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Vietnam War Articles
The Green Beret Affair: A Factual Review
The "Green Beret Affair"
America's Paradoxical Trinity
The Cambodian Incursion
Dien Bien Phu: A Battle Assessment
The Effects of Vietnamization
The Battle for Hue
Dien Bien Phu 50 Years Later
The Wild Weasels
Role of Airpower in Vietnam

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The Effects of Vietnamization on the Republic of Vietnam's Armed Forces, 1969-1972
The Effects of Vietnamization on the Republic of Vietnam's Armed Forces, 1969-1972;
Three Military Operations that Illustrate the Impact of American De-escalation during the Vietnam War

by John M. Rincon

This article will analyze the disjointed and ill-conceived plan to withdraw United States combat troops from Southeast Asia initiated in 1969. It will also assess how the removal of those troops directly affected the ability of the Armed Forces of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) to withstand Communist aggression. An examination of three pivotal military operations: the combined U.S.-ARVN incursion of Cambodia in March 1970, the invasion of Laos by ARVN troops in February 1971, and the 1972 Communist Easter Offensive, will illustrate negative effects on ARVN caused by this process of American de-escalation. The most critical of those being; inadequate training of ARVN, the lack of establishing a basic military criteria for the promotion of ARVN officers and non-commissioned officers, and never achieving full parity in ARVN morale with that of its enemy.

"Vietnamization" was both a goal and the program through which that goal would be achieved at the earliest practical time.[1] The main elements of Vietnamization were the improvement and modernization of the South Vietnamese armed forces, the transfer of day to day combat operations from the United States military to the ARVN, and the unilateral withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam. Vietnamization was essentially a strategy that would require the Vietnamese to survive with greatly reduced American participation and allow the United States to maintain its obligations and interests in Asia while heading towards peace.[2] South Vietnam would be a test case for implementing the "Nixon Doctrine" and a new U.S. planning approach to Asia.[3] The Nixon Doctrine at first was misrepresented by some as signaling a new policy that would lead to American withdrawal from Asia and from other parts of the world.[4] However, Nixon emphasized that, "the Nixon Doctrine was not a formula for getting America out of Asia, but one that provided the only sound basis for America's staying in and continuing to play a responsible role in helping the non-communist nations and neutrals as well as our Asian allies to defend their independence."[5] Nixon's vision was that the role of the United States in Third World conflicts would be transformed from one of direct participation to one of serving as trainer and supplier to indigenous forces.[6] It was under this doctrine that the United States began the long and arduous task of military de-escalation from South Vietnam. It also signaled the start of the government of South Vietnam's attempt to create a fighting force that could withstand the pressure exerted by the National Liberation Front (Vietcong) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA.)

During the Presidential campaign of 1968 Richard Nixon understood the key issue was the war in Vietnam. He needed to show the American people he had a viable plan to end the war. Yet, as of that point in the race Nixon had no such plan. In a speech to a Republican audience at the American Legion Hall in Nashua, New Hampshire, on 5 March, Nixon pledged to "end the war and to win the peace in the Pacific."[7] Nixon implied during his speech that evening that he had a "secret" plan to end the war and succeeded in attracting the attention of the press.[8] He denied however, that there was a magic formula to achieve peace and he tried to avoid the political trap of providing a concrete plan.[9] For the growing anti-war faction (known as doves ) and moderates in the country, Nixon spoke less of escalating military measures and protecting vital interests and more of taking non-military steps towards peace. For the pro-war advocates (known as hawks) and conservatives, he continued to talk about keeping firm pressure on Vietnam and winning the peace. To all Americans, he spoke of "peace with honor."[10] In November 1968, Richard Nixon defeated incumbent Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in one of the nation's tightest Presidential races. Although Nixon won the election by a scant seven-tenths of a percentage point, he had finally ascended to what he had always desired—the Presidency. His honeymoon with the American people however, would last only a short duration. It was now Nixon's responsibility to prove his word, and through his secret plan extricate U.S. troops from a war that had been draining the American people for more than four years. He now would need most of his cabinet working on viable solutions to end the war and achieve that peace with honor.

Early in Nixon's administration he decided to withdraw a number of U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, hoping to demonstrate to Hanoi and the American people that he was seriously seeking a diplomatic settlement to the war. He also hoped that the withdrawal might calm domestic public opinion and graphically demonstrate he was beginning to wind down the war. Nixon's Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, had long felt that the United States could "Vietnamize" the war; that we could train, equip, and inspire the South Vietnamese to fill gaps left by departing American forces.[11] In March 1969, Laird returned from a visit to South Vietnam with an optimistic report about the potential of the South Vietnamese to be trained to defend themselves. It was largely on the basis of Laird's enthusiastic advocacy of ARVN's abilities that Nixon under took the policy of Vietnamization.[12] Nixon disliked using the terms de-escalation, disengagement, and withdrawal, to describe the removal of U.S. combat troops from South Vietnam. He felt those terms had negative connotations to them. It was Melvin Laird who coined the phrase "Vietnamization," which Nixon embraced enthusiastically, and subsequently demanded his entire cabinet use when addressing the issue of American withdrawal from Vietnam.[13]

Although William Rogers was Nixon's Secretary of State, Nixon began to rely more and more on one of his special advisers, Henry Kissinger, to head his team assigned to implement his ideas and goals for Vietnamization. Nixon had grown to respect Kissinger's tenacity and willingness to use what ever means available to get things done. Kissinger had served Lyndon Johnson as a secret emissary, passing Johnson's offers of bombing halts to the North Vietnamese via French intermediaries in 1967.[14] Nixon, impressed by Kissinger's abilities, appointed him Assistant for National Security Affairs from 1969 to 1973, and eventually took over as Secretary of State, phasing out Rogers in September 1973. During the years of the Nixon Presidency, Henry Kissinger would become the advisor he relied on most for information and political input, especially when it came to matters concerning Southeast Asia. Kissinger was directed by President Nixon to start the process of developing a "private channel" directly with Hanoi, with the intent to determine their willingness to engage in serious negotiations regarding the war.[15] Nonetheless, at the same time these attempts to establish negotiations were being carried out, Nixon continued with the bombing campaign over North Vietnam and slowly started to implement the first phase of Vietnamization.

On 16 April 1969, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was directed by Nixon to gradually initiate shifting the burden of the war to the South Vietnamese. General Creighton Abrams, Commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was instructed to support as quickly as possible, and to the maximum extent feasible, the efforts of the government of South Vietnam to enlarge, improve, and modernize their armed forces.[16] Laird also directed that MACV prepare two contingencies or "phases" for American withdrawal. Phase I would be based on American participation in the war continuing at the current level; Phase II would provide for the development of a self-sufficient ARVN, capable of coping with the Vietcong and NVA after full Vietnamization had taken place. During this time frame the South Vietnamese Army Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) asked for the immediate approval to increase the ARVN force level to over 800,000 men (regular, regional, and popular forces.)[17] However, even with this increase in ARVN strength, and MACV's ability to equip the South Vietnamese with the latest weapons and technology to wage war, there were still many problems to be addressed regarding the fighting ability of ARVN. First, would a joint U.S.-Vietnamese promotion board have enough time to generate enough qualified military leaders at both the officer and non-commissioned officer level? Second, could the Vietnamese be trained to use the latest military technologies available? Lastly, with U.S. combat troops eventually leaving Vietnam how would the problem of sagging ARVN morale be addressed and reversed?

Cambodia

Henry Kissinger claimed that before he and Nixon could develop a negotiating strategy to be used against the Communists and buy time for the process of Vietnamization, Hanoi preempted our analyses by launching a countrywide offensive in South Vietnam in early 1970.[18] For the most part these attacks were repulsed, and the offensive had little impact on American operations. Casualties were another matter. Kissinger reported to the president that the enemy had been "able to achieve a relatively high casualty rate among U.S. and South Vietnamese forces while not exposing their own units."[19] The North Vietnamese were able to strike quickly, and cross the border into neutral Cambodia to safety. Up to that point in the war, American military "rules of engagement" prohibited the allies from crossing Cambodia's border in order to give chase to the retreating Communists.[20] That was however, until Nixon made a command decision to prepare combat operations for both U.S. and ARVN troops inside Cambodia.

Ever since the early stages of the conflict in South Vietnam, one of the key elements to Hanoi's success had been its ability to take advantage of the neutrality of neighboring Cambodia and Laos.[21] Both President Kennedy and President Johnson had prohibited "hot pursuit" attacks on Vietcong sanctuaries inside Cambodian territory.[22] These restrictions compromised the allied efforts to engage the enemy across the border and resulted in the Communists establishing their Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN,) inside Cambodia. This central office was responsible for directing all Vietcong and NVA operations in War Zone C, which included South Vietnam's capitol Saigon.[23] In late March-early April 1970, President Nixon gave the go-ahead for a joint U.S.-ARVN operation into Cambodia to search for, and then destroy COSVN, along with all other Communist logistical support elements. In Vietnam the orders to invade Cambodia hit U.S. field commanders with little warning and little time to plan.[24]

Certain aspects of Vietnamization up to this point had been proceeding very slowly, keeping a large number of U.S. advisors occupied trying to achieve the goals set forth by the de-escalation program. Nixon, true to his word, brought large chunks of American forces home. Unfortunately, the training of the South Vietnamese was advancing at a snail's pace. MACV, understood that an invasion or as Nixon termed it "incursion," into neutral Cambodia needed active ARVN participation for political reasons.[25] Therefore, MACV directed that ARVN units would "jump-off" into the operation first, followed by American units.[26]

The incursion of Cambodia, code-named Operation Toan Thang 42, began on the morning of 29 April 1970, when twelve ARVN infantry and armored battalions totaling approximately 8,700 men attacked the flanks of an area of Cambodia known as the Parrot's Beak, about 40 miles west of Saigon.[27] During the planning stage for the incursion, MACV became extremely concerned whether ARVN could meet their operational responsibilities and achieve their planned objectives. Hence, MACV limited the South Vietnamese Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR,) to a scant ten to fifteen mile penetration across the border.[28] For the most part, the two-month incursion into Cambodia garnered mixed results. Large quantities of arms, ammunition, food, and other enemy supplies were destroyed along with many Vietcong base camps, but the allies were unable to locate and destroy COSVN.

The invasion of Cambodia by U.S. and ARVN troops was the first real test for Vietnamization. Unfortunately, the invasion quickly highlighted the serious problems inherent in disengaging the American military from Vietnam, and placing the burden of the war squarely in ARVN's lap. Though some ARVN units fought bravely, all too often U.S. advisors had to step into the breach and coordinate armor, air, and artillery support to keep the invasion rolling.

The overall performance of ARVN troops has been termed disappointing to mediocre by U.S. military advisors who served with ARVN units. Lt. General Arthur S. Collin's Jr., Commander of I Field Force Vietnam (FFV,) was highly critical of senior ARVN leadership and most of the ARVN battalions participating in the operation.[29] Collins concluded that ARVN was not up to handling the NVA, and that it would take a long time to develop a reliable ARVN fighting force, at least in his immediate command area.[30]

Domestically, negative reactions to the Cambodian incursion became a major factor in Nixon's decision to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam.[31] This enhanced rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops had an overwhelmingly negative effect on ARVN. Congressional defense budget reductions, which for the most part were not contested by President Nixon, and lower draft calls which had Nixon's strong support, also made it mandatory that U.S. troop strength be reduced quicker than had been anticipated by the U.S. command in Vietnam. Fewer American troops in Vietnam meant fewer advisors training their South Vietnamese counterparts. The problem most in need of change was that of ARVN leadership.[32] MACV repeatedly urged the commissioning of qualified individuals from the ARVN rank and file, but the South Vietnamese response was slow.[33] After escalating the time-table for U.S. withdrawal following the Cambodian incursion, MACV never applied the pressure necessary to ensure ARVN got rid of their most inept military commanders.[34] The combination of entire U.S. Divisions leaving South Vietnam and the fact that less money was being budgeted for the war meant that fewer supplies would reach ARVN units. The supply issue caused a domino effect felt by the average ARVN soldier who saw his pay reduced (if paid at all,) and the rationing of munitions for both small arms and artillery. This critical logistic issue also pushed the problem of poor ARVN leadership to a lower priority status, which then led to command leadership vacuums and further reduction in ARVN morale.

Laos

In October-November 1970, domestic and political pressure again compelled Nixon and Kissinger to accelerate the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals from South Vietnam. By the beginning of 1971, roughly 180,000 American troops remained in Vietnam (about one third of the peak U.S. strength.)[35] Moreover, it was anticipated that by the summer of 1972 only a small residual, logistical-type U.S. force of about 40,000 personnel would remain.[36] MACV therefore thought the dry season of 1970-71 (October-May) would be a good opportunity for the South Vietnamese to take the offensive. U.S. commanders could then objectively critique the impact of Vietnamization on ARVN up to that point. In effect this would be a "coming out party" for ARVN, and a chance to show the Communists they could initiate large operations without major U.S. involvement.[37] This was the basic rationale that led to a White House proposal to launch an invasion into Laos in February 1971.[38] The origins of a planned invasion of Laos illustrate how Henry Kissinger came to dominate not only the negotiations to end the war, but also showed how for all intents and purposes became the de facto chairman of the American Military Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nixon had basically abdicated his authority over the American military and the process of Vietnamization to Kissinger, at that time a "mere" special assistant to the president.[39] It was a very strange circumstance that found the respective commanders of the different branches of the U.S. military having to go through Kissinger before being able to discuss operations with President Nixon. Many senior level military personnel have since commented that it was a situation where Kissinger was essentially doing the job of Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State at the same time.

Politically, the objective of the Laotian campaign would allow the final phase of Vietnamization to move forward on Kissinger's schedule. Militarily, the operation was to seize the Communist logistic complex in the Tchepone area. This region was a key strategic junction of supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A successful campaign was considered necessary by MACV to help buy time for ARVN to reach its training and modernization goals.[40]

LAMSON 719, the South Vietnamese designation given the operation, involved some of their best troops; the 1st ARVN Division, 1st Armored Brigade, and three Ranger Battalions from I Corps, as well as most of the elite Airborne Division and Marine Division from the JCS's strategic reserve. The overall commander of LAMSON 719 was Lt. General Hoang Xuan Lam, commanding general of I Corps, whose reputation as a combat commander was deemed "mediocre" by U.S. advisors.[41]

Senior American and Vietnamese leaders were quite aware of the great risks involved in committing ARVN forces to a major offensive more or less completely on their own. In December 1970 the U.S. Congress had imposed a legal prohibition on the expenditure of funds for any American ground forces operating outside South Vietnam. This would mean that the ground operations in Laos would have to be conducted solely by South Vietnamese troops without American advisors. Therefore, U.S. forces were allowed to support LAMSON 719 with only limited tactical air support and long range artillery operating from South Vietnamese bases. The prohibition of American advisors, partly as a result of the final phases of Vietnamization, was a new and potentially critical obstacle to closely coordinated operations. ARVN commanders were accustomed to counting on their American counterparts in arranging for U.S. air, heavy artillery, and logistical support.

Nixon wrongly assumed that ARVN could fulfill its military goals for the operation in Laos even with limited U.S. involvement. He also counted on the invasion achieving two political objectives. First, illustrate to the Communists that ARVN had become a viable fighting force and second, pressure Communist officials in Paris to respond more favorably to Kissinger's peace initiatives. Unfortunately none of Nixon's expected goals came to fruition.

Although LAMSON 719 began on schedule on 8 February 1971, just about everything went wrong from the beginning. Bad weather limited tactical air support the first day, and heavy rains on 9 February turned Route 9 into a quagmire.[42] Five days into the invasion and meeting only light resistance, an operation slated to last three months, stalled. Kissinger later claimed that on 12 February South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, feared that some of his best units were at risk, ordered his commanders to proceed cautiously and to cancel the operation once 3,000 casualties had been incurred.[43] Though ARVN units were allowed to resume the operation, the "taint" of the casualty directive by Thieu, and the fact that ARVN began meeting much stiffer resistance than anticipated caused the government in Saigon to re-assess the operations objectives.[44] Now instead of keeping an ARVN presence in Laos for ninety days, Thieu merely wanted to capture Tchepone, apparently for political and morale reasons.[45]

General Abrams, by now extremely frustrated with Thieu's actions and an apparent dearth of ARVN initiative, summed up the situation in a message sent to General Lam. Abrams stated, "you go in there just long enough to take a piss and then leave quickly."[46] Finally, on 7 March the South Vietnamese occupied the deserted village of Tchepone, and on 8 March they abandoned it, leaving behind many of their 1,830 casualties to an uncertain fate in the hands of the North Vietnamese.[47] On 7 April 1971, Nixon proclaimed in a televised speech to the American people that the South Vietnamese had demonstrated in Laos that, "without American advisors they (ARVN) could fight effectively against the very best troops North Vietnam could put in the field. Consequently, I can report tonight that Vietnamization has succeeded."[48] Privately, however, Nixon and Kissinger thought LAMSON 719 "was clearly not a success," and had exposed lingering deficiencies in Vietnamization.[49] The other major problems caused by the debacle of LAMSON 719, was that the North Vietnamese viewed the operation as "a big defeat" for Vietnamization, that encouraged the communists to persist and endure, realizing that American de-escalation would very shortly be completed.[50] The operation also exposed a gigantic logistical problem that the South Vietnamese were never able to rectify; that being without American logistic experts in country, ARVN was extremely hard pressed to move the supplies needed for large operations. This would come to haunt ARVN the following April when the Communists initiated their largest attacks of the entire war. 

The 1972 Easter Offensive 

By the spring of 1972, Vietnamization had almost been completed. It was now time to access the negative implications of the program on ARVN while there was still time to make the necessary corrections. Most U.S. troops had been withdrawn, and the large complex U.S. intelligence, communications, and logistics structure in South Vietnam been dismantled. Virtually all American-built bases had been turned over to the South Vietnamese who unfortunately lacked the means to secure and maintain them. In addition, the Senior American headquarters—MACV, 7th Air Force, and III Marine Amphibious Force—had been reduced sharply.[51] The U.S. advisory structure was also rapidly reduced during this period. By April 1972 U.S. advisors were assigned only at ARVN corps and division levels.[52] With so many drastic changes taking place militarily inside South Vietnam due to the process of Vietnamization, ARVN had to do some major shifting of troops to make sure vitally strategic regions were covered. One of these very important areas was along the de-militarized zone (DMZ.)

At the beginning of 1972 the South Vietnamese Army deployed a new division designated 3rd ARVN, comprised mostly of green troops along the DMZ in the fire bases formerly occupied by American Marines. The un-tested combat unit created by the JCS in Saigon was an accident waiting to happen. With the placement of the 3rd Division in this region it exposed a new and relatively untrained ARVN contingent to an area that had seen many hard fought battles in the past. The region just south of the DMZ had long been a target of intense artillery and rocket fire from north of the border.[53] To make matters worse, there was no overall South Vietnamese commander of all forces north of Hai Van Pass, which separates the two northern most provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien from the rest of I Corps.[54]

Both MACV and the South Vietnamese military anticipated the dry season Communist offensive which began on 30 March 1972. It is therefore interesting to note that even though a Communist attack was expected, many South Vietnamese units were completely surprised by the timing and scope of the attacks. The assault started with a massive preparatory artillery barrage, followed by an estimated 15,000 NVA troops with tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and mobile anti-aircraft guns all crossing the DMZ from the north and northwest into Quang Tri province. This area previously designated as I Corps, now known as Military Region 1, was exactly where the new 3rd ARVN Division was positioned. The division was quickly overrun by the Communist advance and retreated south out of Quang Tri Province.[56] In the following weeks of the offensive, Communist divisions struck South Vietnam from bases in Laos and Cambodia in Military Regions 2 and 3, (formerly II and III Corps,) threatening to cut South Vietnam in two. There was heavy fighting outside of Saigon, Loc Ninh, and especially An Loc, all in Military Region 3. The fighting at An Loc was critical to the safety of Saigon, due to the fact it was a mere sixty miles north of the capital on Highway 13, which led directly into Saigon.[57]

Nixon and Kissinger both realized that the fall of Saigon to the Communists was a real possibility. In Nixon's words it was a "very major crisis," and "do or die time" in South Vietnam.[58] Nixon thus made the decision to send B-52 bombers to strike targets in and around Hanoi, ordered the U.S. 7th Fleet to mine Haiphong Harbor, and drastically increased both land and aircraft carrier based air support for the beleaguered ARVN units all through South Vietnam. Finally, he allowed Kissinger to insinuate the possibility of a U.S. tactical nuclear strike on NVA military targets just north of the DMZ during the course of his peace negotiations with North Vietnamese officials in Paris. Most allied commanders agreed that without this monumental U.S. effort to keep South Vietnam alive, Saigon and the rest of the South would have succumbed to the Communist offensive. Sadly, even with all this U.S support there were areas in Military Region 1 which could not be retaken and stayed in Communist control for the remainder of the war.[60]

Amazingly, due to Nixon's withdrawal timetable, all the while South Vietnam was locked in a bitter struggle for its survival, the removal of U.S. troops continued. At the time of the Easter battles, the U.S. had roughly 40,000 troops left in Vietnam, 95% of which were support personnel.[61] The process of de-escalation had for the most part been accomplished. Nixon had done what he had promised the American people, he had withdrawn combat troops from South Vietnam through his Vietnamization program. However, the other aspects of Vietnamization—the training of ARVN to utilize all the weapons supplied by the U.S. and the effort to create a new ARVN officer corps were still unresolved. 

Conclusion

With the fall of Saigon to the Communists in April of 1975, direct American involvement in South Vietnam came to a crashing halt. The United States had first become involved in Vietnam soon after the ending of World War II. All through the early 1950's we bank rolled the French attempts to regain colonial rule and drive out the Communists. When their efforts failed we committed ourselves to actively pursue a goal to keep South Vietnam a "democracy" and defend the country against any type of Communist aggression.[62] This slow build-up of men and material would eventually culminate with the introduction of American combat troops to Vietnam in 1965. Our nation fought continuously alongside our South Vietnamese counterparts for the next seven plus years, until the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. In all, the United States military suffered over 58,000 battle deaths and nearly 300,000 wounded in action. The stated objective of the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam was to stop North Vietnam's attempt to overthrow the government in the South and mould ARVN into a viable fighting force. This was our political view of South Vietnam for nearly thirty years, stretching back to the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, administrations, and culminating in the Vietnamization program carried out under Richard Nixon.

Vietnamization in theory made perfect sense. Teach the South Vietnamese military to fend for themselves once the American military started the process of de-escalation. The goals of Vietnamization; technical training, establishment of a command leadership core that would be able to confidently lead ARVN, and the process of enhancing ARVN morale were admirable ideals. However, with essentially only four short years to achieve the desired results of Vietnamization, the United States found that we had overestimated the ability of the ARVN to match up against the well-trained and highly motivated Vietcong and NVA. The incursion into Cambodia, and the invasion of Laos both showed cracks in ARVN that were never addressed by either army and thus never repaired. It took the Communist Easter Offensive to bring those problems out to the open. Unfortunately, by that time the U.S. military in Vietnam for the most part was inhibited by congressional limitations and could only help the South Vietnamese react, but not initiate. Eventually the political morass of the Watergate scandal would soon destroy the President who conceived and planned Vietnamization, and shut off all supplies to a country we had been directly associated with for almost thirty years. The only goal Vietnamization achieved was the removal of U.S. combat troops. However, by achieving that goal it failed the South Vietnamese Army where it needed the most assistance, providing leadership, training, and morale. Without those basic military essentials, the policy of Vietnamization doomed ARVN and South Vietnam to their ultimate fate.

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Show Footnotes and Sources
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Copyright © 2005 John Rincon

Written by John Rincon. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact John Rincon at: johnandkim22@comcast.net.

Last Updated: 08/11/2007.
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