NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Many of you may not remember General Matthew Ridgway, but in a new book, military historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that his decisions as the commander of U.N. forces in Korea left a remarkable legacy, including the survival of what is now a prosperous democracy in the southern half of that peninsula and the survival of the communist state on the other side of the 39th Parallel, North Korea, a country that brutalizes its own people and regularly threatens its neighbors with war and now nuclear war.
We want to hear from those of you who served in Korea on your experience of what's sometimes called the forgotten war. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, writer Neil Gaiman on work as the salvation of artists. But first our war in Korea and the legacy of Matthew Ridgway. We begin with Bernard Trainor, who retired from the Marines with the rank of lieutenant general and served during the Korean War as the commander of a rifle platoon. He joins us here in Studio 42, and General, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
GENERAL BERNARD TRAINOR: Thank you, Neal. I have to correct you on one thing. In the Marine Corps, you don't command a thing when you're a lieutenant.
TRAINOR: You lead, but you don't command.
CONAN: OK, thank you for the correction. What is your most vivid memory, though, of that conflict?
TRAINOR: Oh, I think my most vivid memory was when I first got there, the first day. It was in the winter, the second winter of the war, on Hill 749 on the east coast of Korea. We were facing the North Koreans then. And it was just five days. I was flown in as - with a bunch of replacement officers. And I got up on the hill, and that very night the North Koreans probed our position.
And there was shooting all around me. You know, I was in a state of shock. I said to the platoon leader I'm supposed to be the guy in charge, and, you know, we learn in training that you make a decision and do something. So I don't to this day remember what I said to him, but I said Sergeant Petrus(ph), don't you think we ought to do such-and-such?
Well, I tell you, it's as though the war went into suspended animation. Everything became dead quiet in my ears. And he turned around and looked at me and said lieutenant, why don't you make a cup of coffee.
TRAINOR: So I knew where I stood at that particular point until I won my spurs. The fact that I had gold bars on my shoulders meant nothing.
CONAN: It was not long, however, before you won those spurs. It...
TRAINOR: Well that's right, yeah. Later on when we went out doing a - about a month later, no, about two weeks later. It's colder than the devil up there, and we went out on a little reconnaissance because we were going to support the next company over and make an attack on a place called Luke's Castle.
And I kind of scoped the place out for a supporting position. So we went out with our white capes on, checked it out, and I turned to him, and I said what do you think, this looks like a pretty good position, don't you? He never looked at me. He just, looking off into space, he said I don't know, lieutenant, you're the platoon leader.
TRAINOR: So he passed the baton to me at that particular point, and that was a very proud moment of my life.
CONAN: This was against the North Koreans.
TRAINOR: North Koreans, yeah.
CONAN: Of course the Chinese came into the picture.
TRAINOR: Well, the Chinese were in there. We were facing the North Koreans then. But in the spring, we moved - the First Marine Division moved from the east coast in the mountains to the west coast above Seoul, and we faced the Chinese there. And it was like going from the Arctic to California, the difference in climate, the difference in terrain.
And there was a big difference between the enemy. The North Koreans were very tough nuts. The Chinese were far more sensible in the way they fought.
CONAN: So they decided not to test American firepower too much?
TRAINOR: Oh no, they would do that, but the North Koreans were almost suicidal. They were very, very difficult when they were in the defense. You had to dig them out. The Chinese would give and then come back, give and come back. And during the latter half of the war, which was known as the outpost war, it was a great deal, I think, like World War I, where both sides had trenches, and they had outposts out in front, and the fighting took place on the outposts. And that was very, very vicious.
CONAN: Let's bring Victor Davis Hanson into the conversation, and he's the author of the new book "The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars that Were Lost from Ancient Greece to Iraq." We're focusing on his chapter on Korea. Victor Davis Hanson, also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and joins us from Valley Public Radio in Fresno. And Victor, nice to have you back on the program.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Thank you for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And the outpost war that General Trainor is describing, I guess that's the part of the conflict that Americans might remember from the TV show "M*A*S*H," where the lines seemed static, and it didn't change very much. And of course that was not the situation at all at the beginning of the conflict.
HANSON: No, it's almost as if we fought World War II from June of 1950 to, oh, I would say April of 1951, and then it became a static war for the next two years. But it was what MacArthur called an accordion war. I mean, when the war broke out in 1950 in the summer, they pushed us almost down to Pusan. Everybody wrote off the war as a disaster and bailed on it.
And suddenly Douglas MacArthur landed at Inchon in September, and then we ran all the way back up 500 miles to the Yalu River, and they were declaring MacArthur a genius, even the joint chiefs. And then suddenly 350,000 Chinese in the first wave, more later came, and then we had the largest retreat in American military history back across the 38th Parallel.
And suddenly our senior commander, Walton Walker, died in a Jeep accident, and 50-something-year-old Matthew Ridgway, has never been to Asia in his life, at least in the Korean Peninsula and Japan, they call him out at 53 years old. And he arrives December 29th in complete chaos.
And everybody's just about ready to go back to Pusan and pull out, and he decides that he's not only not going to Pusan, that he can restore order even if they lose Seoul a second time, and he's going to get back to the 38th Parallel. So he was - it's amazing what he did in just 100 days.
CONAN: In just 100 days because...
HANSON: A hundred days. MacArthur was relieved just about 100 days after Ridgway arrived, and Ridgway then took over the theater commander post in Tokyo. But in that 100 days, he took an abject American defeat and turned it around to an American offensive that actually retook Seoul and got back across the 38th Parallel.
And then he did something that nobody quite understood, is when we had the momentum, and we had probably inflicted over 350,000 casualties in North Korea and China, he didn't go back beyond much the 38th Parallel. And people were critical - as critical of him for not taking the offensive as they had been critical of him for saying the war was not lost, and he could save it. So I think he was probably wise in his second decision, but it remains very controversial.
CONAN: If you look at a map of Korea, you can see it's - topography side, a more defensible position a couple hundred miles to the north of the 38th Parallel.
HANSON: Absolutely, that's a very good point, Neal. At the 39th Parallel, the British had advised us on the initial Yalu campaign under MacArthur to stop at the 39th. And they tried to convince maybe Ridgway could go up to the 39th. But he basically said, you know, the peninsula widens, it's going to get cold, we're too near Chinese and Soviet supplies, and we are going to be just as vulnerable as MacArthur was if we try to repeat it, and the country's not up for it.
He had a very, I don't know, empirical, dispassionate view of war, and when everybody was panicky when the Chinese had crossed the 38th Parallel and were in South Korea and were determined to push us down to Pusan again, he said why are they any different from the same factors that affected us when we were up near North Korea. They're strung out, they're not well-supplied, and they're very vulnerable to American artillery and air power. We've got F-86s coming in. We've restored air superiority, the B-29s. And so he was trying to be logical to people who were in an abject panic, and that was one source of his success.
The other was he had a sterling character even though he was quite controversial in his private life, he had a sterling character, and he thought, you know, to win a war you have to tell people why you're here, what are our aims and what are the means to achieve them. And he did that with these little memos, talking points so to speak, that he published to the troops themselves.
And in addition to getting warm food, mail delivery, and he told all - he relieved a lot of his subordinate officers and said, you know, I don't want to hear any more about how we're going to retreat. I want to know how we're going to stabilize the situation and go on the attack.
Very controversially he named his offensives Operation Roundup, Operation Killer, and the people thought wow, this guy really means business.
CONAN: That's interesting you were saying fired some of his subordinate officers. General Trainor here, thumbs up, I think, as the second lieutenant too junior to get fired in the first half of the Korean War.
CONAN: But General Trainor's here not just as a former platoon commander, a leader of Marines, I'll take the correction again, but as a military historian himself, the author most recently of "Cobra II," co-author. And General Trainor, you think back on Matthew Ridgway and Korea from not just your vantage point as a low-ranking officer there, but given the perspective of time, what do you think?
TRAINOR: Well, by the time I got there, he had replaced MacArthur, who was fired. Van Fleet was in charge. But, you know, I had no idea who was in charge up at the top. But it's very interesting. Ridgway was an amazing man. He was a terrific leader. And when he took over, the Army was in shock. And they were embarrassed. They were not very well-trained, and they had terrible leadership.
And everybody was afraid about what the Chinese were going to do to them. And it reminds me a little bit of when Ulysses S. Grant took over the Army of the Potomac, and he took charge, and all of his generals were telling him about the terrible things that Lee is going to do. And he says don't worry about Lee, he better start worrying what I'm going to do him, which was basically the same sort of thing when Matthew Ridgway took over.
Did a lot of firing, perked up the troops, got out there and restored their confidence, sent them forward very tentatively at first with patrols, reconnaissance patrols and so forth. And they got bloodied again. They got their confidence back. They got their tactical skills back. And then he started to launch these massive attacks north, and when the Chinese would run out of supplies and overextend themselves, they're back.
And then the Chinese would regroup, and they would attack, and he would give up the ground, but he would be punishing them. As they attacked south, he was tearing them apart with artillery and with air power until once again they exhausted themselves, and then he would once again start the offensive. He was a brilliant field commander.
CONAN: And Victor Davis Hanson, somebody as you suggest who kept his head when others were losing theirs.
HANSON: He did, and he not only did, he knew that he would, and he knew that that would be critical to saving the peninsula. And in some ways he had sort of a contempt for people who didn't. But if you look back at him, he's a very tragic figure. He reminds me of somebody out of these classic Westerns like "Shane" or "High Noon" in that he just saw himself apart from the conundrum around him.
And he was - in some ways he was naive about the effect he had on people because he was so morally upright, and he lectured people. And he was so I guess immune from the passions and emotions that were swirling around him that he didn't realize the effect it had. So all of the central players in the American military, whether it was Dwight Eisenhower or General Van Fleet or Douglas MacArthur, at one time or another severely criticized him. And he wasn't aware of their animosity toward him. He didn't really care about it much.
CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who served in Korea, particularly those of you who served during the war in Korea. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. More with General Trainor and Victor Davis Hanson in just a moment. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Victor Davis Hanson's essay "100 Days in Korea" is one chapter in his new book, which tells the story of five generals who salvaged wars that seemed lost, Themistocles of ancient Athens, the great Byzantine commander Belisarius, Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, Matthew Ridgway in Korea and David Petraeus in Iraq. It's called "The Savior Generals." Victor Davis Hanson is our guest today, along with retired General - Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor.
We'd like to hear from those of you who served in Korea, especially during the war, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. What was your experience there? You can also find us on Twitter, @totn. And let's see if we can go to Julia(ph), and Julia's on the line with us from Jacksonville.
JULIA: Good afternoon. How are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
JULIA: All right, so quickly I just wanted to say maybe a point of order, the general can correct me, if you served even in the last 10 years you've technically still served during the Korean War because it's an armistice and not an end of war, correct?
CONAN: I believe that's still the case, and I think even the armistice has been rescinded a couple of times.
JULIA: Theoretically, yeah. So I served on active duty with the United States Navy between 2007 and 2010 and visited Korea multiple times for the combined exercises Ulchi Focus Lens, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which have gotten more attention in the last couple of years largely because of the DPRK reaction to said exercises between the U.S. and the Koreans.
But I wanted to say that it was fascinating to me as a service member to travel throughout Korea but specifically to visit both the war museum in Seoul and also the tourist areas of the DMZ since the U.S. has largely been written out of the history there. There's almost no mention at all of American armed forces during the war or during the conflict periods that would be most prominent in the '50s at the war museum.
And when you travel up to the DMZ, you're on a bus that leaves out of Seoul. It's only about 30 kilometers. And when you get to that area, there's a train station, first of all, that terminates - that would travel through North Korea and connect North Korea with China - or South Korea with China, pardon me. But obviously the train doesn't pass through, and they do have guards that guard the platform and don't allow you to pass despite the fact that there are no trains.
So then you get back on the bus and travel up this hill with signs on either side of the road because the area in mined. And when you get off the bus, they shuttle you into a theater and show everyone a video. And obviously it's a translated video. But it's striking because there's these beautiful pictures of a little girl chasing butterflies and fauns. And they say in the video that the DMZ is the last place of peace in the world and that it's actually a nature preserve.
So, you know, we have this video, walk through some tour area, and you get to go down into the tunnels that the North Koreans had dug and the South Koreans discovered, which are exactly four men wide. And the walls have all been painted black because the North Koreans said they were only digging coal. See, the wall is black, and therefore it's just coal.
But it's absolutely fascinating this dichotomy between what happened and the danger that is immediately north and the public perception of that danger. There is a huge generational divide, even though there's compulsory service, pardon me, still for young South Koreans. Many young people there don't feel that there's necessarily a threat, while people who endured the war, the older generation certainly are appreciative of Americans being there.
So I'll take my comment offline, but it was a fascinating experience serving there and one of my favorite places to go.
CONAN: Thank you, Julia, appreciate the phone call.
JULIA: Thank you.
CONAN: Well, her experience, it's of itself, but Victor Davis Hanson, it does raise the question which you raise in your book: Is it - the critics of General Ridgway said in a sense he saved North Korea. He could have gone back north and taken it.
HANSON: Yeah, I think that's a 50-50 question. But what his point was is I guess if I could use the vernacular, he said we're not up to it, meaning that MacArthur was engaged in a political war with the State Department, the Department of Defense. We'd gone through four defense secretaries. General Eisenhower was fighting with General Ridgway. And the American people at this point, even though Ridgway had restored American efforts up to the 38th Parallel, they were not behind the war.
Five million Americans would serve in Korea, 38,000 would get killed, and, you know, 85 - we talk about the United Nations effort. But actually there was a higher percentage of Americans participating in the Korean War than there were in the Iraq coalition. Eighty-six percent of all troops in Korea were Americans.
And we had this terrible psychological geopolitical problem that we were trying to restore the world shoulder-to-shoulder with Italy, Germany and Japan, and it was a terrible propaganda coup for our enemies because they were saying, well, we were the allies, the Chinese and the Russians, and we were against fascism, and now we're leading the world against fascism.
And this very subtle message that Ridgway was trying to get out, wait, wait, wait, we're rebuilding these people, we're a constitutional government, you people are totalitarians just like the - that was lost in the - lost in all the propaganda wars. So it was very difficult. And Ridgway sort of decided I don't think at this point this country or the West in general, especially our allies in Europe who were worried that we were diverting necessary resources, are up to a full-fledged repeat of the race to the Yalu.
CONAN: And is it, on the other side, fair to credit him with - as the man who avoided a nuclear war in Korea?
HANSON: I think it is. I really do. I think MacArthur wanted 26 nuclear weapons for his operational control. Ridgway was a real maverick because at this point, remember, people wanted to dissolve the Marine Corps. There were people who said we wouldn't need conventional forces anymore at their prior levels because nuclear war meant Armageddon, so nobody would ever fight a conventional war.
And he was trying as almost an avatar to say look, you're going to have more conventional problems than you did before because nobody can use nuclear weapons without Armageddon, and we've got to beef up our conventional forces and find a strategy that allows us to win limited wars.
And they he got into all sorts of other things that were typical of his honesty but his naivete. He was really most responsible for integrating the troops in Korea. People thought he was a great progressive, and then when it came time to put women in combat in his 80s, he opposed it. He thought it was a disaster to go into Vietnam, given what we'd been in Korea, and yet when LBJ wanted to pull out, he basically said to the president there's only one thing worse than fighting an ill-thought-out war, and that's losing it.
And you remember him probably, Neal, and the general does, too, that Ronald Reagan brought him to the Bitburg Cemetery when no other officer would really support Reagan in that sort of dumb idea of talking to our German allies when there were SS troops buried at the Bitburg Cemetery. And Ridgway just immediately jumped up in his 90s, and he was severely criticized for it in 1986 I think it was.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to Boylan(ph), and Boylan's on the line with us from Larkspur in California.
CONAN: Go ahead please. You're on the air, go ahead please.
BOYLAN: Oh, well, they wanted me to talk about combat time, and the first bit of combat I was involved in is when we landed at Inchon, and a friend of mine got shot by a sniper right in the head. That was my first time of seeing death. And then we walked past Yangpo Airport(ph). The Yangpo Airport had been a night of a battle before, and there were many, many soldiers lying around dead, half-buried.
So that's the mass population I saw of dead soldiers. Then I went to Seoul, and on the road into Seoul I got hit by a sniper, a ricochet sniper in a cave shot at me, but he hit a rock. And I was still able to go forward and participated in the taking of a hill where the North Koreans were evacuating.
And then a friend of mine was shot by a (unintelligible) who was up a tree. And I nursed him, kept trying to stop him from bleeding. And then I went back with him to the first aid station, and they sent me to the hospital to get penicillin. Then I returned to my unit, and eventually we got board ship and went into Wonsan.
And when we went into Wonsan, we went by a train, an open cattle car, all day, and then a truck at night, and we wound up sleeping in a school. And the next morning we went up to the front lines and ran into Chinese soldiers who were surrounding us. And we had heard of course their sole purpose was to annihilate the First Marine Division, and that would kill the morale of the troops in Korea.
But we turned around and started to evacuate to the rear, and on the way back we had many, many snipers on the hill that we went up to get rid of in some hand-to-hand combat.
BOYLEN: I ran into a very young, teenage Chinese soldier, and I hit him in the chest with the butt of my rifle. But my rifle was not loaded, and I didn't have my bayonet on. So I knocked him to the ground, and I ran.
And then he kept shooting at us, me and my partner, but he kept missing. I guess he wasn't trained in sharpshooting. And then we ran into a whole bunch of night raiders. They were high on opium, and were blowing whistles and sounding bugles as they raided us.
CONAN: Does that...
BOYLEN: Me and my partner had many, many hand grenades, so we kept throwing the hand grenades over the hill to get rid of them. At one time, one of them landed in my foxhole with his leg, and I immediately grabbed the .45 and shot up into the air. He pulled his leg out, but I don't know if I hit him till the next morning, and I saw a soldier lying nearby with his head shot off. I assumed that was my unwelcome visitor.
CONAN: General Trainor, I wanted to ask you: The whistles, the bugles, does that cause any memories?
TRAINOR: There was a lot of talk at the time about whistles and flares and drums and bugles to disconcert the allied forces. I'm sure there was some of it. I think most of that sort of thing was designed primarily for coordination. They didn't have the sort of radios that we had, so they were using some of these things for coordination...
CONAN: Signals, yeah.
TRAINOR: ...and not really for the psychological. But the thing was blown out of proportion.
TRAINOR: Like the waves, the masses of waves, that was all blown out of proportion, also. These people, particularly the Chinese, were not suicidal at all. They - it wasn't their country, but they were there. A lot of them had been nationalist soldiers before the Communists sort of took over.
They were very good soldiers. They were very, very well led, and I admire them and respected them. I didn't fear them. I think I feared the North Koreans more than the Chinese. I knew the Chinese - you could predict what the Chinese were going to do. They were going to do the same fight, the same sort of battle that we would.
CONAN: Yes, it is General Trainor, Boylen.
BOYLEN: Well, I don't know where he gets his ideas from. I assume he wasn't there.
CONAN: Yeah. He was.
BOYLEN: Well, do you think that bugles and whistles in the middle of the night don't psychologically psyche you out?
TRAINOR: I'm not saying that. I'm not - I'm saying...
BOYLEN: Oh, I've never heard ever it being used, particularly in the other parts of their army.
TRAINOR: Well, they were using them. The facts are - as we know it now and after action reports - most of those devices were used for coordination and control, not for psychological purposes. The fact that it had a psychological...
BOYLEN: Well, how do you put that into effect, coordination-control, with bugles?
CONAN: Well, that's the way the U.S. Cavalry used to communicate.
BOYLEN: How do you do it?
CONAN: You have different signals.
TRAINOR: Well, listen. We used - if we didn't have radios, as you may recall if you were there - we used flares. A flare...
BOYLEN: I had radio.
TRAINOR: Oh, well. All right. Let me give you an example. In the outpost war, usually, the radios were jammed. The W8 lines, back to the main line of the system, were cut usually by artillery. So the only way you can communicate was with flares. Now, the normal practice with the Marines - I don't know how it was with the Army - that you would fire - if you lost communications and the enemy was on top of you, you fired a green flare for the first - for the artillery, pre-planned artillery barrages. Two green flares was box me in, where they fired a whole - the artillery all around your position. And then you fired two red flares if your position was being overrun - with the positions being...
CONAN: I think you were there at different times, Boylen. So...
BOYLEN: You must be talking about '51 and '52.
TRAINOR: I think that's exactly what we're talking about, the outpost war.
CONAN: Yeah. Anyway, Boylen, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate the vivid description of your time there.
BOYLEN: All right. Bye. Thanks.
CONAN: Thanks. We're talking about Korea, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Here's an email we have from Chandler - from Chandler, Arizona: My grandfather, Colonel Allen B. Clark(ph), fought in the Korean War. He was the one who communicated coordinates with the USS Missouri in order to drive the North Koreans out of Seoul. He also served at the Chosin Reservoir and told stories of surviving on Tootsie Rolls while watching many friends freeze to death. He's now in his 90s, and his mind is still as sharp as a tack. I'll be buying your book for him. And thank you for the broadcast.
TRAINOR: You know, that Tootsie Roll is absolutely true, because everybody wanted Tootsie Rolls, because everything else would get frozen.
CONAN: In the C-rations.
TRAINOR: In the C-rations. And Tootsie Rolls, they were worth the price of gold.
HANSON: You know, on the matter of the bugles and the lights and using actually megaphones and all of that, I think that Ridgway looked at it, and I think the general's right that it was probably used for coordination. But that's not what a lot of people in 1950, in the winter, thought. They had this idea of the Chinese soldier as some type of fantastic, mythical warrior, and the North Korean counterpart, especially.
And they even had coined this '50s word: bug out. That was the first time it really entered in American parlance, that the Americans had bugged out. And when Ridgway got there, he was just sort of struck that there was a psychological depression that had swept all American troops. And they were coming to him, and they said: These people don't fight like we do. They go back from the front lines, three miles.
They don't use transportation as we do. They walk. They don't need rice as much as we do. They're immune to disease, cold, and they do these very strange things with music and lights, and we don't know what to do with them. And one of the things Ridgway did almost immediately is said, they're human. Come on. In a very condescending fashion, he thought we were inflating the ability of the enemy.
So said they're no different than any other enemy. And like every great general, I think, in history - especially these savior generals - they look at human nature as timeless and unchanged across time and space, and said, you know what? They're subject to the same criteria that you are, the same characteristics of warriors as you are.
And when they get further and further from the Yalu River, and it gets colder and colder and they're strung out 500 miles, you wait to what's going to happen to them. It's going to make what happened to us in the Yalu look like a picnic, and he was more or less right.
CONAN: General Trainor?
TRAINOR: Yes. Well, I - David, I think you're absolutely right, that when Ridgeway took over, the forces were totally demoralized - with the exception of the Marines, I might add. But they were demoralized, and they were in shock. And therefore, they're ascribing to the things that you had mentioned to the Chinese, making them 10 feet tall, instead of what they were, about 4-foot-8. But then he was able to restore the confidence and restore the battle élan with the U.S. Army, and things changed after that. But when he went there, everybody was in the state of shock, who had after - at the Eighth Army retreat that came down from the Yalu River below Seoul.
HANSON: It was very difficult, I would add, because the Marines had performed brilliantly. Even General Almond, who was a controversial, commander, but whatever one said, the Marines really had never been defeated. Their retreat was volunteer. So Ridgeway had this unenviable task of - sort of as an army man, saying, you know what? The army is falling apart, and not the Marine Corps. And yet he was the Eighth Army commander and senior ground commander in the entire effort.
CONAN: Matthew Ridgeway, one of the five generals who's described in "The Savior Generals," the new book by Victor Davis Hanson. We thank him for joining us to day. And our thanks again to retired Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, who joined use here in Studio 42. Neil Gaiman, when we come back. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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