. His assessment: “Joseph Smith Jr.’s active seven-year career of treasure seeking built his reputation as one among many upstate New York scryers to be known for his skilled use of a seer stone” (p. 74). I would take issue with that assessment since it ignores his other soothsaying activities for the rest of his life, but more important it fails to offers anything more than warmed over apologetics offered over the years by Mormon historians.

Third, Scherer examined the origins and content of the Book of Mormon, a subject of critical debate from its publication in 1830. Was it an historical account of actual events in ancient America translated through “the gift and power of God,” as Joseph Smith claimed, or was it a product of Joseph Smith’s vivid imagination and not an actual history of any group of people who came from Palestine to America? This is a core challenge for all students of the early history of Mormonism. Scherer includes the story of the “First Vision,” the message of the angel Moroni, the recovery of “plates unto the likeness of gold” on which was written a spiritual history of ancient Americans, and the translation and publication and power of the Book of Mormon as a work of scripture. Using traditional scholarly tools, the author pieces together the story, raises the controversies, and tries to deal with this for a community of faith. He does a credible job with this task, but it is very much an apology for Joseph Smith. He calls into the question the Book of Mormon as an historical account, but firmly states it’s important as sacred scripture. I found his chapter on this subject more satisfactory than others in this book, in no small part because of all of the other work on this subject by other historians who have done the heavy lifting on its analysis. It will be a useful synthesis for members of the Community of Christ.

Fourth, Scherer takes a gingerly approach toward plural marriage and especially Joseph Smith Jr.’s role in its origination and practice. He notes the duplicity Smith registered in originating it while denying it publicly. He also trots out the standard Community of Christ position that Smith may have started the practice and that was wrong, but Smith “repented” of it before his death. He concluded: “Because of this aberrant marital practice the Latter Day Saint tradition would have to carry these events of the Restoration Era as their burden of history” (p. 409). This is not a very helpful analysis. It might be appropriate for the majority of the rank and file membership but in terms of explanation it fails to deal with Smith’s origins of this licentious practice, the behavior that it engendered, the subterfuge it promoted, the lies in responding to accusations, the pressuring of women into the practice, and perhaps worse. I expected more from Sherer in this arena.

Finally, I expected more from Scherer in dealing with the tyranny Smith always displayed. He does very little with the issue of Mormon militarism. There is no question, but that Smith embraced the use of military force to achieve ends that he believed appropriate for his followers. And he did so early in his career and repeatedly engaged in it, often and repeatedly taking a belligerent stance. The history of Joseph Smith and the LDS is that it mobilized armies and engaged in combat operations at least by 1833, did so with Zion’s Camp in 1834, and did so again with catastrophic results in Missouri in 1838. This culminated in Nauvoo with the establishment of a large and capable militia, the Nauvoo Legion, which terrified the non-Mormon population. This militarism supported a Mormon theocracy that emerged on the Illinois frontier. And Smith had plans to create his own theocratic state with himself in charge independent from the United States.

In the end The Journey of a People is at best a partially successful general history written for the church faithful. One has to look long and hard for a thesis anywhere in it. The book offers some useful perspectives and exposes Community of Christ members to issues poorly considered before, if at all. Scherer overemphasizes the positive attributes and deemphasizes the less savory attributes of Smith and the early Mormon movement. I’m not sure that this is enough to make this a useful work for anyone but the most elementary of church members.




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A Breathless Survey of the Overhead Reconnaissance Harvest of CORONA

A graph of the CORONA Recovery System.

A graph of the CORONA Recovery System.

The U.S.’s development of a viable satellite reconnaissance program proved a major challenge through much of the 1950s, with the first successful flight coming in 1960. Under development in the latter 1950s, Project CORONA eventually became a successful American reconnaissance satellite program.

Contracted to Lockheed, Glenn L. Martin Co., and RCA under the codename “Pied Piper” in 1955, by July 1956 the development plan for a covert CORONA spacecraft was approved that could overfly the Soviet Union and take images of military installations and other potential Cold War targets. This effort featured an Atlas booster with a spacecraft stabilized in orbit on three axes for high pointing accuracy of still cameras using film weighing thousands of pounds. At the same time it pursued television capabilities in a satellite later names Samos.

In the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis of 1957-1958, the DoD raised the priority of the reconnaissance satellite program and increased funding. Reassigned to the CIA with Richard Bissell Jr. leading the effort, the CORONA film reconnaissance approach raced to an early deployment. An Itek camera, built for the satellite, featured a twelve-inch focal length lens in a camera mounted on a three-axis stabilized satellite. It would take 70-degree wide photographic swaths with a resolution of 12 meters (40 feet) from an orbit with a perigee of about 190 kilometers (120 miles). As the camera’s acetate film was exposed, it would be fed into a return capsule at the top of the spacecraft. After a few orbits, a small solid-propellant recovery rocket could decelerate a recovery capsule into a reentry trajectory, a parachute would deploy, and the reentry vehicle would be snatched mid-air by a C-119 recovery plane.

CORONA progressed at a frantic pace in the latter 1950s, covering its activities with the ruse of the codename “Project Discoverer,” a test program to develop new technologies required for the study of the space environment, including biomedical experiments that had to be recovered from space. The reality was that this was all about satellite reconnaissance of the Soviet Union.

The first such test of this capability came on January 21, 1959, with the attempted launch of a Thor-Agena booster combination that failed on the launch pad. Additional tests had their problems as well, and it was not until Discoverer 13, launched on August 18, 1960, that the CORONA system reached orbit and then correctly returned its reentry vehicle containing photographs of the ICBM base at Plesetsk and the bomber base at Mys Schmitda in the Soviet Union. After this flight, CORONA became an operational mission and functioned through 1973 when it was succeeded by later generations of reconnaissance satellites.

The CORONA spacecraft.

The CORONA spacecraft.

In assessing the thirteen-year-long CORONA program, one can only call attention to the treasure trove of imagery that enabled much more intelligence analysis than ever before in the Cold War. Through six versions of progressively more sophisticated satellites, named KH-1 through KH-4B (KH stood for “Key Hole”), CORONA had 144 satellites launched, of which 102 returned usable imagery. An official history of CORONA concluded:

In the context of its operational utility, exploitation of technology, and enhancement of the nation’s fund of intelligence information, Corona had to be rated an outstanding success. Originally considered an interim system and assumed to have, at best, three of four years of operational utility, Corona remained the sole source of overflight intelligence for the United States for nearly five years, and was a primary source of basic information used to shape national defense policy for 12 years. Although designed as a search system, at the end Corona was providing better detail and resolution than several of the surveillance systems earlier touted to supplement it.

Throughout the 1960s the system provided critical data about Soviet military capabilities, among other things confirming that there was no missile gap as alleged in the 1960 presidential election with the United State trailing the Soviet Union in capability, offering early intelligence on the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba in 1962, and adding to understanding about the various conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Sino-Soviet border, and Central Europe. An appropriate conclusion: “In its years of service, Corona had identified and accurately located all operational Soviet ballistic missile sites. More need not be said.”

Of course, this capability with reconnaissance satellites rested on “freedom of space,” sometimes referred to as the “open skies” doctrine. While Eisenhower had pursued it aggressively previously, Sputnik helped establish the principle by going first into orbit over the United States without protest. In that regard the Soviet’s did “us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space,” Defense Department official Neil McElroy stated to Eisenhower a few days after Sputnik’s launch in 1957. This made possible the development of reconnaissance satellites and their use throughout the cold war to ascertain what the Soviet Union was doing with its strategic forces. The same was true for the Soviet Union’s reconnaissance satellites overflying the U.S.

This enabled both sides to make decisions based on timely, accurate information. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not overestimate the importance of this technology in 1967 when he said that the U.S. probably spent between $35 and $40 billion on it, but “If nothing else had come of it except the knowledge we’ve gained from space photography, it would be worth 10 times what the whole program has cost.”

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