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Bruce Brager Articles
Book Review: Operation Paperclip
Book Review: Midnight Rising
Cuban Missile Crisis
Memorials Past and Future
American Way of War
Flip Side of Containment
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
Winter Warfare
The City Point Explosion
A Cold War Retrospective
John Paul Jones & Asymetric Warfare
Early Texas Military History
The Office of Strategic Services
The Battle of St. Etienne

Book Reviews
Security First

Books by Bruce L. Brager 

The Texas 36th Division

John Paul Jones America's Sailor

There He Stands: The Story Of Stonewall Jackson

The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe

Recommended Reading

Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War

The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe

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Should We Miss the Evil Empire? A Cold War Retrospective
Should We Miss the Evil Empire? A Cold War Retrospective
by Bruce L. Brager

"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."
Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946 [1]

"Due to the situation which has evolved as a result of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."
Mikhail Gorbachev, December 25, 1991 [2]

The Cold War had bookends. The Cold War had a "declaration of war" and a "statement of surrender". Winston Churchill, that master phrasemaker, provided the declaration, not to mention the Cold War's chief catch phrase ("Iron Curtain"), as almost a "throw-away" line in a speech at an obscure Missouri college. The main theme of Churchill's speech was to call for close cooperation, even a military alliance, between the United States and Western Europe, to ensure that the Iron Curtain, which became the term for both the symbolic and real dividing line between democratic Western Europe and Communist Eastern Europe, moved no further to the west.

Forty years later Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to save, not abolish, the Soviet Union. However, restructuring proved impossible. Openness led to people realizing just how impossible it was to save a system not worth saving.

The Soviet Union is gone. More importantly than winning the Cold War, the United States survived the Cold War. The United States still exists, still thrives as either the last best hope of mankind on Earth, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, or as the greatest threat to world peace today, in the recent words of quite a number of non-Americans, or as something in between. The world out there is still quite dangerous. Americans can be hurt, but the United States is likely to be here for a while. The American political system, economy, and life style remain strong, strong enough to survive many an unsure hand at the helm. Things may not seem that way, but Americans are safer today then they were 50 years ago.

For much of the period between the 1945 end of the Second World War and 1989 both sides had the power to obliterate civilization, if not life itself, on the planet. However dangerous, though, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union ended up the only instance in world history where two such deadly rivals did not directly fight a hot war.

We should not miss the "good old days" of the "evil empire." But, we can learn from this period.

When trying to figure out "why we won" historical debate still tends to parallel the policy debates at the time – much light and noise, little heat. Showing the charm so much a part of modern American political discourse, conservatives declare that those liberals who opposed a constant hard line against the Soviets were not only wrong, but were traitors out to destroy the American way of life. Many seem to forget that dissent, however tastelessly it might be manifest, however poorly it might be timed, is a fundamental American value. Dissent is the American way.

Burning Dixie Chicks CDs, however, ranting on the radio, attacking the motivation of widows of firemen killed on the job, and the rest of the nonsense of much conservative policy discourse these days – which fails to make liberals think -- pales in comparison to the behavior of Senator Joe McCarthy, and many others, in the early 1950s. McCarthy and his supporters were a menace to the idea of dissent in this country, especially when they could cost dissenters their jobs. They seemed to think that winning the struggle with our deadly enemy required using the enemy's methods. McCarthy ruined lives, seemingly just for his own pleasure.

Political atmosphere changes almost as much as the Earth's atmosphere. McCarthy's extreme actions helped push the country back to more tolerance for dissent. What is interesting, however, is the unintended damage McCarthy caused. With very strong self-promotional elements, McCarthy seemed to be seeking to discredit communism. There actually were communists in the State Department. The Soviet Union was making an effort to infiltrate the American government, though not to the degree it had done so before World War Two. But any real communists McCarthy might have exposed, or persuaded to resign, were sheer coincidence. McCarthy's methods were so extreme he did far more damage to the idea of vigilant anti-communism and national security then to his intended target.

One might be forgiven for wondering if McCarthy was actually a Soviet agent, expert at psy-war, tasked with discrediting anti-communist vigilance. Of course, though, this may be crediting malevolence to what was more likely just reckless stupidity.

The liberals, and the left, (two terms surprisingly not totally synonymous) also apply ideological illogic to what should be logical policy analyzing the proposing. The left declares the right to have been a mob of deadly warmongers barely prevented from blowing up the planet. They wonder if the right has changed all that much, even with the Soviet Union long on the ash-heap of history. And the right sometimes seems to oblige the left, with their words and with their actions.

The left also plays into the rhetorical hands of the right. They don't bother with such subtle issues as whether we should have fully trusted Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedung, or Saddam Hussein. Our questionable war, and no weapons of mass destruction, did not make Saddam Hussein a good guy.

And, as an aside, our policy mistakes did not make Saddam a smart guy. Was it really a good idea to pretend to have weapons he did not have; the very weapons likely to provoke, or provide the justification, for an attack? We were not the only ones with intelligence failures.

Revisionist historians in the United States -- those who define their mission as changing interpretations, usually putting the United States the other Western cultures in as bad a light as possible, not just reexamining, traditional interpretations and conventional wisdoms -- blame the Cold War on the United States. (Interestingly, post Glasnost Russian historians tend to blame it on the Soviet Union.)

Liberals have long called for an understanding of all cultures and societies. Excellent idea -- understanding one's friends to keep them as friends, understanding one's enemies to deter or defeat them, and understanding those one seeks to influence to find ways to influence them. However, this idea frequently morphs to the idea that one should not make value judgments at all.

The left continues to seem quite happy to judge American society. Arguably, America should be held to higher standards, as it sets higher standards for itself. Constructive criticism of a society can be as valuable as constructive criticism of a person. This criticism would have been more constructive had it looked at ways the Untied States was failing to live up to its principles, and avoided declaring our society to fundamentally rotten to the core. This was not the way to win friends and influence people, the first step, without exception, in implementing any policy.

The right wing was awarded the undeserved high ground on moral issues, with major and continuing political damage to the liberals, without the right having to work to earn the high ground. If one does not respect a person's soul, one will have problems respecting the person's mind, or seeing any value to changing the mind. One will fail to perform a basic function of leadership – changing the mainstream.

We stumbled through the Cold War. Despite the varied history of American policy towards the Soviets, the basic outline of the correct way to handle them was discovered quite early – containment. George Kennan, then a mid-level American diplomat in Moscow, perhaps in spite of himself formulated this policy in his "Long Telegram" in 1946 and in his famous "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in 1947. Kennan later disavowed some of the applications of the policy, but his original ideas worked. Oversimplified -- this policy focused on the ruthlessly opportunistic aspects of Soviet motivation and policy. Don't give them opportunities. Create such things as the Marshall Plan to strengthen "at risk" nations and decrease the popular appeal of communism.

Counter Soviet measures, but do not pose, or seem to pose, an active threat to Soviet national security. Avoid showing weakness that might tempt the Soviets to a first strike. Do not scare them into thinking a first strike is necessary for their own survival. Denied opportunity to expand, the inherent contradictions in the Soviet system will destroy the system. Kennan was correct.

The interesting lesson here in the idea of balance. American political realities made it almost a given that American policy would bounce back and forth, shifting to almost all extremes of the spectrum – fortunately stopping short of surrendering major national interests or starting nuclear war – averaging out to the correct policy. These shifts sometimes confused the Soviets, with their lack of full understanding of our system. Similarly, Soviet policy shifts, frequently motivated by their domestic politics, confused us. Basic understanding of an adversary is as necessary as sophisticated intelligence gathering and analysis. This provides context to the mass of available information, a way of finding patterns and meaning to "mere" facts.

Fortunately, both sides' bouncing sometimes stopped at correct policies – primarily over control of nuclear weapons and "confidence building" measures, ways of avoiding panicking one's opponent into drastic or dangerous actions. In the major area of nuclear weapons, both sides acted with strong doses of realism.

At the very "creation" of the Cold War this country learned the lesson of realism and limits. Almost immediately after the meetings at Yalta ended, American and British leaders were accused of "selling out," of "giving" Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin at the January 1945 Yalta Conference. This complaint ignored the reality that Stalin already controlled most of Eastern Europe, and what he did not have the Soviet armies would soon give him. As Stalin himself said, the presence of armies would arbitrarily decide the post-war local political system.

The Western Allies could, and did, propose dramatic statements of how every nation would be able to choose its form of government, and get Stalin to sign these statements, but there was little they could to force the Soviets to keep their promises. Stalin was not about to take any risk that the Eastern European nations in close proximity to the Soviet Union's heartland would be anything less than active allies. Stalin would act in what he saw as the Soviet Union's interest, and his own interest, and had little compunctions about methods.

Some American political pundits later liked to complain that the Soviets would never agree to anything not in their own interest. This is a curious complaint. Leaders that do not at least pretend to act in their national interest do not last long. Leaders can confuse their personal interest with that of their nation. They may be wrong, but they have to at least pretend to act in the best interest of their nation. Realistic diplomacy, dealing with the world the way it is, recognizes self-interest and tries to bring about enlightened self-interest – finding things good for all parties Don't necessarily accept the world the way it is, that is not leadership, but deal with the world the way it is.

President Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945. His successor, Harry Truman, faced major military and foreign policy issues at the last Big Three meeting, starting July 17, 1945, in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam. Truman entered the continuing debate on how to explain Soviet behavior and on how to deal with this behavior. This debate continues, with Russian historians now able to freely participate.

Some theorists blamed Soviet behavior on defensiveness, to the point of paranoia. Russians have traditionally been defensive regarding the outside world, bordering on xenophobic, fearing and hating those who are different. The Soviet Union was, in this respect, very much the successor state to Imperial Russia.

Soviet/Russian paranoia was fact based. Virtually every great European dictator in the last 400 years, with the exception of Louis XIV of France, has invaded Russia, giving Russians a reason to fear and hate outsiders. The Soviet experience in World War Two, with unbelievably high casualties and damage, only contributed to this fear of foreigners.

When planning his 1941 attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler had told his generals to wage a war of extermination, with no concern for the rules of "civilized" warfare. Hitler got his wish. An estimated 20,000,000 million Soviets died in World War Two, roughly half civilian, half military. The combat took on a "no-quarter" aspect, where both sides fought to the death. What the Soviets had suffered during the war made it inevitable that the first Soviet post-war goals would be to safeguard their territory, by whatever means necessary. This reality would have to be accepted by the Americans and the British.

A second theory of Soviet behavior blamed it on sheer imperial aggressiveness, the Soviets taking over similar tendencies from Tsarist Russia, with Marxist ideology providing an additional motivation for expansion. At the final two "Big Three" meetings, Yalta and Potsdam, the British began to think that the Soviets had inherited czarist Russian expansionism. They also noticed that Stalin seemed to be picking up another imperial habit, trying to engage in some frank horse-trading of areas of influence.

A third theory saw the Soviets as primarily ruthlessly opportunistic. Once the security and control of what was later called the "outer empire" was ensured, once Eastern Europe was under Soviet control, the Soviets would probe for Western weakness, particularly outside the "central front" of Europe, but would only make major moves when they detected an opening. No realistic theory had the Soviet leadership waking up in the morning and saying, "Should we attack today?" But the opportunistic theory did allow for the leadership to wake up and say "What Western weakness can we exploit today?" Paranoia/Russian xenophobia could have the leadership asking "Is the West going to attack us today and do we have to preempt?"

Nuclear deterrence was designed to avoid providing the Soviets opportunity for one final knock out blow against the United States. Even here, uncertainty about when this country would launch nuclear retaliation -- when the first incoming missiles were spotted, or when we saw the size of the attack -- may have been as important as the size of our force. (Another small but significant deterrent element was whether our submarines would launch missiles if ordered to launch, or whether they would attack if communications telling them not to launch were cut off.) Sometimes it is best not to be fully understood by one's enemies.

American foreign aid, starting with the Marshall Plan in 1947, focused on denying the Soviets opportunities. Building up Western European economies was seen as a way to avoid giving the Soviets openings to meddle with and subvert democratic governments. Europeans would not have to choose between a decent economy and democracy. The United States erred in the rest of the world, however, when our government backed less democratic regimes just because they were anti-Communist.

All three theories can explain Soviet behavior, and all could operate to some extent – with an unknown degree of actual belief in Communism thrown in. All required similar Western responses – deterrence through the credible ability to respond to Soviet aggression, active measures to avoid providing targets of opportunity, setting a good example for the rest of the world, and, in perhaps the weakest element for the country, a problem which still seems to exist, effectively gathering and understanding information about our adversary. Even with the increasing release of Soviet documents by the Russians, a single "unified field theory" of Soviet behavior has not been created.

When Truman took office, American policy makers could not look back on a successful Cold War. American policy makers had to react based on what they knew at the time.

The American and British governments could not always tell whether a Soviet move was a response to something the Western Allies did, intentionally or not, signs of the start of a "Communist offensive," or a sheer mistake. American policy makers even joked about these mistakes. Dean Acheson, who served in major American foreign policy positions, including Secretary of State, later wrote Harry Truman "We used to say that in a tight pinch we could generally rely on some fool play of the Russians to pull us through."[3]

The Soviets had the reverse problem. Their command society, with all decisions from the top, lead them to be less likely to consider American and British mistakes as just mistakes. In 1946, for example, the Soviets applied for a reconstruction loan from the United States. When they did not hear, and inquired, they were told the papers had been lost during an agency move in Washington. This reason, perfectly believable to Americans, and likely accurate, was not accepted in Moscow. Despite their ideological teaching about the inherent weaknesses of capitalism, the Soviets seemed to have more respect for the efficiency of the American and British governments than the Americans and the British.

The United States got off to an excellent start in the Cold War with the Marshall Plan, perhaps the most remarkable foreign policy initiative in world history, and NATO -- though NATO was actually a British idea – shutting off Soviet expansion opportunities in Europe. Then, in early 1950, Secretary of State Acheson, who should have known better, described America's "sphere of influence" in Asia. The North Koreans, and the Soviets, noticed it did not include South Korea. They thought they saw an opportunity. The Korean War started within weeks.

The war ended in 1953, after ending Truman's presidency. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the new Republican president, came into office with the idea of "rolling back" Communism. Spin-offs of this idea included taking over from the French in Vietnam in 1954, though initially without sending troops. This also included refusing to accept the idea that any nations could be non-aligned, a fault shared by the Soviet Union, an inflexible attitude that would create problems and lost opportunities.

One tactical error and missed opportunity for the West might have come in Egypt. Egyptian leader Gamel Nasser, one of the early leaders of the "third world," and never a communist, had been content playing off the great powers for Egypt's benefit. He did, however, make a massive purchase of arms from Czechoslovakia in late 1955. In July 1956, in response, the United States refused to aid Egypt in building a dam at Aswan, on the Nile River. The Soviets would eventually provide financing.

That same month, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, seizing control from the British/French consortium running the Canal. The British and French desire to regain control of the Canal soon meshed with Israeli desire to end Egyptian support of terrorist raids into Israel. This crisis played out in October and early November, simultaneously with Soviet efforts in Hungary.

Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, not long after Eisenhower took office. The Soviets, particularly when Nikita Khrushchev emerged as his successor, liberalized domestically and in Eastern Europe – though not as much as the Hungarians thought. Imre Nagy took power in Hungary on October 23, 1956. Six days later, Israel invaded the Sinai Desert. Britain and France, by pre-arrangement, called for both sides to withdraw. Israel agreed. Egypt refused. Britain and France then staged air raids on Egyptian military bases. Britain dispatched armored units -- by ship.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev responded by threatening Paris and London with missiles he did not have. Eisenhower also blustered, as the United States was not about to defend what he saw as European imperial interests. On November 1, with the British tanks still on their leisurely voyage, Israeli forces, moving faster than expected, reached the Suez Canal. The same day, Nagy announced that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact.

Khrushchev, unlike his successors who crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, might have tolerated domestic liberalization. But withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact was striking at what the Soviets perceived as their basic defense needs. Khrushchev was already concerned about events in Hungary; both the practical effects of letting the Hungarians go their own way and the image presented to the West. He told Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia, "If we let things take their course [in Hungary] then the West will say we are either stupid or weak and that's one and the same thing."[4]

On the November 4, at the urging of the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, Yuri Andropov, Soviet troops attacked Budapest. Nagy was overthrown and took shelter in the Yugoslavian embassy. Fighting took several days and killed an estimated 3,000 Hungarians. Many more fled the country. Nagy was eventually tricked out of the embassy by promises of safe conduct, captured, and executed.

The Hungarians hoped for assistance from the West, consistent with the rollback doctrine. On November 4, 1956, at the height of the Soviet attacks on Budapest, a Hungarian cabinet minister broadcast "I appeal to the great powers of the world for a wise and courageous decision in the interest of my enslaved nation and of the liberty of all Eastern European nations."[5] American aid, however, was never a realistic possibility. Eisenhower knew this, and turned down CIA requests to airdrop arms.

Failing to deliver on the promise of the rollback of Communism, a Republican theme for many years, was cynical on Eisenhower's part, but it was also realistic. Probably without even thinking about it, both sides had put in place an effective freeze on conditions in Europe. This was safer than the potential alternative. Both sides could console themselves with philosophical beliefs that the other's system would eventually collapse. We were correct.

British and French paratroops landed in Egypt the same day the Soviets attacked Budapest. Sea forces finally arrived the next day. On November sixth, British and French finally gave in to sharp American criticism, and Soviet threats, and agreed to withdraw. (Israel took several months to agree.) That same day, Eisenhower overwhelmingly won reelection.

A day or so after his reelection, Eisenhower received a message from Nicolai Bulganin, Chairman of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers that "I feel urged to state that the problem of withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary . . . comes completely and entirely under the competence of the Hungarian and Soviet governments."[6] Eisenhower recognized the implications of what Bulganin was saying; that the Iron Curtain had effectively divided Europe into spheres of influence. Short of seriously risking a full-scale war, which it was not prepared to do, the United States could not do anything.

The last crisis in Europe that might have provoked great power confrontation occurred in Berlin in 1961. The Soviets decided to settle the issue of control of the divided city, and to solve the heavy emigration of East Germans to the West. Ironically, the most visible symbol of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, which the Soviets let the East Germans build in 1961, probably settled the crisis without further escalation. Even the highly dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis, 14 months latter, fit into the pattern of superpower confrontation occurring outside of the "central front" in Europe. For the next 28 years, both sides avoid confrontation in the most potentially dangerous area of the world. No changes occurred in the area of the Iron Curtain, the main front, until the fall of 1989, with the symbolic end of the Cold War, and fall of the Iron Curtain, when the Berlin Wall was opened.

What Can We Learn – Why did we win?

One conclusion from the Cold War is clear. All reasonable theories of Soviet behavior, which excluded them being suicidal, called for much the same response. The United States had to remain firm in resisting expansionism, avoid panicking the Soviet leadership, and do its best to avoid providing opportunities – including, as we only belatedly realized, in world financial markets -- for a ruthlessly opportunistic adversary.

Within a consistent overall strategy, flexibility as to method is a major lesson of the Cold War. Massive retaliation, using our heavy nuclear arsenal, might be credited with deterring a direct Soviet attack on the United States; to the degree this was ever considered. But it was not a viable way to stop lesser Soviet adventures. Miscalculation was always a danger. Massive retaliation also implied giving the Soviets permission for a certain degree of aggressiveness, as long as it stayed below limits. A line in the sand lets you go up to the line.

The war on terrorism requires learning the lessons of flexibility; that we have to adopt any method reasonably well thought out and likely to work – work in the sense that it does the job, and minimizes the inevitable unexpected consequences. These consequences include realizing that successful military action, though clearly desirable, is not the end of the story.

Terrorists these days, in a vital difference from the Soviets, are often suicidal. They are not going to be deterred by fear of death. They have to be denied targets of opportunity, by making this country more secure, and by helping to improve economic conditions in their countries. We also, bluntly, have to seek them out and destroy them before they can come after us. And we have to be persistent, as we were in the Cold War, in it for the long haul.

Staying the course includes a better approach to dealing with other nations, our nominal allies and the people in the area of potential involvement. Allies are highly useful tools. It is better to work with allies than without them. But they do not determine American interest. Local people are also better to have on our side, possibly decisively better. The best way to keep these people on our side is to go in only when necessary, stay until the job is done, and then get out as quickly as possible. As David (Davy) Crockett used to say, "Be always sure you are right – THEN GO AHEAD."[7]

Cold War policy makers required good intelligence on what our enemy was doing, what our enemy planned to do, and what it could do. Frequently they did not have this intelligence, and the results were unfortunate. Satellite intelligence provided, and still provides, unparalleled indications of military activity. But one has to question whether the United States ever had sufficient "humint," ever had a really accurate understanding of what the Soviets were thinking.

The growing effectiveness of American signals and visual intelligence, to the point today where intelligence agencies can tell what someone is reading, where they are reading it, and what they say on the phone about it, is awesome. No other nation approaches the American mastery of the technical aspects of intelligence. But this is where our mastery stops.

There can be too much information. There is an old saying, perhaps from Sherlock Holmes, that the best place to hide a needle is not in a haystack but in a bunch of needles. Good information has to be separated from bad information; true gems have to be mined from the mass of useless to downright wrong information. Could the CIA, NSA and other analysts separate the good from the bad? They made enough mistakes to make it clear this was not always possible in the past. Can they do better now?

Can we assume this information will be properly interpreted and that it will serve as the basis for fully considered and correct actions? One has to wonder if the American leadership, and the American people, ever fully understood a basic law of history, the law of unexpected consequences. Actions have consequences, in history like in physics, but in left the consequences are rarely equal or opposite. The way to deal with this law is not to fail to act – inaction is a type of action – but to keep watch, to keep an eye on what happens next.

A vivid example is still in the news. The ill-advised 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided a "target of opportunity" for the United States to do some damage to the Soviets, first by tying them down in an unwinnable war, then to help them actually lose the war. Our efforts worked. However, was it really good to assume, as William Casey, CIA director under Ronald Reagan, assumed that particularly religious Mujahadeen fighters in Afghanistan made particularly good allies of the Christian West in the war against godless communism?

What did we think the Mujahadeen were going to do in 1989, once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan? Maybe Cold War realities made it necessary first to tie down the Soviets, and then to kick them out. But was it really a good idea just to forget about that place once they left? We decided to let the increasingly religious Muslim Pakistani intelligence service, with its own agenda, run our policy. Not even benign neglect, but just neglect, was the focus of our policy for the next several years.

We always had the power to deter the Soviet Union, if the power was properly applied. And, with the perspective of up to half a century, most American policy and operational errors seem to have been obvious, avoiding them equally obvious. But they were not obvious at the time. Understanding, knowing what is going on, and its real meaning and implications, may be the basic lesson of the Cold War. The United States no longer plays for anywhere near as high the stakes as we did. However, the Soviets never killed Americans by direct attacks on American soil. Intelligence, in the sense of gathering and properly interpreting information, is more important than ever. Intelligence, in the sense of thinking, has always been vital.

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Show Footnotes and Sources

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Copyright © 2007 Bruce L. Brager.

Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:

About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty published articles.

Published online: 06/24/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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