The domino theory was a foreign policy theory, promoted by the government of the United States, that speculated that if one land in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. The domino effect suggests that some change, small in itself, will cause a similar change nearby, which then will cause another similar change, and so on in linear sequence, by analogy to a falling row of dominoes standing on end. The domino theory was used by successive United States administrations during the Cold War to justify American intervention around the world.
Referring to communism in Indochina, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower put the theory into words during an April 7, 1954 news conference:
“ Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the "falling domino" principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences. ”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower
In 1945, the Soviet Union brought most of the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Europe under its influence as part of the post-World War II settlement, prompting Winston Churchill to declare in a speech in 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri that:
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an "iron curtain" has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."
In 1947, Harry Truman declared what became known as the Truman Doctrine, promising to contribute financial aid to Greece and Turkey following World War II, in the hope that this would impede the advancement of Communism into Western Europe. Later that year, diplomat George Kennan wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine that became known as the "X Article", which first articulated the policy of containment, arguing that the further spread of Communism to countries outside a "buffer zone" around the USSR, even if democratically elected, was unacceptable and a threat to U.S. national security. Kennan was also involved, along with others in the Truman administration, in creating the Marshall Plan, which also began in 1947, to give aid to the countries of Western Europe (along with Greece and Turkey), in large part with the hope of keeping them from falling under Soviet domination.
In 1949, China became a Communist country (officially the People's Republic of China) after Chinese Communist rebels defeated the Nationalist Republican government in the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War (1927~1949). Two Chinas were formed - mainland 'Communist China' (People's Republic of China) and 'Nationalist China' Taiwan (Republic of China). The takeover by Communists of the world's most populous nation was seen in the West as a great strategic loss, prompting the popular question at the time, "Who lost China?"
Korea had also fallen under Soviet domination at the end of World War II, and in 1950 fighting broke out between Communists and Republicans that soon involved troops from China (on the Communists' side), and the United States and 15 allied countries (on the Republicans' side). The war ended in 1953 with an armistice that left Korea divided into two nations, North Korea and South Korea.
In March 1954, the Viet Minh, a Communist and nationalist army, defeated French troops and took control of what became North Vietnam. This caused the French to fully withdraw from the region then known as French Indochina, a process it had begun earlier. The region was now comprised of four independent countries: North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
President Eisenhower was the first to refer to countries in danger of Communist takeover as dominoes, in response to a journalist's question about Indochina in an April 7, 1954 news conference, though he did not use the term "domino theory". If Communists succeeded in taking over the rest of Indochina, Eisenhower argued, local groups would then have the encouragement, material support and momentum to take over Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Indonesia; all of these countries had large popular Communist movements and insurgencies within their borders at the time. This would give them a geographical and economic strategic advantage, and it would make Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand the frontline defensive states. The loss of regions traditionally within the vital regional trading area of countries like Japan would encourage the frontline countries to compromise politically with communism.
Eisenhower's domino theory of 1954 was a specific description of the situation and conditions within Southeast Asia at the time, and he did not suggest a generalized domino theory as others did afterward.
The John F. Kennedy administration intervened in Vietnam in the early 1960s to, among other reasons, keep the South Vietnamese "domino" from falling. When Kennedy came to power there was concern that the communist-dominated Pathet Lao in Laos would provide the National Liberation Front with bases, and that eventually they could take over Laos.
Arguments in favor of the domino theory
The primary evidence for the domino theory is the communist takeover of three Southeast Asian countries in 1975, following the United States pulling its troops out of the region at the end of the Vietnam War: South Vietnam (by the Viet Cong), Laos (by the Pathet Lao), and Cambodia (by the Khmer Rouge).
Walt Rostow and Lee Kuan Yew have argued that the U.S. intervention in Indochina, by giving the nations of ASEAN time to consolidate and engage in economic growth, prevented a wider domino effect. McGeorge Bundy argues that the prospects for a domino effect, though high in the 1950s and early 1960s, were weakened in 1965 when the Indonesian communist party was destroyed. However, proponents ultimately believe that the efforts during the containment (i.e. Domino Theory) period, ultimately led the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Some supporters of the domino theory note the history of communist governments supplying aid to communist revolutionaries in neighboring countries. For instance, China supplied the Vietminh, the North Vietnamese army, with troops and supplies, and the Soviet Union supplied them with tanks and heavy weapons. The fact that the Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge were both originally part of the Vietminh, not to mention Hanoi's support for both in conjunction with the Viet Cong, also give credence to the theory.
Arguments against the domino theory
The primary evidence against the domino theory is the failure of Communism to take hold in Thailand, Indonesia, and other large Southeast Asian countries after the end of the Vietnam War, as Eisenhower's speech warned it could. Although proponents of this policy argue that this was due in part to the effects of both the Korean and the Vietnam conflicts.
Critics of the theory charged that the Indochinese wars were largely indigenous or nationalist in nature (such as the Vietnamese driving out the French), and that no such monolithic force as "world communism" existed. There was indeed fracturing of communist states at the time, the most serious of which was the rivalry between the Soviet Union and China, known as the Sino-Soviet split, in the 1950s. This split led to tensions between Vietnam and Cambodia, since Vietnam had affiliated itself with the USSR and Cambodia with China, tensions exacerbated by the flood of Cambodian refugees into Vietnam beginning in 1975. This led to the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, which lasted from 1975 to 1989, and reached its apex in 1979, when Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge and took control of Cambodia. This in turn led China to attack Vietnam in 1979 in the brief Sino-Vietnamese War.
In both cases, the Vietnam war spread over the borders of Vietnam into these countries. And Vietnam had imperial and political regional ambitions with regard to both countries. The fall of Laos was due to repeated outright invasions by Vietnam and the inability of the army of Laos to defend the country. The fall of Cambodia was due to the Cambodian government allowing North Vietnam to use the country as a base area for its attacks on South Vietnam which dragged the country into the Vietnam war and led to first the Khmer Rouge and then after to military rule for many years by Vietnam.
Opponents also argued that the domino theory misrepresented the real nature of the widespread and growing civil opposition that the previous, U.S.-backed regimes in these countries had generated because of entrenched official corruption and widespread human rights abuses, notably in South Vietnam.
Some critics have charged that the theory was used as a propaganda scare tactic to try to justify unwarranted intervention policies.
Applications to Communism outside Southeast Asia
Michael Lind has argued that though the domino theory failed regionally, there was a global wave, as communist or Marxist-Leninist regimes came to power in Benin, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola, Afghanistan, Grenada, and Nicaragua during the 1970s. The global interpretation of the domino effect relies heavily upon the "prestige" interpretation of the theory, meaning that the success of Communist revolutions in some countries, though it did not provide material support to revolutionary forces in other countries, did contribute morale and rhetorical support. In this vein, Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara wrote an essay, in 1967, calling for "one, two, many Vietnams" across the world. Historian Max Boot wrote, "In the late 1970s, America's enemies seized power in countries from Mozambique to Iran to Nicaragua. American hostages were seized aboard the SS Mayaguez (off Cambodia) and in Tehran. The Red Army invaded Afghanistan. There is no obvious connection with the Vietnam War, but there is little doubt that the defeat of a superpower encouraged our enemies to undertake acts of aggression that they might otherwise have shied away from."
In addition, this theory can be further bolstered by the rise in terrorist incidents by left-wing terrorist groups in Western Europe, funded in part by Communist governments, between the 1960s and 1980s. In Italy, this includes the kidnapping and assassination of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, and the kidnapping of former US Brigadier General James L. Dozier, by the Red Brigades. In West Germany, this includes the terrorist actions of the Red Army Faction. In the United Kingdom the Provisional IRA committed many terrorist attacks while receiving weapons from the Soviet Union, In the far east the Japanese Red Army carried out similar acts. All four, as well as others worked with various Arab and Palestinian terrorists, which like the red brigades were backed by the Soviet Bloc.
In the 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews Richard Nixon defended America's destablization of the Salvador Allende regime in Chile on domino theory grounds. Borrowing a metaphor he had heard, he stated that a Communist Chile and Cuba would create a "red sandwich" that could entrap Latin America between them. In the 1980s, the domino theory was used again to justify the Reagan administration's interventions in Central America and the Caribbean region.
According to Debka.com (an Israeli intelligence and propaganda website), Abu Hafiza, a member of Al-Qaeda and one of the masterminds of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, felt that correctly-timed terror attacks against countries involved in the Iraq War could help defeat pro-war Western leaders one at a time, writing "After knocking over one domino after another, we will stand face to face with the key domino, the United States."
Some foreign policy analysts in the United States have referred to the potential spread of both Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy in the Middle East as two different possibilities for a domino theory. During the Iran-Iraq war the United States and other western nations supported Iraq, fearing the spread of Iran's radical theocracy throughout the region. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq neoconservatives argued that by invading Iraq a democratic government could be implemented, which would then help spread democracy and liberalism across the Middle East; this has often been referred to as a "reverse domino theory".
The War and the Peace: The Pentagon's dubious plans.
By Robert Wright April 1, 2003
You can chart Donald Rumsfeld's waning confidence in the American war plan by his changing description of its authorship.
Last Tuesday, when the plan was starting to draw criticism but could still plausibly be called on-track, Rumsfeld said, "We've all been deeply involved, and the plan has been a plan that's been approved by all the commanders, and by—and needless to say—General Myers and General Pace and Don Rumsfeld and the president of the United States. And it is a good plan." Three days later, with the march toward Baghdad clearly stalled and the Pentagon's strategy coming under withering fire, Rumsfeld put it this way: "The war plan is Tom Franks' war plan. It was carefully prepared over many months."
For MSN's complete coverage of the conflict in Iraq, click here.But there will be time enough after the war to sort out the blame and/or credit for it (and to decide which administration officials most shamelessly deserted their comrades in the heat of battle). Meanwhile, a bigger question: What does the administration's general underestimation of the war's difficulty—which went well beyond Rumsfeld—say about the postwar situation? Does a surprisingly hard war mean a surprisingly hard peace?
First, the unexpectedly fierce Iraqi resistance doesn't necessarily mean American troops won't eventually be welcomed by cheering Iraqis. The notable shortage of grass-roots bonhomie in Iraq to date probably has more to do with fear of Saddam Hussein than affection for him, as hawks have pointed out. Until the fear is gone, we won't know exactly what lies beneath it.
On the other hand, as the war drags on, any stifled sympathy for the American invasion will tend to evaporate. As more civilians die and more Iraqis see their "resistance" hailed across the Arab world as a watershed in the struggle against Western imperialism, the traditionally despised Saddam could gain appreciable support among his people. So, the Pentagon's failure to send enough troops to take Baghdad fairly quickly could complicate the postwar occupation, to say nothing of the war itself. The Bush administration's prewar expectation of broad Iraqi support for the invasion may turn out to be a self-defeating prophecy.
There's a deeper sense in which the early difficulty of the war bodes ill for the ensuing peace—by casting massive doubt on the credibility of some architects of that peace. It seems clearer and clearer that a key driving force behind this war is a neoconservative plan to transform the entire Middle East—a reverse domino theory in which regime change in Iraq triggers regime change, and ultimately democratization, across the region. As Joshua Marshall recently noted in the Washington Monthly, this plan is mega-ambitious and very risky. Its success depends on lots of variables falling the right way. We can only hope that the people who hatched this idea and sold it to President Bush have due respect for contingency and aren't prone to wishful thinking.
Yet some of the plan's most influential advocates—Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle—are among those who most consistently understated the difficulty of war. Perle was egregious: "Support for Saddam, including within his military organization, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder." Given the failure of this first step in Perle's master plan to unfold as guaranteed, I'm not feeling too good about the subsequent steps—the part where Iraq's authoritarian neighbors yield to benign democracy through some magical process that has never been officially spelled out. (Nicholas Lemann got Pentagon aides to go on the record with some of the details in an important and scary New Yorker piece last month. And speaking of scary: it's possible, as some have long argued, that all this democracy talk is just a facade for a strategy eerily reminiscent of old-fashioned imperialism.)
Administration officials have hailed the creative brutality of Iraq's wartime strategy—civilians shields, etc.—as validating their prewar depiction of Saddam. To anyone familiar with his past, Rumsfeld said on Friday, Saddam's tactics "ought not to be a surprise." Well, then why was the administration surprised?
Rumsfeld insists that he, for one, wasn't. He says that all along he's had plenty of troops in the pipeline, and they'll be in Iraq within weeks. But if that's true—if Pentagon officials knew that stiff resistance was a real possibility, yet didn't insist on reinforcements being immediately available—then there's even more cause for concern about their grasp of geopolitical reality.
It isn't just that, as noted above, the Iraqi people will grow more hostile to the United States as the war lingers on—and American soldiers kill more civilians and Saddam has more time to kill his own civilians and blame it on Americans (a tactic that, remember, doesn't surprise Don Rumsfeld!). It's that Muslims all over the world are watching the same show, and they are not amused.
Even assuming Muslim rage doesn't produce a worst-case scenario—say, regime change in Pakistan that puts nuclear arms in the hands of terrorists—there is still plenty to worry about, most notably the next generation of anti-American terrorism quietly incubating in the hearts and minds of adolescent Al Jazeera watchers around the world. Further, anti-American Muslims—already trickling into Iraq from Jordan—could start showing up in larger numbers, including the occasional suicide bomber (who will make American troops even more jittery, leading to more dead Iraqi civilians for Al Jazeera to highlight, and so on). Every week that this war drags on is a week in which bad things can happen, and Rumsfeld's seeming indifference to this fact does not inspire confidence. (According to Marshall's Washington Monthly piece, the zanier neocons may actually welcome growing Muslim hatred of the United States as somehow advancing their grand design—a reductio ad absurdum if there ever was one.)
Of course, the administration may yet proceed with a fairly prompt move on Baghdad—i.e., without waiting for the 4th Infantry Division to arrive in mid-April. But approaching Baghdad with less than overwhelming force will probably mean more civilian casualties. The fewer ground troops we have, the more bombs we use; and the more precarious a soldier's position, the less picky he'll be about whom he shoots. So, the total amount of bad American karma pumped into the Muslim world will still be higher than it would have been if Rumsfeld had listened to his generals and put more troops on the ground to begin with. (For details on how we wound up in this predicament, read Slate's Fred Kaplan on a) how the pre-invasion war games may have been rigged; and b) the "transformational" military doctrine that has enamored some in the Pentagon.)
And now for a shocking admission: I, too, thought the war would be relatively quick. I predicted in this magazine that within two weeks of the war's first shot, loyalty to Saddam would start to crumble—a prediction that has about 48 hours before the life drains out of it. But that was the optimistic note in a fundamentally pessimistic assessment. I was arguing that this war—without U.N. authorization, and without U.N. inspectors having found a smoking gun—was on balance a mistake even if it went quickly, given the long-term blowback. In contrast, Wolfowitz and Perle championed a grand strategic vision that features an intricate series of rosy scenarios. So, the past week's evidence that they're prone to wishful thinking casts doubt on their whole argument.
In retrospect, there were good reasons to doubt that this war would go as smoothly as other American wars of the past 13 years. For example: Unlike them, this is a war in which we both a) are fighting people in their homeland, not just kicking them out of someone else's; and b) have no major, organized indigenous ground force to help us do the dirty work. But, once the geopolitics of the situation had convinced me that any essentially unilateral war would be a mistake, I didn't reflect long and hard on exactly how messy (and thus exactly how bad an idea) such a war would be.
Also, I made the mistake of putting some trust in talking heads—all those can-do TV military analysts, and even people like Wolfowitz and Perle. I had always assumed that the administration's hawks do understand war, even if they don't understand geopolitics. Turns out I was only half right.
President Bush's analogy to Iraq is not inaccurate, just incomplete.
by MAX BOOT August 24, 2007
Ever since the mid-1970s, critics of American military involvement have warned that any decision to deploy armed forces abroad--in Lebanon and El Salvador in the 1980s, in Kuwait, Somalia, and Kosovo in the 1990s, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan--would result in "another Vietnam." Conversely, supporters of those interventions have adamantly resisted any Vietnam comparisons.
President George W. Bush boldly abandoned that template with his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Wednesday. In a skillful bit of political jujitsu, he cited Vietnam not as evidence that the Iraq War is unwinnable, but to argue that the costs of giving up the fight would be catastrophic--just as they were in Southeast Asia.
This has met with predictable and angry denunciations from antiwar advocates who argue that the consequences of defeat in Vietnam weren't so grave. After all, isn't Vietnam today an emerging economic power that is cultivating friendly ties with the U.S.?
True, but that's 30 years after the fact. In the short-term, the costs of defeat were indeed heavy. More than a million people perished in the killing fields of Cambodia, while in Vietnam, those who worked with American forces were consigned, as Mr. Bush noted, to prison camps "where tens of thousands perished." Many more fled as "boat people," he continued, "many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea."
That assessment actually understates the terrible repercussions from the American defeat, whose ripples spread around the world. In the late 1970s, America's enemies seized power in countries from Mozambique to Iran to Nicaragua. American hostages were seized aboard the SS Mayaguez (off Cambodia) and in Tehran. The Red Army invaded Afghanistan. It is impossible to prove the connection with the Vietnam War, but there is little doubt that the enfeeblement of a superpower encouraged our enemies to undertake acts of aggression that they might otherwise have shied away from. Indeed, as Mr. Bush noted, jihadists still gain hope from what Ayman al Zawahiri accurately describes as "the aftermath of the collapse of the American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents."
The problem with Mr. Bush's Vietnam analogy is not that it is inaccurate, but that it is incomplete. As he noted, "The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech." If he chooses to return to the subject in future speeches, there are some other parallels he could invoke:
• The danger of prematurely dumping allied leaders. A chorus of voices in Washington, led by Sens. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton, is calling on Iraqis to replace Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Even Mr. Bush and his ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, have expressed disappointment with Mr. Maliki. They have been careful, however, to refrain from any calls for his ouster. That's wise, because we know from our experience in Vietnam the dangers of switching allied leaders in wartime.
In the early 1960s, American officials were frustrated with Ngo Dinh Diem, and in 1963 the Kennedy administration sanctioned a coup against him, in the hope of installing more effective leadership in Saigon. The result was the opposite: a succession of weak leaders who spent most of their time plotting to stay in power. In retrospect it's obvious that, for all his faults, we should have stuck with Diem.
Today we should stick with Mr. Maliki, imperfect as he is. He took office little more than a year ago after his predecessor, Ibraham al Jaffari, was forced out by American pressure for being ineffectual. The fact that we are bemoaning the same shortcomings in both Messrs. Jaffari and Maliki suggests that the problems are not merely personal but institutional. The Iraqi constitution, written at American instigation, gives little power to the prime minister. The understandable desire was to ward off another dictator, but we shouldn't now be complaining that the prime minister isn't able to exercise as much authority as we would like.
The only hope for long-term political progress is to limit the power of the militias--the real powers--which must start by curbing the violence which gives them much of their raison d'être. That is what the forces under Gen. David Petraeus's command are now doing. We'll need considerably more progress on the security front before we can expect any substantial political progress at the national level. In the meantime, we shouldn't hold Mr. Maliki to unrealistic expectations as we did with Diem.
• The danger of winning militarily and losing politically. In 1968, after Gen. Creighton Abrams took over as the senior U.S. military commander in South Vietnam, he began to change the emphasis from the kind of big-unit search-and-destroy tactics that Gen. William Westmoreland had favored, to the sort of population-protection strategy more appropriate for a counterinsurgency. Over the next four years, even as the total number of American combat troops declined, the communists lost ground.
By 1972 most of the south was judged secure and the South Vietnamese armed forces were able to throw back the Easter Offensive with help from lots of American aircraft but few American soldiers. If the U.S. had continued to support Saigon with a small troop presence and substantial supplies, there is every reason to believe that South Vietnam could have survived. It was no less viable than South Korea, another artificial state kept in existence by force of arms over many decades. But after the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, we all but cut off South Vietnam, even while its enemies across the borders continued to be resupplied by their patrons in Moscow and Beijing.
Following in Abrams's footsteps, Gen. Petraeus is belatedly pursuing classic counterinsurgency strategies that are paying off. The danger is that American politicians will prematurely pull the plug in Iraq as they did in Vietnam. If they do so, the consequences will be even worse, since Iraq is much more important strategically than Vietnam ever was.
• The danger of allowing enemy sanctuaries across the border. This a parallel that Mr. Bush might not be so eager to cite, because in many ways he is repeating the mistakes of Lyndon Johnson, who allowed communist forces to use safe rear areas in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam to stage attacks into South Vietnam. No matter how much success American and South Vietnamese forces had, there were always fresh troops and supplies being smuggled over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Something similar is happening today in Iraq. Dozens of Sunni jihadists are entering Iraq from Syria every month. While not huge in absolute numbers, they are estimated to account for 80% to 90% of suicide attacks. The National Intelligence Estimate released yesterday finds that "Damascus is providing support" to various groups in Iraq "in a bid to increase Syrian influence." Meanwhile, the NIE notes, Iran "has been intensifying" its support for Shiite extremists, leading to a dramatic rise in attacks using explosively formed penetrators that can punch through any armor in the American arsenal.
The Bush administration has cajoled and threatened these states to stop their interference in Iraqi affairs, but their pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears. For all of Mr. Bush's reputed bellicosity, he has backed away from taking the kind of actions that might cause Syria and Iran to mend their ways. He has not, for instance, authorized "hot pursuit" of terrorists by American forces over the Iraqi border. Until the U.S. does more to cut off support for extremists within Iraq, it will be very difficult to get a grip on the security situation.
• The danger of not making plans for refugees. One of the great stains on American honor in Indochina was the horrible fate suffered by so many Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who put their trust in us. When the end came we left far too many of them in the lurch, consigning them to prison, death or desperate attempts to escape.
There are many Iraqis who would be left in equally dire straits should the U.S. pull all or even a substantial portion of its forces out of the country. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have worked closely with our forces, whether as translators, security guards, police officers, civil servants or cabinet ministers. Many have already been targeted for death, and need to flee for their lives. Yet so far we have been accepting only a trickle of Iraqi refugees to our shores--a mere 200 in the first six months of this year.
We should take steps now to assure all those Iraqis who cooperate with us that visas and means of evacuation will be available to them if necessary. The U.S. government has been reluctant to do this for fear of admitting the possibility of failure, and perhaps facilitating an even greater "brain drain" from Iraq. But it would actually be easier for many to stay and serve in Iraq if they know that they and their families have a personal "exit strategy."
This does not, of course, exhaust the possible analogies between Iraq and Vietnam. Nor is it meant to suggest the parallels are exact; there are in fact substantial differences. Any historical comparison has to be handled with care and not swallowed whole. But there are important lessons to be learned from our Vietnam experience, and as President Bush noted, they are not necessarily the ones drawn by the doves who have made Vietnam "their" war.
Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War Made New: Weapons, Warriors and the Making of the Modern World" (Gotham Books)
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