World War III in popular culture
World War III is a common theme in popular culture. Since the 1940s, countless books, films, and television programmes have used the theme of nuclear weapons and a third global war. The presence of the Soviet Union as an international rival armed with nuclear weapons created a persistent fear in the United States and vice versa. There was a pervasive dread of a nuclear World War III, and popular culture reveals the fears of the public at the time. This theme in the arts was also a way of exploring a range of issues far beyond nuclear war. The historian Spencer R. Weart called nuclear weapons a "symbol for the worst of modernity."
During the Cold War, concepts such as mutual assured destruction (MAD) led lawmakers and government officials in both the United States and the Soviet Union to avoid entering a nuclear war that could have had catastrophic consequences on the entire world. Various scientists and authors, such as Carl Sagan, predicted massive, possibly life-ending destruction of the Earth as the result of such a conflict. Strategic analysts assert that nuclear weapons prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from fighting World War III with conventional weapons. Nevertheless, the possibility of such a war became the basis for speculative fiction, and its simulation in books, films and video games became a way to explore the issues of a war that has thus far not occurred in reality. The only places a global nuclear war has ever been fought are in expert scenarios, theoretical models, war games, and the art, film, and literature of the nuclear age. The concept of mutually assured destruction was also the focus of numerous movies and films.
Prescient stories about nuclear war were written before the invention of the atomic bomb. The most notable of these is The World Set Free, written by H. G. Wells in 1914. During World War II, several nuclear war stories were published in science fiction magazines such as Astounding. In Robert A. Heinlein's story "Solution Unsatisfactory" the US develops radioactive dust as the ultimate weapon of war and uses it to destroy Berlin in 1945 and end the war with Germany. The Soviet Union then develops the same weapon independently, and war between it and the US follows. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 made stories of a future global nuclear war look less like fiction and more like prophecy. When William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, he spoke about Cold War themes in art. He worried that younger writers were too preoccupied with the question of "When will I be blown up?"
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the "atomic age", and the bleak pictures of the bombed-out cities released shortly after the end of World War II became symbols of the power of the new weapons.
On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, code named "Joe 1". Its design imitates the American plutonium bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945.
American fears of an impending apocalyptic World War III with the communist bloc were strengthened by the quick succession of the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomb test, the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. Pundits named the era "the age of anxiety", after W. H. Auden. In 1951, an entire issue of Collier's magazine was devoted to a fictional account of World War III. The issue was entitled "Preview of the War We Do Not Want". In the magazine, war begins when the Red Army invades Yugoslavia and the United States responds by conducting a three-month-long bombing campaign of Soviet Union military and industrial targets. The Soviet Union retaliates by bombing New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Detroit.
Against this background of dread, there was an outpouring of cinema with frightening themes, particularly in the science fiction genre. Science fiction had previously not been popular with either critics or movie audiences, but it became a viable Hollywood genre during the Cold War. In the 1950s, science fiction had two main themes: the invasion of the Earth by superior, aggressive, and frequently technologically advanced aliens; and the dread of atomic weapons, which was typically portrayed as a revolt of nature, with irradiated monsters attacking and ravaging entire cities.
In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a flying saucer lands on the Mall in Washington DC, where it is surrounded by troops and tanks. The alien Klaatu delivers an ultimatum that the Earth must learn to live in peace or it will be destroyed. The War of the Worlds (1953) has a montage sequence where the countries of Earth join together to fight the Martian invaders. The montage conspicuously omits the Soviet Union, implying that the aliens are a metaphor for communists. The most elaborate science fiction films in the 1950s were This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956). In the climax of both films, the characters witness the explosion of alien planets, implying Earth's possible fate. The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) is also in the science fiction genre. In it, a man, a woman, and a bigot (the devil) roam New York City after a nuclear war. Only those three characters appear in the film. Also released in 1959 was On the Beach, directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire. Based on the eponymous novel by Nevil Shute, the film deals with the citizens of Australia as they await radioactive fallout, a result of a catastrophic nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere. The French author Stefan Wul's 1957 novel Niourk provided a portrait of New York after World War III. The 1959 novel Alas, Babylon depicted the effects of nuclear war on a small town in Florida; a television adaptation was broadcast in 1960.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell's dystopian 1949 novel about life after a Third World War, rose to cultural prominence in the 1950s. In it, the world has endured a massive atomic war and is politically divided into three totalitarian superstates, which are intentionally locked into a perpetual military stalemate; this never-ending warfare is used to subjugate their respective populations.
In the 1960s, media about the threat of nuclear world war gained wide popularity. According to Susan Sontag, these films struck people’s "imagination of disaster...in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself." A leading member of the 1960s anti-war movement, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan evoked the topic of WWIII thrice in his LP The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in "Masters of War", "Talkin' World War III Blues", and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall". Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), adapted to film in 1982 as Blade Runner, features as its setting an Earth having been damaged greatly by the radioactive fallout of a nuclear war termed "World War Terminus".
In 1964 three films about the threat of accidental nuclear war were released, Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and Seven Days in May. Their negative portrayal of nuclear defence prompted the United States Air Force to sponsor films such as A Gathering of Eagles to publicly address the potential dangers of nuclear defense.
Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy by Stanley Kubrick about the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Following a bizarre mental breakdown the C.O. of a SAC base orders the B-52 wing operating from his base to attack the Soviet Union. The title character, Dr. Strangelove, is a parody of a composite of Cold War figures, including Wernher von Braun, Henry Kissinger, and Herman Kahn. The secret code Operation DROPKICK, mentioned by George C. Scott's character, may be an oblique reference to Operation Dropshot.
The 1964 film Fail-Safe was adapted from a best-selling novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. In it, nuclear disaster is caused by a technological breakdown that mistakenly launches American bombers to attack the Soviet Union. In order to prove that this was a mistake and to placate the Soviets, thereby saving the world from nuclear war, the US President orders the destruction of New York after a US bomber succeeds in destroying Moscow. The film was made in a semi-documentary style, ending just as the explosion over New York City begins.
The War Game (1965), produced by Peter Watkins, deals with a fictional nuclear attack on Britain. This film won the Oscar for Best Documentary, but was withheld from broadcast by the BBC for two decades.
The American public's concerns about nuclear weapons and related technology continued to be present in the 1970s. The most talked about events in the 1970s were the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Iran hostage crisis, the energy crisis, and stagflation.
In the 1970 film Colossus a massive American defense computer, becomes sentient and assumes control of the world for the "good of mankind" during the Cold War to prevent World War III.
The 1973 oil crisis heightened fears of an peak oil collapse of domestic life. The crisis rationing led to incidents of violence, after American truck drivers nationwide chose to strike for two days in December 1973 because they objected to the amount of supplies the government had rationed for their industry. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, non-striking truckers were shot at by striking truckers, and in Arkansas, trucks of non-strikers were attacked with bombs.
These peak oil fears lead to the iconic Mad Max movie series in 1979. The Road Warrior's desert imagery of a resource-drained world became an archetypical default of post-apocalypse worlds. Screenplay writer James McCausland drew heavily from his observations of the 1973 oil crisis' effects on Australian motorists:
Yet there were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol – and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence. ... George and I wrote the [Mad Max] script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.— James McCausland
On television, the British science fiction series Doctor Who based a 1972 storyline, Day of the Daleks on the premise of time travelers from the future attempting to trigger a present-day nuclear war between the superpowers.
In the 1977 Robert Aldrich film Twilight's Last Gleaming, a nuclear missile silo is seized by renegade US Air Force officers, who threaten to start World War III if the American government does not reveal secret documents that show that the military needlessly prolonged the Vietnam War.
In the early 1980s, there was a feeling of alarm in Europe and North America that a nuclear World War III was imminent. In 1982, 250,000 people protested against nuclear weapons in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany. On June 12, 1982, more than 750,000 protesters marched from the U.N. headquarters building to Central Park in New York to call for a Nuclear Freeze. The public accepted the technological certainty of nuclear war, but did not have faith in nuclear defence. Tensions came to a head with the NATO exercise Able Archer 83, which, combined with other events such as President Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech and the deployment of the Pershing II missile in Western Europe, as well as the erroneous Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, had the Soviets frantically convinced that the West was about to launch an all-out war against the USSR.
These fears were manifested in the popular culture of the time, with images of nuclear war in books, film, music, and television. In the mid-1980s, artists and musicians drew parallels with their time and the 1950s as two key moments in the Cold War.
There was a steady stream of popular music with apocalyptic themes. The 1983 hit "99 Luftballons" by Nena tells the story of a young woman who accidentally triggers a nuclear holocaust by releasing balloons. The music video for "Sleeping with the Enemy" had images of the Red Army parading in Red Square, American high school marching bands, and a mushroom cloud. The 1984 hit "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood had actors resembling Konstantin Chernenko and Ronald Reagan fighting each other amidst a group of cheering people. At the end of their fight, the Earth explodes. Sting's 1986 song "Russians" highlighted links between Nikita Khrushchev's threats to bury the US and Reagan's promise to protect US citizens. Many punk, hardcore and crossover thrash bands of the era, such as The Varukers and Discharge, had lyrics concerning nuclear war, the end of mankind and the destruction of the Earth in much of their early material.
Films and television programs made in the 1980s had different visions of what World War III would be like. Red Dawn (1984) portrayed a near future in which a Communist revolution occurs in Mexico, the United States and Britain become strategically isolated from continental Europe, and the Soviet Union is threatened with famine after the failure of the wheat harvest in Ukraine. World War III subsequently begins unexpectedly, with a surprise Soviet and Cuban invasion of the United States, with large portions of the country falling under Soviet occupation. The central United States and China are obliterated with nuclear weapons and Europe remains neutral. A small band of teenagers fight the occupation forces in Colorado using guerrilla tactics, and are ultimately killed by the Spetsnatz. According to the film's epilogue, the United States repulses Soviet forces and wins the war. In the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy, James Bond tries to prevent World War III from being started by a renegade Soviet general. WarGames (1983) had a teenage gamer accidentally hacking the U.S. nuclear defense network (thinking he'd hacked a computer game company), which reveals a potentially catastrophic flaw in the newly automated system. Spies Like Us depicts US agents in the USSR accidentally launching a missile at the US, leading one of them to say "I think we just started World War III."
In the early 1980s, there were a number of films made for television that had World War III as a theme. ABC's The Day After (1983), PBS's Testament (1983), and the BBC's Threads (1984) depicted nuclear World War III. The three movies show a nuclear war against the Soviet Union, which sends its troops marching across Western Europe. These films inspired many to join the anti-nuclear movement. Threads is notable for its graphically disturbing and realistic depictions of post-nuclear survival, depicting a nuclear strike on Sheffield, the effects of a nuclear winter in Britain, and the complete collapse of human civilization caused by the war..
The Day After was shown on ABC on November 20, 1983, at a time when Soviet-US relations were at their worst, just weeks after the NATO-led Able Archer 83 exercises, and less than three months after Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet jet interceptors. The film depicts Lawrence, KS after a nuclear war with the Soviets. ABC warned its audience about the graphic nature of the film. The Day After became a political event in itself and was shown in over forty countries. The shocking and disturbing content discouraged advertisers, but had the largest audience for a made-for-TV movie up to that time (a record which still stands as of 2008) and influenced the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiations in 1986.
The 1982 NBC miniseries World War III, directed by David Greene, received little critical attention. In the program, a Soviet Spetznaz (Special Forces) raid into Alaska in order to destroy the Alaska oil pipeline escalates to a full-scale war. The miniseries ends abruptly with the President releasing US nuclear forces against the Soviets. The film ends moments before the world is annihilated with nuclear weapons. Some other stories[which?] about the destruction of the world[when?] showed the possibility of the world's rebirth following global destruction.
During the 1980s, the techno-thriller became a literary phenomenon in the United States. These novels about high-tech non-nuclear warfare reasserted the value of conventional weapons by showing how they would be vital in the world's next large scale conflict. Tom Clancy's novels proposed the idea of a technical challenge to the Soviet Union, where World War III could be won using only conventional weapons, without resorting to nuclear weapons. Clancy’s detailed explanation of how and why World War III could begin involves oil shortages in the Soviet Union caused by Islamic terrorism within it. The Hunt for Red October (1984) hypothesized that the Soviet Union’s technology would soon be better than the Americans', depicting a naval buildup in the Atlantic Ocean after the CIA decides to rescue a highly-advanced Typhoon-class submarine defecting from the Soviet Union. Red Storm Rising was a detailed account of the coming world war. In Red Storm Rising, the Soviets decide to seize Middle Eastern oil reserves to prevent crippling energy shortages after an Islamist terrorist attack on a major Siberian oil refinery, and decide to seize Western Europe to prevent American retaliation; the novel subsequently depicts a Soviet invasion of West Germany devolve into a bloody war of attrition due to NATO air superiority over Europe, and a Soviet occupation of Iceland turn the tide by allowing Soviet navaland aerial supremacy in the Atlantic Ocean. It ends with the reopening of the Atlantic after the liberation of Iceland, and with the Soviet Army overthrowing the Politburo before it can resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Soon after the Cold War ended, techno-thriller novels changed from stories about fighting the Soviet Union to narratives about fighting terrorists.
When the Wind Blows, a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, was published in 1982. The novel is a bitter satire on the Publicized Civil Defense advice given by the British government(Protect and Survive) about how to survive a nuclear war, where a working-class couple that do not believe that nuclear war is possible die of radiation sickness after a nuclear explosion. It reflects Briggs’ participation in the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Briggs is best known as a writer and illustrator of children’s literature, but this novel was written for an older audience and is his bleakest work (though the story is not without humour). The novel’s message greatly affected young adult readers. Briggs rewrote the novel for radio, stage, and an animated film that was released in 1986.
American superhero comics addressed the issue of World War III with the implications of super-powered beings as metaphors for nuclear weapons or using it as character motivation. Marvel Comics gathered many of their Russian super-hero and villain characters into a new group, called "The Soviet Super-Soldiers" which answered directly to the Soviet Government. Uncanny X-Men #150 featured the villain Magneto justifying a takeover bid by stating that if he not take over the world then and there, that mutantkind would be destroyed along with mankind in the event of a nuclear war. DC Comics' Batman: The Dark Knight Returns ends with World War III erupting over the issue of a military arms race over a small Latin American country, with the Soviet Union launching an specially-designed intercontinetal ballistic missile at the island. Although Superman deflects the missile to an uninhabited desert, the missile still causes mass chaos in the United States due to the electromagnetic pulse and nuclear winter, but without the mass murdering side-effects of radiation. Batman restores order in Gotham City, causing it to become the most stable city in America and embarrassing the US government. n the same year, the acclaimed Watchmen (set in an alternate timeline) is driven by the threat of nuclear war: the nuclear-powered superhuman Dr. Manhattan has become America's main deterrent to the Soviet Union and his disappearance, which the Soviets exploit, brings the world to the brink of nuclear war. Antagonist characters Adrian Veidt and the Comedian are haunted by the thought of nuclear war, and Veidt's entire plot is to end the threat of nuclear war by faking the existence of an extraterrestrial threat.
Other comics would use a Third World War as part of their plots: Britain's V For Vendetta and Strontium Dog's "Portrait of a Mutant" both use nuclear war as the backdrop for the establishment of totalitarian governments, with the former having Britain escape a direct hit and the latter showing the country in ruins. Judge Dredd, which already had a devastating World War III as part of its backstory (which left most of the world a desert), has an all-out Soviet/US war in "The Apocalypse War". This climaxes with Dredd obliterating the enemy with a nuclear strike – this slaughters "half a billion human beings", something presented as both necessary to win such a war and as morally appalling. Japan's Akira and Ghost in the Shell both start with World War III as part of their backstory, with Japan becoming a world power due to experiencing less nuclear fallout than other nations.
The Cold War ended without the destructive final global war that had often been envisioned in popular culture, and the public's fears of World War III were allayed. On the other hand, the previously classified Stanislav Petrov incident of 1983 seemed to imply that the risk of accidental nuclear war due to technical malfunction had been greater than previously anticipated. The theme of nuclear armageddon launched by military artificial intelligence computer systems without human decision was explored in the 1991 blockbuster movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day. During the early 1990s and the Gulf Crisis, tabloid papers and other press discussed whether World War III would be linked to prophecies of Nostradamus concerning a third great war.
Movies about nuclear weapons that saved humanity were popular, such as Armageddon and Deep Impact (1998). Blast from the Past (1999) is a comedy about a 1960s family caught in the grip of Cold War paranoia. Falsely convinced that World War III has started, they hide in their fallout shelter, only to emerge 35 years later in the post–Cold War world. Jonathan Schell complained to the New York Times that "the post–Cold War generation knows less about nuclear danger than any generation."
Yellow Peril (1991) by Wang Lixiong, is about a civil war in the People's Republic of China that becomes a nuclear exchange and soon engulfs the world. It was banned by the Chinese Communist Party but remained popular.
World War III is referenced in the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact. William T. Riker states that 600 million people were killed, most major cities were destroyed, and very few world governments were left after a 3rd world war occurring sometime around 2053. At almost the same time, Kim Stanley Robinson featured a character dissecting World War III 40 years after the fact in Green Mars. Robinson's war featured transnational corporations taking over national governments and using them to attack each other in the year 2061, with only 100 million people being killed by the war.
Since the Cold War was over, some stories now presented the conflict as alternate history. The Fallout series of video games, which began in 1997, took place in a world still gripped by Cold War hysteria late into the 21st century. This, among other factors, led to an eventual World War III between the global powers (notably the US and China), and the series involves exploring what is left of the United States following the conflict. Fallout is considered a spiritual successor to 1988's Wasteland, which involved a similar premise and also mentions World War III.
In the 1998 ZDF/TLC mockumentary Der Dritte Weltkrieg, consisting largely of real-life footage of military and political figures presented out of context, Mikhail Gorbachev is ousted by an anti-reformist coup in October 1989 during his visit to East Germany (with the Soviet Union still in effective control of Eastern Europe, and hard-line rulers still firmly entrenched in nearly all of the satellite states – as such the events of that autumn are either brutally repressed by "Chinese" methods or simply never occur), and the actions of the paranoid, ruthless new General Secretary lead first to a brief conventional war (the filmmakers accessed previously classified war plans and consulted numerous high-ranking military officials on both sides). Just when the conflict seems to have ended, a Soviet radar malfunction, while US forces are on full SIOP alert, results in a civilization-killing nuclear exchange ("There is no further historical record of what happens next"); after "ending" just as the annihilation begins, the film rewinds to Gorbachev in East Berlin, and actually concludes with a montage of celebrations in Berlin as the Berlin Wall is freely crossed, danced upon and dismantled and the country is reunited ("History... took a different path").
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, a scenario of World War III beginning as a result of a nuclear or other catastrophic terrorist attack became prominent. Terrorism in the form of nuclear, chemical, or biological attacks now occupy the place in popular culture once held by the vision of a nuclear World War III between world powers.
Paramount Pictures released a film adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears in 2002. The production of the film began before 9/11, and was originally intended as an escapist thriller where CIA analyst Jack Ryan fights Neo-Nazis who conspire to detonate a nuclear weapon at an association football game to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. However, the film’s release just seven months after 9/11 made it very topical. Phil Alden Robinson, the film's director, commented that "a year ago, you'd have said, 'great popcorn film,'...Today you say, 'that's about the world I live in.'" There was an aggressive promotional campaign, with movie trailers and television commercials showing the nuclear destruction of a city and a special premiere for politicians in Washington, D.C.
Later in the decade, World War III had also become the topic of several popular video games, reflecting the trend towards increased public consciousness of the possibility of a future global war. In 2008, games such as Tom Clancy's EndWar, Battlefield: Bad Company, and Frontlines: Fuel of War all painted scenarios about a Third World War driven by the need for resources on the part of the various combatants. Similarly, 2009's Star Ocean: The Last Hope is set in a universe where humanity explored space after a destructive global conflict on Earth. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) and its 2011 sequel Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 are also examples; at the end of the latter's launch advertisement, the "W" in "WW3" flipped itself to read "MW3". These games feature a global war between the United States and Russia after the United States were framed for a massacre at a Moscow airport and soon after, the Russians expand their war into Europe. Battlefield 3 (2011), on the other hand, follows The Sum of All Fears's example, portraying Iranian terrorists stealing portable atomic weapons from Russia for the purpose of provoking a war between them and the United States. Other games such as World In Conflict (2007), and Turning Point: Fall of Liberty (2008) take place in alternate histories where global war is a reality, the former being a war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the latter being a war between the United States and a much stronger Nazi Germany that won World War II, both games depicting an invasion of America. The Fallout series continued to portray the aftermath of nuclear war with its entries, Fallout 3 (2008) and Fallout: New Vegas (2010). The 2007 bestselling game DEFCON places players in charge of preparing to and then fighting a nuclear war with other human or computer-generated players attacking from and defending different sectors of planet Earth; its simple 1980s-style vector graphics are inspired by those seen in the 1983 hit movie WarGames.
In 2000 a made-for-television remake of Fail-Safe was produced; it remained set in the 1960s of the novel.
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World War III and its predicted aftermath continues to be portrayed in popular media around the world such as in recent video games APOX (2011), Homefront (2011), and Metro 2033 (2010). Ace Combat Assault Horizon (2011) starts with a Russian Rebellion taking control of Russia and starting a war with NATO. Wargame: European Escalation (2012) is an RTS game that simulates full scale conventional warfare between NATO and the Warsaw Pact between 1975 and 1985. The scenario of World War III was also seen in the film X-Men: First Class (2011), where Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, and the Hellfire Club planned to support the third World War, in order to destroy the humans and evolve the mutants, so the Hellfire Club could establish their rule over the Earth. Some other films which portray a World War III like world are Red Dawn, a remake of the 1984 movie which features a North Korean and Russian invasion of the United States, Tomorrow, When The War Began which portrays an invasion of Australia by a coalition of Asian nations as well as a 2010 Croatian film The Show Must Go On. World War III is further referenced in the Japanese anime, Steins;Gate (2011), where Rintaro Okabe must travel through various world time lines in order to prevent a new world arms race following the discovery of time travel and which would eventually envelop the planet in a global war over this technology. Another anime, AKB0048 (2012-2013), took place 48 years after the interplanetary war, which destroyed everything on Earth, forcing humanity to flee to other inhabitable planets.
Alien invasions have become a popular topic as a World War III-like conflict, with the alien invaders portrayed in a similar way to a military invasion, such as seen in the films Skyline, (2010), Battle: Los Angeles (2011), and Pacific Rim (2013), and the TV series Falling Skies (2010).
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