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Throughline

Throughline

The past is never past. Every headline has a history. Join us every week as we go back in time to understand the present. These are stories you can feel and sounds you can see from the moments that shaped our world.

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Episodes

Mecca Under Siege

Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is effectively canceled this year, due to concerns around the spread of the coronavirus. But, for two weeks in 1979, visits to the holy site were also upended when a group of Islamic militants seized Mecca, taking thousands of visitors hostage.
2020-07-02
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There's Something About Mary

When a cook who carried typhoid fever refused to stop working, despite showing no symptoms, the authorities forcibly quarantined her for nearly three decades. Perfect villain or just a woman scapegoated because of her background? What the story of Typhoid Mary tells us about journalism, the powers of the state, and the tension between personal responsibility and personal liberty.
2020-06-25
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Why 2020 Isn't Quite 1968

Protests, racial divisions, political polarization, and a law-and-order president ? it's easy to draw comparisons between 2020 and 1968. But, Adam Serwer, who covers politics at The Atlantic, says that a much better point of comparison actually starts a century earlier ? 1868. This week, we share an episode we loved from It's Been A Minute with Sam Sanders that explores a moment when white Republicans fought for years for the rights of Black Americans, before abandoning them to pursue white voters.
2020-06-18
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Presidential Power

What can and can't the president do, and how do we know? When the framers of the U.S. constitution left vague the powers of the executive branch they opened the door to every president to decide how much power they could claim. This week, how the office of the presidency became more powerful than anything the Founding Fathers imagined possible.
2020-06-11
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American Police

Black Americans being victimized and killed by the police is an epidemic. A truth many Americans are acknowledging since the murder of George Floyd, as protests have occurred in all fifty states calling for justice on his behalf. But this tension between African American communities and the police has existed for centuries. This week, the origins of American policing and how those origins put violent control of Black Americans at the heart of the system.
2020-06-04
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Hong Kong

Last week, the Chinese government made the latest and perhaps the most serious move yet to crack down on Hong Kong's semi-autonomy. It's just the latest such effort by Beijing in the decades-long tensions between China and Hong Kong and it seems to take advantage of the quarantine calm that has subdued months of protests. But when did these tensions begin and what have Hong Kongers been fighting for?
2020-05-28
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Conspiracy

Since the beginning of the pandemic, conspiracy theories about the coronavirus have exploded. But conspiracy theories themselves are nothing new - in fact, they're fundamental to American life. In this episode, how conspiracy theories helped to create the U.S. and became the currency of political opportunists.
2020-05-21
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The Mask

The N95 respirator has become one of the most coveted items in the world, especially by medical professionals. But how did this seemingly simple mask become the lifesaving tool it is today? From bird beaks to wrapping paper to bras, we follow the curious history of one of the most important defenses in our fight against COVID-19.
2020-05-14
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Endless War

North Korea's famous for being a black box, one of the most secretive and authoritarian countries in the world. It has a nuclear stockpile. A history of erratic behavior. And a particular fixation on antagonizing the outside world ? especially the United States. This cycle of antagonism isn't an accident ? the U.S. has played a formative role in the history of North Korea. And North Korea's leaders have been invoking that history from the very beginning.
2020-05-07
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Meltdown

In the early hours of March 28, 1979, a system malfunction began what would become the worst nuclear accident in American history. What ensued punctured the public's belief in the safety of nuclear energy and became an awful study in the consequences of communication breakdown during a crisis. This week, the fallout of who and what to trust when a catastrophic event occurs.
2020-04-30
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Aftermath

In 1927, the most destructive river flood in U.S. history inundated seven states, displaced more than half a million people for months, and caused about $1 billion dollars in property damages. And like many national emergencies it exposed a stark question that the country still struggles to answer - what is the political calculus used to decide who bears the ultimate responsibility in a crisis, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable? This week, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and what came after.
2020-04-23
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Buzzkill

In the whole of human history, no predator has killed more of us than the lowly mosquito. And this killing spree, which we still struggle in vain to stop, means the mosquito has been an outsized force in our history ? from altering the fate of empires to changing our DNA. This week, three stories of the quiet legacy and the potential future of the mosquito.
2020-04-16
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Throughline Presents: Code Switch

The Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation told his people to stay strong during this pandemic, and to remember how much they've endured over a long history that includes the Trail of Tears. This week, we share an episode from Code Switch that takes a look at an almost 200-year-old Cherokee family feud, the right to representation and what both things have to do with the Trail of Tears.
2020-04-09
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A Race To Know

For nearly as long as there has been a United States there has been a census, it is in some ways how we know ourselves. And in every single census there has been at least one question about race. The evolution of these questions and the fight over asking them is at the heart of the American story. This week, how race has played a central role in who is counted-in America.
2020-04-02
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1918 Flu

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic it's tempting to draw comparisons to the most severe pandemic in recent history - the 1918 flu. But as much as we can learn from the comparison, it's important to also understand just how much these two pandemics differ. This week, what we can learn from what happened then and, just as importantly, where the comparison should end.
2020-03-26
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American Socialist

It's been over a century since a self-described socialist was a viable candidate for President of the United States. And that first socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, didn't just capture significant votes, he created a new and enduring populist politics deep in the American grain. This week, the story of Eugene V. Debs and the creation of American socialism.
2020-03-19
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Savarkar And India

In the past few weeks Delhi has become the latest place in India convulsed with religious violence as Hindu mobs burned Muslim neighborhoods, mosques and killed over 40 people. The violence comes in the wake of a new citizenship law that excludes undocumented Muslims, but it also follows years of incendiary rhetoric and policies from the ascendant right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, and India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. As the political philosophy of Hindu nationalism gains ground in India we look back at one of its architects - Vinayak Savarkar.
2020-03-12
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Public Universal Friend

America in the run-up to the Revolutionary War wasn't just a period of dramatic political change, it was also a time of great religious and social instability, anxiety and experimentation. And in the midst of it all there arose a self-proclaimed genderless prophet ? the Public Universal Friend. This week, how the Public Universal Friend rocked society's norms and paved the way for others to reject religious and gender expectations for centuries to come.
2020-03-05
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The Invisible Border

Today, the border that divides Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is "soft", in most places you could almost forget that it's there. But for decades it was a deadly flash point in the bitter conflict known as "The Troubles" . This week, we share an episode from Today, Explained that takes a look at the history of this conflict and how Brexit could jeopardize a fragile peace.
2020-02-27
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The Stars

Astrology has existed for thousands of years and has roots that span the globe. But is it a science or a religion or just a kind of personality test? And why is it more popular than ever? This week, the story of how finding our fates in the stars moved from the fringes to the mainstream and became a multi-billion dollar industry.
2020-02-20
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Becoming America

When the United States of America was founded, it was only a union of a small number of states. By the beginning of the 20th century, the United States had become an empire; with states and territories and colonies that spanned the globe. As a result, the country began to not only reconsider its place in the world, but also its very name.
2020-02-13
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She Got Next

There are more female candidates in this presidential campaign cycle than at any other time in American history. But women were running for the highest office before they could even vote. How three women ran and challenged the notion of who could and should be president of the United States.
2020-02-06
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Vaccination

It's a longstanding fight in the U.S., whether people can opt out of vaccination if that means jeopardizing the greater public's health. In this episode, we look back at a 1905 Supreme Court case that set a precedent for whether or not the state can enforce compulsory vaccinations.
2020-01-30
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Soleimani's Iran

When Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by the United States on January 3rd, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander suddenly became a household name. But in Iran, he's been a potent symbol for decades, shaping conflicts in the region and with the U.S. In this episode, the origins of the shadow commander and the complicated legacy of what he means to Iran.
2020-01-23
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Everybody Knows Somebody

In the mid-1980's a woman who didn't consider herself a feminist was asked to solve perhaps the biggest problem women face. How she and a small group of people seized on that rare moment and fought back in the hopes that something could finally be done.
2020-01-16
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There Will Be Bananas

The banana is a staple of the American diet and has been for generations. But how did this exotic tropical fruit become so commonplace? How one Brooklyn-born entrepreneur ruthlessly created the modern banana industry and the infamous banana republics.
2020-01-09
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Fear of Technology

Artificial intelligence, gene modification, and self-driving cars are causing fear and uncertainty about how technology is changing our lives. But humans have struggled to accept innovations throughout history. In this episode, we explore three innovations that transformed the world and show how people have adapted ? and ask whether we can do the same today.
2020-01-02
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Russia's Vladamir Putin

Vladimir Putin has been running Russia since 2000 when he was first elected as President. How did a former KGB officer make his way up to the top seat ? was it political prowess or was he just the recipient of a lot of good fortune? In this episode, we dive into the life of Vladimir Putin and try to understand how he became Russia's new "tsar."
2019-12-26
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Planned Obsolescence

Have you ever wondered why your smartphone or toaster oven doesn't seem to last very long, even though technology is becoming better and better? In a special collaboration with Planet Money, we bring you the history of planned obsolescence ? the idea that products are designed to break.
2019-12-19
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America's Opioid Epidemic

A record number of Americans have died from opioid overdoses in recent years. But how did we get here? And is this the first time Americans have faced this crisis? The short answer: no. Three stories of opioids that have plagued Americans for more than 150 years.
2019-12-12
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The Electrical Grid

Today, electricity in the U.S. is a utility we notice only when it's suddenly unavailable. But over a hundred years ago, electricity in the homes of every American was a wild idea and the subject of a bitter fight over who would power, and profit from, the national grid. This week, the battle that electrified our world and the extreme measures that were taken to get there.
2019-12-05
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Conspiracy Theories

This week we're revisiting one of our favorite episodes about one of our favorite topics: Conspiracy theories. They're a feature of today's news and politics. But they've really been a part of American life since its founding. In this episode, we'll explore how conspiracy theories helped to create the U.S. and how they became the currency of political opportunists.
2019-11-28
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A Year Of Wonders

As extreme weather wreaks havoc around the globe we look at a natural disaster more than 200 hundred years ago that had far-reaching effects. This week, how the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki awed, terrified and disrupted millions around the world and changed the course of history.
2019-11-21
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The Siege of Mecca

On November 20th, 1979, a group of Islamic militants seized Islam's holiest site ? the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. They took thousands of hostages and held the holy site for two weeks, shocking the Islamic world. This week, how one man led an uprising that would have repercussions around the world and inspire the future of Islamic extremism.
2019-11-14
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Throughline Presents: Short Wave

NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel shares the story of Nazi Germany's attempt to build a nuclear reactor ? and how evidence of that effort was almost lost to history. It's a tale he heard from Timothy Koeth and Miriam Hiebert at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park.
2019-11-09
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No Friend But The Mountains

Over the decades the Kurds have been inspired by, allied with, relied upon and betrayed by the United States. This week we explore who the Kurds are, who they are to the United States and what, if anything, we owe to them.
2019-11-07
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ZOMBIES

Zombies have become a global phenomenon ? there have been at least ten zombie movies so far this year. Which made us wonder, where did this fascination for the undead come from? This week, how one of our favorite monsters is a window into Haiti's history and the horrors of slavery.
2019-10-31
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The Dark Side Of The Moon

50 years ago the world watched as man first landed on the moon, an incredible accomplishment by the engineers and scientists of NASA. But what if some of those same engineers and scientists had a secret history that the U.S. government tried to hide? This week, the story of how the U.S. space program was made possible by former Nazis.
2019-10-24
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A Borrowed Time

Over the past six months, demonstrations in Hong Kong have increasingly become more violent and more determined. What started out as a protest against a proposed extradition law has now become a call for China to recognize Hong Kong's semi-autonomy. But what is at the root of this tumultuous relationship between Hong Kong and China? This week, how Hong Kong became one of the most important, and most contested, cities in the world.
2019-10-17
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The Commentator

Today the foundations of philosophy are seen as a straight line from Western antiquity, built on thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. But, between the 8th century and 14th century, the West was greatly overshadowed by the Islamic world and philosophy was in very different hands. This week, how one Medieval Islamic philosopher put his pen to paper and shaped the modern world.
2019-10-10
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High Crimes and Misdemeanors

When Andrew Johnson became president in 1865, the United States was in the middle of one of its most volatile chapters. The country was divided after fighting a bloody civil war and had just experienced the first presidential assassination. We look at how these factors led to the first presidential impeachment in American history.
2019-10-03
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American Exile

For centuries, the United States has been a prime destination for migrants hoping for better economic opportunities, fleeing danger in their home countries or just seeking a new life. But has there ever been a moment when Americans were the ones who felt compelled to flee elsewhere? In this episode, two stories that challenge the idea of who and why Americans sought refuge in other countries.
2019-09-26
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Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 and for much of the next fifty years Puerto Ricans fought fiercely about this status. Should they struggle for independence, or to be a U.S. state, or something in between? In this episode, we look at Puerto Rico's relationship with the mainland U.S. and the key figures who shaped the island's fate.
2019-09-19
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Three Chords And The Truth

When Lil Nas X released his viral hit "Old Town Road" last year, he sparked a conversation about what country music is and who is welcome in the genre. To better understand the deep and often misunderstood history of country music, we sat down with renowned filmmaker Ken Burns to talk about his new documentary series Country Music and his process as a storyteller.
2019-09-12
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The Litter Myth

There is more waste in the world today than at any time in history, and the responsibility for keeping the environment clean too often falls on individuals instead of manufacturers. But, why us? And why this feeling of responsibility? This week, how one organization changed the American public's relationship with waste and who is ultimately responsible for it.
2019-09-05
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On The Shoulders Of Giants

When Colin Kaepernick stopped standing for the national anthem at NFL games it sparked a nationwide conversation about patriotism and police brutality. And in the last few weeks that conversation was rekindled when the NFL announced a deal with Jay-Z that some thought moved attention away from Kaepernick's continued absence from the league. The discussion about the utility of athletes taking a stand is nothing new ? black athletes using their platform to protest injustice has long been a tradition in American history.
2019-08-29
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Strange Fruit

Billie Holiday helped shape American popular music with her voice and unique style. But, her legacy extends way beyond music with one song in particular ? "Strange Fruit." The song paints an unflinching picture of racial violence, and it was an unexpected hit. But singing it brought serious consequences.

In a special collaboration with NPR Music's Turning the Tables Series, how "Strange Fruit" turned Billie Holiday into one of the first victims of the War on Drugs.
2019-08-22
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Mass Incarceration

The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world, and a disproportionate number of those prisoners are Black. What are the origins of the U.S. criminal justice system and how did racism shape it? From the creation of the first penitentiaries in the 1800s, to the "tough-on-crime" prosecutors of the 1990s, how America created a culture of mass incarceration.
2019-08-15
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Scorched Earth

The term "concentration camp" is most associated with Nazi Germany and the systematic killing of Jews during World War II. But colonial powers used concentration camps at the turn of the 19th century to crush rebellions. In this episode, how a war between Britain and South African Boers gave rise to some of the first camps.
2019-08-08
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Huey Long Vs. The Media

Huey Pierce Long: you either loved him, or hated him. He combined progressive economic ideas with an autocratic streak, earning him thousands of adoring fans and fearful enemies. Long went from traveling salesman to Louisiana governor, and then US senator, through his mastery of the media. Then once in power, he waged a war against it.
2019-08-01
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