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United States and Soviet Union/Russia nuclear stockpiles

The nuclear arms race was a competition for supremacy in nuclear warfare between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies during the Cold War. During the Cold War, in addition to the American and Soviet nuclear stockpiles, other countries developed nuclear weapons, though none engaged in warhead production on nearly the same scale as the two superpowers.

World War II

The first nuclear weapon was created by U.S. during the Second World War and was developed to be used against the Axis powers.[1] Scientists of the Soviet Union were aware of the potential of nuclear weapons and had also been conducting research on the field.[2]

The Soviet Union was not informed officially of the Manhattan Project until Stalin was briefed at the Potsdam Conference on July 24, 1945, by U.S. President Harry S. Truman,[3][4] eight days after the first successful test of a nuclear weapon. Despite their wartime military alliance, the United States and Britain had not trusted the Soviets enough to keep knowledge of the Manhattan Project safe from German spies: there were also concerns that, as an ally, the Soviet Union would request and expect to receive technical details of the new weapon. When President Truman informed Stalin of the weapons, he was surprised at how calmly Stalin reacted to the news and thought that Stalin had not understood what he had been told. Other members of the United States and British delegations who closely observed the exchange formed the same conclusion.

In fact Stalin had long been aware of the program,[5] despite the Manhattan Project having a secret classification so high that, even as Vice President, Truman did not know about it or the development of the weapons (Truman was not informed until shortly after he became president)[5] A ring of spies operating within the Manhattan Project, (including Klaus Fuchs[6] and Theodore Hall) had kept Stalin well informed of American progress.[7] They provided the Soviets with detailed designs of the implosion bomb and the hydrogen bomb. Fuchs’ arrest in 1950 led to the arrests of many other Russian spies, including Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.[8] In August 1945, on Truman's orders, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki by the B-29 bombers named Enola Gay and Bockscar respectively.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the United Nations was founded. This international organization with the goal of stopping wars between countries was the world’s answer to replace the League of Nations. During the United Nation’s first General Assembly in London in January 1946, they discussed the future of Nuclear Weapons and created the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. The goal of this assembly was to eliminate the use of all Nuclear weapons. The United States presented their solution, which was called the Baruch Plan.[9] This plan proposed that there should be an international authority that controls all dangerous atomic activities. The Soviet Union disagreed with this proposal and rejected it. The Soviets’ proposal involved universal nuclear disarmament. Both the American and Soviet proposals were refused by the U.N.

Early Cold War

In the years immediately after the Second World War, the United States had a monopoly on specific knowledge of and raw materials for nuclear weaponry. Initially, it was thought that uranium was rare in the world but this turned out to be wrong. American leaders hoped that their exclusive ownership of nuclear weapons would be enough to draw concessions from the Soviet Union but this proved ineffective.

Just six months after the U.N. General Assembly, the United States conducted its first post-war nuclear tests. This was called Operation Crossroads.[10] The purpose of this operation was to test the effectiveness of nuclear explosions on ships. These tests were performed at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific on 95 Second World War Japanese ships that were captured. One bomb was detonated over the fleet, while the other one was detonated underwater.

Behind the scenes, the Soviet government was working on building its own atomic weapons. During the war, Soviet efforts had been limited by a lack of uranium but new supplies in Eastern Europe were found and provided a steady supply while the Soviets developed a domestic source. While American experts had predicted that the Soviet Union would not have nuclear weapons until the mid-1950s, the first Soviet bomb was detonated on August 29, 1949, shocking the entire world. The bomb, named "First Lightning" by the West, was more or less a copy of "Fat Man", one of the bombs the United States had dropped on Japan in 1945.

Both governments spent massive amounts to increase the quality and quantity of their nuclear arsenals. Both nations quickly began the development of a hydrogen bomb and the United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb on November 1, 1952, code-named "Mike".[11] The project was led by Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American nuclear physicist. It created a cloud 100 miles wide and 25 miles high, killing all life on the surrounding islands.[12] Again, the Soviets surprised the world by exploding a deployable thermonuclear device in August 1953 although it was not a true multi-stage hydrogen bomb. However, it was small enough to be dropped from an airplane, making it ready for use. The development of these two Soviet bombs was greatly aided by the Russian spies Harry Gold and Klaus Fuchs.

On March 1, 1954, the U.S. conducted the BRAVO Test, which tested another hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll.[13] Scientists significantly underestimated the size of the bomb, thinking it would yield 5 megatons. However, it yielded 14.8 megatons, which is the largest nuclear explosion tested by the U.S. The explosion was so large the nuclear fallout exposed residents up to 300 miles away to significant amounts of radiation. They were eventually evacuated, but most of them experienced radiation poisoning and resulted in one death from a crew member of a fishing boat 90 miles from the explosion. The Soviet Union detonated its first “true” hydrogen bomb on November 22, 1955, which had a yield of 1.6 megatons. On October 23, 1961, the Soviets detonated a hydrogen bomb with a yield of approximately 58 megatons.[14]

A chart of the Space Race as driven by the nuclear threat, graphing how the U.S. started behind, but eventually caught up and surpassed the Soviet Union.

The most important development in terms of delivery in the 1950s was the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs. Missiles had long been regarded the ideal platform for nuclear weapons, and were potentially a more effective delivery system than strategic bombers, which was the primary delivery method at the beginning of the Cold War. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union showed the world that they had missiles able to reach any part of the world when they launched the Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit. The United States launched its own satellite on the 31 October 1959. The Space Race showcased technology critical to the delivery of nuclear weapons, the ICBM boosters, while maintaining the appearance of being for science and exploration.

This period also saw some of the first attempts to defend against nuclear weapons. Both superpowers built large radar arrays to detect incoming bombers and missiles. Fighters to use against bombers and anti-ballistic missiles to use against ICBMs were also developed. Large underground bunkers were constructed to save the leaders, and citizens were told to build fallout shelters and taught how to react to a nuclear attack. These measures were called civil defense.

Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)

The Nuclear arms race of the cold war lasted from 1941 - 1991. None of these defensive measures were secure, and in the 1950s both the United States and Soviet Union had nuclear power to obliterate the other side. Both sides developed a capability to launch a devastating attack even after sustaining a full assault from the other side (especially by means of submarines), called a second strike.[15] This policy was part of what became known as Mutual Assured Destruction: both sides knew that any attack upon the other would be devastating to themselves, thus in theory restraining them from attacking the other.

Both Soviet and American experts hoped to use nuclear weapons for extracting concessions from the other, or from other powers such as China, but the risk connected with using these weapons was so grave that they refrained from what John Foster Dulles referred to as brinkmanship. While some, like General Douglas MacArthur, argued nuclear weapons should be used during the Korean War, both Truman and Eisenhower opposed.

Both sides were unaware of the capacity of the enemy's arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Americans suffered from a lack of confidence, and in the 1950s they believed in a non-existing bomber gap. Aerial photography later revealed that the Soviets had been playing a sort of Potemkin village game with their bombers in their military parades, flying them in large circles, making it appear they had far more than they truly did. The 1960 American presidential election saw accusations of a wholly spurious missile gap between the Soviets and the Americans. On the contrary, the Soviet government exaggerated the power of Soviet weapons to the leadership and Nikita Khrushchev.

An additional controversy formed in the United States during the early 1960s concerned whether or not it was certain if their weapons would work if the need should occur. All of the individual components of nuclear missiles had been tested separately (warheads, navigation systems, rockets), but it had been infeasible to test them all combined. Critics charged that it was not really known how a warhead would react to the gravity forces and temperature differences encountered in the upper atmosphere and outer space, and Kennedy was unwilling to run a test of an ICBM with a live warhead. The closest thing to an actual test was 1962's Operation Frigate Bird, in which the submarine USS Ethan Allen (SSBN-608) launched a Polaris A1 missile over 1,000 miles to the nuclear test site at Christmas Island. It was challenged by, among others, Curtis LeMay, who put missile accuracy into doubt to encourage the development of new bombers. Other critics pointed out that it was a single test which could be an anomaly; that it was a lower-altitude SLBM and therefore was subject to different conditions than an ICBM; and that significant modifications had been made to its warhead before testing.

Strategic nuclear missiles, warheads and throw-weights of United States and Soviet Union, 1964-1982[16][17]
Year Launchers Warheads Megatonnage
United States Soviet Union United States Soviet Union United States Soviet Union
1964 2,416 375 6,800 500 7,500 1,000
1966 2,396 435 5,000 550 5,600 1,200
1968 2,360 1,045 4,500 850 5,100 2,300
1970 2,230 1,680 3,900 1,800 4,300 3,100
1972 2,230 2,090 5,800 2,100 4,100 4,000
1974 2,180 2,380 8,400 2,400 3,800 4,200
1976 2,100 2,390 9,400 3,200 3,700 4,500
1978 2,058 2,350 9,800 5,200 3,800 5,400
1980 2,042 2,490 10,000 7,200 4,000 6,200
1982 2,032 2,490 11,000 10,000 4,100 8,200

Initial nuclear proliferation

In addition to the United States and the Soviet Union, three other nations, the United Kingdom,[18] People's Republic of China,[19] and France[20] also developed far smaller nuclear stockpiles. In 1952, the United Kingdom became the third nation to possess nuclear weapons when it detonated an atomic bomb in Operation Hurricane[21] on October 3, 1952, which had a yield of 25 kilotons. After major contributions to the Manhattan Project by both Canadian and British governments, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act prohibited multi-national cooperation on nuclear projects. Britain did not begin planning the development of their own nuclear weapon until January, 1947. Because of Britain’s small size, they decided to test their bomb on the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of Australia. Following this successful test, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, Britain decided to develop and test a hydrogen bomb. The first successful hydrogen bomb test occurred on November 8, 1957, which had a yield of 1.8 megatons.[22] An amendment to the Atomic energy Act in 1958 allowed nuclear cooperation once again, and British-U.S. nuclear programs resumed. During the Cold War, British nuclear deterrence came from submarines and nuclear-armed aircraft. The Resolution class ballistic missile submarines armed with the American-built Polaris missile provided the sea deterrent, while aircraft such as the Avro Vulcan, SEPECAT Jaguar, Panavia Tornado and several other Royal Air Force strike aircraft carrying WE.177 gravity bomb provided the air deterrent.

France became the fourth nation to possess nuclear weapons on February 13, 1960, when the atomic bomb Gerboise Bleue was detonated in Algeria,[23] then still a French colony [Formally a part of the Metropolitan France.] France began making plans for a nuclear-weapons program shortly after the Second World War, but the program did not actually begin until the late 1950s. Eight years later, France conducted its first thermonuclear test above Fangatuafa Atoll. It had a yield of 2.6 megatons.[24] This bomb significantly contaminated the atoll with radiation for six years, making it off-limits to humans. During the Cold War, the French nuclear deterrent was centered around the Force de frappe, a nuclear triad consisting of Dassault Mirage IV bombers carrying such nuclear weapons as the AN-22 gravity bomb and the ASMP stand-off attack missile, Pluton and Hades ballistic missiles, and the Redoutable class submarine armed with strategic nuclear missiles.

The People's Republic of China became the fifth nuclear power on October 16, 1964 when it detonated a 25 kiloton uranium-235 bomb in a test codenamed 596[25] at Lop Nur. In the late 1950s, China began developing nuclear weapons with substantial Soviet assistant in exchange for uranium ore. However, the Sino-Soviet ideological split in the late 1950s developed problems between China and the Soviet Union. This caused the Soviets to cease helping China develop nuclear weapons. However, China continued developing nuclear weapons without Soviet support and made remarkable progress in the 1960s.[26] Due to Soviet/Chinese tensions, the Chinese might have used nuclear weapons against either the United States or the Soviet Union in the event of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union[citation needed]. During the Cold War, the Chinese nuclear deterrent consisted of gravity bombs carried aboard H-6 bomber aircraft, missile systems such as the DF-2, DF-3, and DF-4,[27] and in the later stages of the Cold War, the Type 092 ballistic missile submarine. On June 14, 1967, China detonated its first hydrogen bomb.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Shortly after Fulgencio Batista took control of the Cuban government and became dictator, revolutionaries started to emerge to challenge Batista. However, it wasn't until December 2, 1956, when Fidel Castro landed on Cuba aboard the Granma that the resistance blossomed into an armed revolt. The Soviet Union supported and praised Castro and his resistance. On January 1, 1959, the Cuban government fell, propelling Castro into power, and was recognized by the Soviet government on January 10. When the United States began boycotting Cuban sugar, the Soviet Union began purchasing large quantities to support the Cuban economy in return for fuel and eventually placing nuclear ballistic missiles on Cuban soil. These missiles would be capable of reaching the United States very quickly. On October 14, 1962, an American spy plane discovered these nuclear missile sites under construction in Cuba.[28] President Kennedy immediately called a series of meetings for a small group of senior officials to debate the crisis. The group was split between a militaristic solution and a diplomatic one. President Kennedy ordered a naval blockage around Cuba and all military forces to DEFCON 3. As tensions increased, Kennedy eventually ordered U.S. military forces to DEFCON 2. This was the closest the world has been to a nuclear war. Eventually, on October 26, through much discussion between U.S and Soviet officials, Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would withdraw all missiles from Cuba. Shortly after, the U.S. withdrew all their nuclear missiles from Turkey, which had threatened the Soviets.


Economic problems caused by the arms race in both powers, combined with China's new role and the ability to verify disarmament led to a number of arms control agreements beginning in the 1970s. This period known as détente allowed both states to reduce their spending on weapons systems. SALT I and SALT II limited the size of the states' arsenals. Bans on nuclear testing, anti-ballistic missile systems, and weapons in space all attempted to limit the expansion of the arms race through the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

In 1958, both the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to informally suspend nuclear testing. However, this agreement was ended when the Soviets resumed testing in 1961, followed by a series of nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. These events led to much political fallout, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Something had to be done to ease the great tensions between these two countries, so on October 10, 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treated (LTBT) was signed.[29] This was an agreement between the U.S., Soviet Union, and the U.K., which significantly restricted nuclear testing. All atmospheric, underwater, and outer space nuclear testing were agreed to be halted, but countries were still allowed to test underground. An additional 113 countries have signed this treaty since 1963.

In November, 1969, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) begun. This was primarily due to the economic impact that nuclear testing and production had on both U.S. and Soviet economies. The SALT I Treaty, which was signed in May, 1972, produced an agreement on two significant documents. These were the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.[30] The ABM treaty limited each country to two ABM sites, while the Interim Agreement froze each country's number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) at current levels for five years. This treaty significantly reduced nuclear-related costs as well as the risk of nuclear war. However, SALT I failed to address how many nuclear warheads could be placed on one missile. A new technology, known as multiple-independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV), allowed single missiles to hold and launch multiple nuclear missiles at targets while in mid-air. Over the next 10 years, the Soviet Union and U.S added 12,000 nuclear warheads to their already built arsenals. Throughout the 1970s, both the Soviet Union and United States replaced old missiles and warheads with newer, more powerful and effective ones. This continued to worsen Soviet-U.S relations. On June 18, 1979, the SALT II treaty was signed in Vienna. This treaty limited both sides' nuclear arsenals and technology. However, this treaty as well as the era of the détente ended with the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in January, 1980.[31] The United States once again significantly increased military and nuclear spending, while the Soviets were unable to respond and continued to pursue the détente. These treaties were only partially successful. Both states continued building massive numbers of nuclear weapons and researched more effective technology. Both superpowers retained the ability to destroy each other many times over.

Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative

Towards the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, and continued strongly through the subsequent presidency of Ronald Reagan, the United States rejected disarmament and tried to restart the arms race through the production of new weapons and anti-weapons systems. The central part of this strategy was the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space based anti-ballistic missile system derided as "Star Wars" by its critics. However, the SDI would require technology that had not yet been developed, or even researched. This system would require both space and earth based laser battle stations. It would also need sensors on the ground, in the air, and in space with radar, optical, and infrared technology to detect incoming missiles.[32] During the second part of 1980s, the Soviet economy was teetering towards collapse and was unable to match American arms spending. The Soviets feared the SDI because the U.S. would have an edge if it ever came to nuclear war. Numerous negotiations by Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to come to agreements on reducing nuclear stockpiles, but the most radical were rejected by Reagan as they would also prohibit his SDI program. However, due to enormous costs and far too complex technology for its time, the project and research was cancelled.

The end of the Cold War

During the mid-1980s, the U.S-Soviet relations significantly improved. Mikhail Gorbachev assumed control of the Soviet Union after the deaths of several former Soviet leaders, and announced a new era of perestroika and glasnost, meaning restructuring and openness respectively. Gorbachev proposed a 50% reduction of nuclear weapons for both the U.S and Soviet Union at the meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1986. However, the proposal was refused due to disagreements over Reagan's SDI. Instead, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed on December 8, 1987 in Washington, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons.[33]

In the late 1980s, after the signing of this treaty, much of the Soviet Union began to declare independence and slowly became free of Soviet influence. One of the most iconic events of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the destruction of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. On December 8, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was established. This event marked the end of the 45 year long Cold War.

Post–Cold War

With the end of the Cold War the United States, and especially Russia, cut down on nuclear weapons spending. Fewer new systems were developed and both arsenals have shrunk. But both countries still maintain stocks of nuclear missiles numbering in the thousands. In the USA, stockpile stewardship programs have taken over the role of maintaining the aging arsenal.

After the Cold War ended, a large amount of resources and money which was once spent on developing nuclear weapons in Soviet Union was then spent on repairing the environmental damage produced by the nuclear arms race, and almost all former production sites are now major cleanup sites. In the USA, the plutonium production facility at Hanford, Washington and the plutonium pit fabrication facility at Rocky Flats, Colorado are among the most polluted sites.

United States policy and strategy regarding nuclear proliferation was outlined in 1995 in the document "Essentials of Post–Cold War Deterrence".

Despite efforts made in cleaning up uranium sites, significant problems stemming from the legacy of uranium development still exist today on the Navajo Nation in the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Hundreds of abandoned mines have not been cleaned up and present environmental and health risks in many Navajo communities.

India and Pakistan

In South Asia, India and Pakistan have also engaged in a technological nuclear arms race since 1970s. The nuclear competition started in 1974 with India detonating the device, codename Smiling Buddha, at the Pokhran region of the Rajasthan state.[34] The Indian government termed this test as a "peaceful nuclear explosion", but according to independent sources, it was actually part of an accelerated covert nuclear program of India.[35] This explosion surprised and alarmed the world who had been giving the nuclear technology to the UN for civilian, energy producing and peaceful purposes.

This test generated great concern and doubts in Pakistan, with fear it would be at the mercy of its long–time arch rival. Pakistan had its own covert atomic bomb projects in 1972 which extended over many years since the first Indian weapon was detonated. After the 1974 test, Pakistan's atomic bomb program picked up a great speed and accelerated its atomic project to successfully build its own atomic weapons program. In the last few decades of the 20th century, India and Pakistan began to develop nuclear-capable rockets and nuclear military technologies. Finally, in 1998 India, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, test detonated 5 more nuclear weapons. While the international response to the detonation was muted[citation needed], domestic pressure within Pakistan began to build steam and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the test, detonated 6 nuclear war weapons in a tit-for-tat fashion and to act as a deterrent.

See also


  1. Key Issues: Nuclear Weapons: History: Pre Cold War: Manhattan Project
  2. The Soviet Nuclear Weapons Program
  3. The Potsdam Conference between allied forces
  4. Atomic Bomb: Decision - Truman Tells Stalin, July 24, 1945
  5. 5.0 5.1 Potsdam Note (Animation)
  6. Klaus Fuchs: Atom Bomb Spy
  7. Los Alamos National Laboratory: History: People of Wartime Los Alamos: Spies
  8. "Atomic Espionage". 
  9. "The Beginnings of the Cold War". Retrieved 24 November 2012. 
  10. "Operation Crossroads". Retrieved 24 November 2012. 
  11. "The Mike Test". Retrieved 24 November 2012. 
  12. "The Soviet Atomic Bomb". Retrieved 24 November 2012. 
  13. "The Bravo Test". 
  14. "The Soviet Response". 
  15. scramble
  16. Gerald Segal, The Simon & Schuster Guide to the World Today, (Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 82
  17. Edwin Bacon, Mark Sandle, "Brezhnev Reconsidered", Studies in Russian and East European History and Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
  18. United Kingdom Nuclear Forces
  19. China Nuclear Forces
  20. France Nuclear Forces
  21. A toxic legacy : British nuclear weapons testing in Australia [in: Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector]
  22. "Britain Goes Nuclear". 
  23. Chapitre II, Les premiers essais Français au Sahara : 1960-1966 (in French)
  24. "France Joins the Club". 
  25. China's Nuclear Weapons
  26. "Chinese Nuclear Weapons". 
  27. Theater Missile Systems that men had - China Nuclear Forces
  28. "Cuban Missile Crisis". 
  29. "Limited Test Ban Treaty". 
  30. "Easing the Tensions". 
  31. "The Arms Race Resumes". 
  32. "Reagan's Star Wars". 
  33. "The End of the Cold War". 
  34. India's Nuclear Weapons Program - Smiling Buddha: 1974
  35. FIles. "1974 Nuclear files". Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Nuclear files archives. Retrieved 14 January 2013. 

Boughton, G. J. (1974). Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs (16th ed.). Miami, United States of America: Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami.

Brown, A. Reform, Coup and Collapse: The End of the Soviet State. BBC History. Retrieved November 22, 2012, from

Cold War: A Brief History. (n.d.). Atomic Archive. Retrieved November 16, 2012, from

Doty, P., Carnesale, A., & Nacht, M. (1976, October). The Race to Control Nuclear Arms.

Jones, R. W. (1998). Pakistan's Nuclear Posture: Arms Race Instabilities in South Asia. Joyce, A., Bates Graber, R., Hoffman, T. J., Paul Shaw, R., & Wong, Y. (1989, February). The Nuclear Arms Race: An Evolutionary Perspective. Maloney, S. M. (2007). Learning to love the bomb: Canada's nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Washington, D.C: Potomac Books.

May, E. R. (n.d.). John F Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. BBC History. Retrieved November 22, 2012,from

Nuclear arms race. (n.d.). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved November 16, 2012, from

Soviet Union. (n.d.). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved November 22, 2012, from

Van, C. M. (1993). Nuclear proliferation and the future of conflict. New York, United States: Free Press.

Further reading

  • "Presidency in the Nuclear Age", conference and forum at the JFK Library, Boston, October 12, 2009. Four panels: "The Race to Build the Bomb and the Decision to Use It", "Cuban Missile Crisis and the First Nuclear Test Ban Treaty", "The Cold War and the Nuclear Arms Race", and "Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and the Presidency".

External links

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