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When we were done conquering the west, done warring with Mexico, done fighting Native Americans, we looked out across the Pacific Ocean and said… “huh… I wonder what’s over there?” The truth is that the United States is an empire. We accomplished that by fighting wars and by seeking out resources.

In the 1800s the United States faced a very real problem: we were running out of nitrogen. Not in the air. There is plenty in the air. We were losing it in our soil. Plants need nitrogen. Where were we going to get it?

The answer we came up with was: bird poop. It’s rich in nitrogen and makes a great fertilizer. The trouble is that we didn’t have any way to get large quantities of it. Until American businesses took over islands off the coast of our country.

This is the story of greed, a different kind of slavery, a Supreme Court battle, and the worst job in the 1800s.

Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception.

Helpful Links:

  • New York Times review of a book on the Spanish American War where I first learned about German plans for the Philippines.
  • Helpful info about President McKinley’s declaration of war against Spain.
  • New York Times archived article about the German plans to attack the US otherwise known as Operation Plan III.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit which provided some background on Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. It’s a good book, but its main focus is on Roosevelt’s relationship with Taft.

Special thanks to:

ROUGH TRANSCRIPT

CHRIS STARON (host)

CHRIS STARON: We’ve asked some big questions in the last few episodes. Like, what is communism and what is socialism and how are they different? What do we hope to gain by calling the United States a Christian nation? How did communist Russia use the darker parts of the United States to promote atheism? Which left me asking what seems like a really simple question: what is the United States? That’s what we’re exploring here today. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done, go back to the beginning of season three. I hope you enjoy.

CHRIS STARON: After the west was won, we’d put a navy on the oceans, we’d ousted the Native Americans and the Mexicans. Americans got to the edge of California, looked out across the Pacific and said, “I wonder what’s out there.” It wasn’t just a simple desire to conquer or to get more land. There was some of that of course. There was a lot of that. But there was something on those islands that our growing country needed. Something we needed badly. So we set out into the ocean. Hopped on ships, armed ourselves, and claimed nearly a hundred islands. This is a story of economic greed, supreme court cases, war and… well, do you know the stuff that we needed that was on those islands?

I asked people at the Spark Christian Podcast Conference what they thought we needed on a bunch of islands in the Pacific Ocean.

(clips of people guessing why we took over islands)

Let’s put the question to Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate professor at Northwestern University.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And you might ask, what is the point of having dozens of uninhabited islands? And the answer is that the islands were covered in bird poop.

(a bunch of people reacting to bird poop)

ANGEL MCCOY: Okay, there’s a story behind that. So… go ahead!

CHRIS STARON: Of course there is! And that’s our story for today. How did bird poop change the map of the United States? And how did the US, which some people consider a Christian nation, justify empire. You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

Okay, back to our story. We conquered over a hundred islands… for bird poop.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: When bird poop is used as an agricultural fertilizer it’s called guano. Bat poop as well.

CHRIS STARON: That’s right, in the middle of the nineteenth century the United States was in des-per-ate need of guano. We humans do a lot of things, good and bad, for economic reasons. Often if you want to understand the reasons we do things. Say it with me now! Follow the money.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: The United States was facing a serious agricultural crisis at the time, such that guano, which some people called “white gold”.

CHRIS STARON: Which… should really be the name of a band. I’m just saying. Anyhow, white gold…

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Was intensely valuable. And the United States went on this sort of imperial shopping spree, just taking as many of these islands as it could in order to scrape them clean and then haul the guano back to mainland farms.

CHRIS STARON: It turns out that plants need something elemental in the soil in order to grow well. Nitrogen. Which is everywhere. Everywhere! Let’s do an experiment really quick. You can do this wherever you are, even if you’re driving.

Take a deep breath and hold it in.

Are your cheeks all puffed out? Well, inside our mouths right now, 78% of that air is nitrogen. Basically, if you separated all of the elements mixing around inside your mouth right now, from the left side all the way to your teeth on the right side would be nitrogen.

That was a lot of talking on one breath. Turns out… plants need all that stuff. All that nitrogen.

Trouble is, farmers planted as much as they could on that rich American soil without paying attention to maintaining nutrients, so… year…

(farming sounds)

After year

(farming sounds)

After year

(softer farming sounds)

The ground produced less and less. It was depleted of nitrogen. Nitrogen is in the soil. It gets sucked up by plants, carrots, potatoes, corn. We eat that corn and… excrete the nitrogen. Not a bad deal if we’re going to spread that… stuff over our fields. It would put the nitrogen back. But we humans get all caught up in our sanitary concerns. For good reason. So we flush away those nutrients. Where are the plants supposed to get nitrogen from if we’re not putting it back where we found it?

(hawk sound) That’s right… bird poop. As Daniel said, the US went on an imperial shopping spree. Scooping up all of these islands that were covered in feet, yes feet, of bird poop.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Look, the guano doesn’t just jump on the ships. You actually have to have people to scrape it off and mine it and it turns out to be a really dangerous and difficult job. Arguably the worst job you could have in the 19th century because it’s kind of like coal mining except in order to do it you have to be marooned on an island, and a dry island. That’s what makes the guano pile high.

CHRIS STARON: Welcome to the worst job in the 1800s. When he says “dry island” he means there was little or no rain to wash the guano away. Which is how it caked over decades of… deposits. Everything the men needed to work there had to be brought with them. Yes, it was terrible, but these men, largely of African descent, performed a real service for the country. We needed that nitrogen. There was no way to get it out of the air yet. Without this guano, there might have been food shortages. Farmers could have changed their farming methods but that wasn’t easy to do either. We needed the nitrogen-rich resource these uninhabited, unclaimed islands had.

Take a moment and think about this. How does a country function without access to resources? It doesn’t. If the US was going to get through that era, it had to have that guano. We just went about it in the completely wrong way. Here’s Daniel again.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Often the laborers who did it were sort of tricked into it.

CARNIVAL BARKER: Say, you, young man. Are you tired of your humdrum life? Working in a factory, living in a hovel? How would you like to travel to a tropical island? Cool ocean breezes, beautiful women, a short workday? You would? Sign right there, son. Sign right there.

CHRIS STARON: That was completely bogus. Once the men paid to go, or promised to pay, or were kidnapped, they were stuck on an island with other men, not the promised beautiful women, putting in long hours, with no escape. It’s not like there were flights out of there every hour. They were on islands in the middle of a vast ocean in an era before modern communication. Once they were there… they were stuck. The men were understandably upset.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And there’s this island near Haiti, Navassa Island, where a bunch of laborers… one of the most profitable islands in the US overseas empire. And these men who’d been working the island under incredibly awful conditions rose up against their overseers, got in a fight and ended up killing five of their… these are black men… killed five of their white overseers and it was a huge deal.

CHRIS STARON: A bunch of black men rising up to kill their white overseers in the 1800s… yeah it was a big deal. You can imagine the reaction from the public. But here is where our story gets really interesting.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: But what was amazing was that their lawyer…

CHRIS STARON: Who was the first African American to pass the Maryland state bar exam.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: … made this incredible argument on their behalf. He didn’t say they didn’t do it. He was like, “yep, they totally killed those people”. But what he said was, they can’t be convicted of murder because this island on which this happened, Navassa Island, isn’t in the United States. That the Guano Island Act is unconstitutional or at least doesn’t put these islands under US federal law and therefore they can’t be prosecuted in a US court.

CHRIS STARON: Since these islands were not technically in the US… the courts had no right to prosecute a crime committed on the islands. That was the responsibility of the country that owned those islands. Whoever that happened to be.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And it went all the way up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court had to figure out, does the United States extend oversees? Can its laws extend oversees? What are these places, really? What are these rocks? Are they parts of the United States?

CHRIS STARON: Or do they belong to someone else? This is the Supreme Court we’re talking about. The decisions they make extend way beyond just this one case. If they claimed that US law applied to these islands… it would apply to other places as well. That gave the country permission to expand beyond our tidy little map. Simply by doing business there.

If they let these guys off, who were being basically held as slaves, even though they confessed to the murder, that created a whole set of problems as well. That would mean letting admitted murderers go free. Where was the justice in that?

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And the courts ultimately decided, yes they’re part of the United States. The men can be convicted and tried for murder as they were. But, you know, in doing that it kind of… admitted that empire is a possibility for the United States, which wasn’t something that people knew. You know, it’s kind of this weird, comic moment in US history but it’s actually very important because it laid the legal foundation for overseas empire. This was the first moment where the United State expanded overseas. And the legal questions that came up on these small, uninhabited islands turned out to be the determining legal questions that allowed the United States to take far larger territories such as Alaska, such as Hawaii, such as Puerto Rico.

CHRIS STARON: We’ll continue our story after these messages.

COMMERCIAL BREAK.

CHRIS STARON: When we left off, the United States had set a new precedent. That we could go beyond our borders, into the ocean to claim new territories. A country growing as big and as fast as the United States needed a lot of resources. Even though we’ve got a diverse landscape here, we can’t always get everything we need from our native soil. Sometimes we take land so we can access those resources. Like guano for the nitrogen that could not yet be gotten from the air. And… like another substance, we did not yet know how to synthesize: like, say, rubber. As we industrialized we needed rubber from rubber trees. They only grow in tropical climates like those in Southeast Asia. We also needed palm oil from Africa as a lubricant for our machines, and tungsten from Korea for lightbulb filaments. As technology got better, our economy became more global. That works great in times of peace when nations are talking to each other. But in war… once-friendly countries can restrict our access. Meaning no lights, no phones, no motor cars.

Some people saw this dilemma and said… that’s no problem if we just own the distant lands where these goods are produced. It’s much harder to get into a trade war if you are trading with yourself. And they had this handy tool from the guano islands where they could claim something was a territory instead of a state. So something could be owned by us… but not be a part of us.

Bringing us to… the Spanish American War.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: It’s one of the weirdest moments in US history and I say that having just discussed with you the guano islands episode.

CHRIS STARON: We as a country had taken over the west, murdering and displacing native people. We’d fought a war with Mexico and one with ourselves. The United States had gone through dramatic changes. An era where men were sent off to battle to prove their worth. That they were men. Now that things settled down, there were people wondering if American manhood could survive outside of war and conquest. Were there lands left to conquer?

You bet your sweet guano there were.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: By the end of the 19th century there were a number of people who felt that in the same way that European powers had claimed a lot of colonies in the past decade or two in Africa and in Asia, and this was all happening very quickly, that the United States should get in on the game as well.

CHRIS STARON: If the United States was going to be great, we had to snap up some of that third world land.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And this was an argument. Some people thought yes, some people thought no. Teddy Roosevelt vociferously and passionately felt the answer was yes, the United States should do this.

CHRIS STARON:

Before we go crazy here, a little context. History is complicated.

Point number one: the US sees foreign lands, some of them not far from our borders like in Cuba, being brutally oppressed… should we intervene? Always a big question. No easy answers there. Really. None. How bad does the oppression of a foreign people have to be before we intervene?

Second, we might be tempted to say it was all for the sake of business that we considered going to war. The Philippines gave us access to new markets. And it allowed us to import goods we needed. Like rubber. Which we did not yet know how to synthesize. If we were going to have rubber… we needed a tropical climate.

Third, if lands just off our shore like Puerto Rico and Cuba are controlled by a foreign government… then we’ve got a problem. The US enjoys vast protective oceans on our east and west and largely friendly neighbors to the north and south. All of that puts real distance between us and our enemies. But those islands… if one of them were to fall into the hands of an enemy we could be in a lot of trouble. Like, say with the Cuban missile crisis that was still a long way in the future.

Fourth, if the US pulled out of the Philippines once the Spanish were gone… the Germans were going to step in. They had plans to take over. Meaning people in the Philippines would have another European empire to answer to. And the Germans, pre-WWI, would have a solid presence in the Pacific.

Fifth, the US may not have known this at the time, but the Germans were making plans. For the US. It was called Operation Plan III. Kaiser Wilhelm II hoped to set up a base in Puerto Rico and then attack major cities on the eastern seaboard. Our concern that foreign countries were trying to sneak closer to us… had truth behind it.

That’s a lot of moving pieces, right? Take all of that into account. Now… Should the United States, say… enter the fray in Cuba? President McKinley wanted to stay out of it. At first. He’d later declare war in 1898.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, was itching for a fight. Not that he could do much to legally start a fight.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Theodore Roosevelt was, at the time, the assistant secretary of the Navy, so not the most powerful position in the US government.

CHRIS STARON: He’s the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Not a bad position, but he wasn’t in charge unless his boss was out of the picture. Like, say, on February 25, 1898.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And that means when his boss is indisposed, Teddy Roosevelt then becomes the acting secretary of the Navy.

CHRIS STARON: No Teddy! Don’t do it, Teddy! Go ride or horse or buy some more puffy pants. Don’t do it!

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: In an afternoon his boss went out to an osteopath… to get a sort of medical treatment. It’s basically akin to getting a massage. And Teddy Roosevelt sort of looked left, looked right, and he’s like “I don’t see anyone in charge but me.” And then he said, “okay, I guess I’m the acting secretary of the Navy,” and he just started sending off orders left and right. Ships prepare for war, fill your reserves with coal. And one of the most consequential ones is that he dispatched the Asiatic squadron to Hong Kong and told it that if the US went to war with Spain, which looked like something that might happen… but it was going to be a war over Cuba if it happened… he said if this happens your orders are to attack the Philippines which is all the way on the other side of the planet, which was also a Spanish holding.

CHRIS STARON: While his boss was at the doctor’s… Roosevelt prepared for war. Not just a war where the focus of the problem was, in Cuba, but also in the Philippines! Thousands and thousands of miles away from the uprising. But Teddy baby saw a chance to spread our boundaries.

Oh yeah… what about his boss? The guy who left for the doctor’s appointment?

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: His boss got back and was, you know, shocked. He was like, I literally just went out of the office for a second and you have laid the groundwork for a transoceanic war. To which Teddy Roosevelt said, yep. And the amazing thing is that he got away with it.

CHRIS STARON: What’s the Secretary of the Navy going to do? Admit that he was foolish enough to let his assistant start a war while he was gone? Turn those ships around? Call the whole thing off? That would make him look weak. Buffoonish. Not to mention that the country was itching for a fight. Any fight. Turn those boys into men by having them shot at. Like their fathers and their father’s fathers. So, insanely, the orders stayed in place.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: The United States went to war with Spain and the US Navy then took Manilla. Invaded the Philippines, or at least defeated the Spanish in the Philippines which ultimately gave the United States possession of this really large colony that was nowhere near Cuba, which was the site of the original conflict.

CHRIS STARON: Seriously, let’s start a hashtag #nowherenearcuba.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Well, so there are reasons and it’s confusing because a lot of the reasons are speculative. It’s not like there was ongoing business in the Philippines and it was really important to make sure that, you know, the right president got into power and that kind of… it’s not that. It’s rather that some people saw the Philippines as really important economically. Maybe it would be a good market for US goods, maybe it would be a good source of raw materials.

CHRIS STARON: Like the aforementioned rubber.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Perhaps beyond that, it could be a stepping stone to China. Maybe the Chinese market would open up. If so, having the Philippines could be really valuable. And also there’s this weird gender and race stuff that was really quite clearly part of the conversation. It’s hard to read the speeches of the jingoes, which were the men who want war and want an expansive version of that war, without really feeling that one of their concerns is that the United States should be in the business of conquest. This is the generation after the Civil War. The fathers had fought in the war and I think they were feeling the need to prove their own manhood. And they can be quite explicit about that.

CHRIS STARON: There it is! That old nugget that manhood is proven by going to war. Without that then men would have to prove their character by staying home and providing for their families. Instead, they could show their valor by being brave. Not a new concept in the world. That concept was also present in Native American communities before Europeans got here, like the Sioux who went off on war parties so they could have the stories to tell. Apparently this is part of the male conditions.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And then there is just a lot of talk including from Teddy Roosevelt about the need to spread the Anglo-Saxon race. It’s not covert, this is the language that they use to spread liberty. For the US to move its flag all over the world. This is the kind of thing that they speak about. And it’s a little hard to say exactly of all of these reasons what was the impetus. Because all of this is vague and diffuse. Nonetheless, it added up in some people’s minds to a considerable desire for empire.

CHRIS STARON: This was, after all, the age of Darwin and the survival of the fittest. Which gave oxygen to the Eugenics movement that believed that humanity should breed in such a way that favored the strong. In other words, the white folks.

But don’t let it stop at the guilt trip. It’s a little too easy. Remember, if we hadn’t gone in, those holdings of the Spanish empire might have become German. Which would have really bit us in the backside during WWI. And, yes, there was the desire to help those that the Spanish were oppressing. We can’t deny that, either. People in the Philippines and Cuba and all the others needed outside help. We helped by taking control.

But I think there is something we can all agree on. It wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt’s right to kick things off.

To those people who write curriculum for men’s groups in churches… can we stop holding Teddy Roosevelt up as the ideal man? Yes, he was a tough dude. Later in his life, he was at an event where he was supposed to speak, got shot in the chest, and still delivered his intended speech. That happened.

But the guy started a war that was not his right to start. Are we done with cute quotes from Roosevelt? Thanks.

Roosevelt kicked off the war. McKinley called for a declaration of war, and Congress got behind it. McKinley was then was in charge of running the thing. When Spain ended the war, guess who they negotiated peace terms with? The United States. Not Philippinos or Cubans. The US and those territories had won… what were we going to do with them? The Cubans and Philippinos fought a war with white Europeans for independence only to find themselves being ruled by a different set of white people.

Leading to an ugly question in the US, forgive me for repeating this, but: could these brown people be trusted to govern themselves? McKinley didn’t seem to think so. His best option seemed to be to…

MCKINLEY: “…educate the Filipinos and uplift and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could for them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ died.”

History is filled with people who thought that their Christian duty was to share their faith with native peoples… but not their rights. There may have been reasons to take over these lands. Keep them from the Germans, help those oppressed by the Spanish, uplift and Christianize the people, etc.

But there are four major takeaways for us. Today. We still have some of these territories from the Spanish American War:

  1. Think of our maps from the beginning of the show. If these territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, etc) are part of the United States, why is it so easy for us to forget about them?
  2. Why haven’t we given these territories the rights we enjoy as states?
  3. How did McKinley expect us to be able to share the gospel with people in the Philippines after bombing the snot out of them? And we did. We leveled the place.
  4. How does it impact our witness to the world when some of us claim this is a Christian nation, and yet there are people living under our flag who don’t have the same rights as you and me?

What are we talking about when we talk about the United States? What is our country? Is it just the fifty states and the District of Columbia? Did it ever include the Philippines and Cuba? What about Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the other territories which we’ve kept in a weird territory limbo since the Spanish American War? They are still territories, but many of us don’t think of them as part of the US. And they don’t have all of the rights of states. We’ll get into the specifics in our next episode.

Special thanks to our guest Daniel Immerwahr. His book, which is just great, is “How to Hide an Empire”. I first heard about Daniel on WNYC’s podcast, “On The Media”. Thanks to everyone who helped draw maps at the Spark Christian Podcast Conference. I was able to attend that this year thanks to donations from listeners like you. Have you ever heard a Christian podcast that reported on fun, interesting stories like this before? If you’d like to help me change Christian media, support this show by clicking the “donate” button at trucepodcast.com. If you contribute a little each month you’ll even gain access to content not available anywhere else.

When you’re on the website, join our email list. We don’t spam you, and you’ll be able to download my free one week media fast curriculum which is a fun challenge for you and your small group.

Special thanks to those who let me use their voices in this episode. Paul Hastings of the Compelled podcast, Angel McCoy from Angel Reads the Bible, and Savannah. Thanks also to Nick Staron for his support.

God willing, we’ll continue our conversation with Daniel Immerwahr in two weeks. Subscribe to this podcast so you get every new episode as it’s released. And leave us a review! We’ve got 45 five star ratings on Apple Podcasts and only about a dozen reviews. Let’s see if we can get that number up.

Thanks for listening! I’m Chris Staron and this is Truce.

CHRIS STARON: This was, after all, the age of Darwin and the survival of the fittest. Which gave oxygen to the Eugenics movement that believed that humanity should breed in such a way that favored the strong. In other words, the white folks.

And, yes, there was the desire to help those that the Spanish were oppressing. Our idea of helping was taking over Cuba and the Philippines. Can I be real for a second? To those people who write curriculum for men’s groups in churches… can we stop holding Teddy Roosevelt up as the ideal man? Yes, he was a tough dude. Later in his life, he was at an event where he was supposed to speak, he got shot in the chest, and still delivered his intended speech. That happened.

But the guy started a war that was not his right to start. A war that we, all these years later, are not sure why fought. Are we done with cute quotes from Roosevelt? Thanks.

Roosevelt started the war. But it was McKinley who was in charge of running the thing. When Spain ended the war, guess who they negotiated peace terms with? The United States. Not people in the Philippines or Cubans. The US and those territories had won… what were we going to do with the territories? The Cubans and Philippinos fought a war with white Europeans for independence only to find themselves being ruled by a different set of white people.

Leading to an ugly question in the US, forgive me for repeating this, but this is what they were thinking: could brown people be trusted to govern themselves? McKinley didn’t seem to think so. In his opinion, the best option was to…

MCKINLEY: “…educate the Filipinos and uplift and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could for them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ died.”

CHRIS STARON: History is filled with men who thought that their Christian duty was to share their faith with native peoples… but not their rights. If we, the US, held these places as territories, we didn’t have to let them vote. We could threaten to revoke their aid. We did this for access to resources, yes. But also, in part because, even after the Civil War, some Americans, including some Christians, questioned if non-white people could rule themselves. We weren’t about to give them the chance to try.

What is our country? Is it just the fifty states and the District of Columbia? What are we talking about when we talk about the US? Did it ever include the Philippines and Cuba? What about Puerto Rico, which we’ve kept in a weird territory limbo since the Spanish American War? It’s still a territory, but many of us don’t think of it as part of the US. And it doesn’t have all of the rights of a state.

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t oppress people and expect to share the good news about Jesus. We can’t claim to be about love and then treat our neighbor with disgrace. How we decide to draw the map is essential to understanding how the gospel will be accepted around the world. More on that in two weeks.

Special thanks to our guest Daniel Immerwahr. His book, which is just great, is “How to Hide an Empire”. I first heard about Daniel on WNYC’s podcast, “On The Media”. Thanks to everyone who helped draw maps at the Spark Christian Podcast Conference. I was able to attend that this year thanks to donations from listeners like you. Have you ever heard a Christian podcast that reported on fun, interesting stories like this before? If you’d like to help me change Christian media, support this show by clicking the “donate” button at trucepodcast.com. If you contribute a little each month you’ll even gain access to content not available anywhere else.

When you’re on the website, join our email list. We don’t spam you, and you’ll be able to download my free one week media fast curriculum which is a fun challenge for you and your small group.

Special thanks to those who let me use their voices in this episode. Paul Hastings of the Compelled podcast, Angel McCoy from Angel Reads the Bible, and Savannah. Thanks also to Nick Staron for his support.

God willing, we’ll continue our conversation with Daniel Immerwahr in two weeks. Subscribe to this podcast so you get every new episode as it’s released. And leave us a review! We’ve got 45 five star ratings on Apple Podcasts and only about a dozen reviews. Let’s see if we can get that number up.

Thanks for listening! I’m Chris Staron and this is Truce.

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