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Things I Did Not Anticpate

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A Ross Douthat column I agree with almost entirely. In particular, I agree that JFK deserves far more of the blame for Vietnam than he usually gets, and I don’t find assertions that he was going to extricate the U.S. from that quagmire remotely plausible.

And while Frank Rich is a half-step better than Oliver Stone in the sense that at least he doesn’t seem to believe that JFK was some kind of left-wing radical who threatened the establishment, he still relies on the same kind of half-assed functionalism as Stone (and Naomi Wolf.)   The fact that lots of people hated JFK doesn’t prove that this caused Oswald to assassinate him.

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  • I also think the idea that JFK, who was a strong anti-communist cold warrior, was going to pull out of Indochina and allow the Vietcong and Pathet Lao to triumph to be a fantasy trope of Camelot fan boys. When it came to stopping communist expansion in Asia JFK was definitely in the camp of muscular containment. His administration saw the use of the CIA to support Vang Pao’s secret army in Laos and military “advisers” that were actually involved in combat in S. Vietnam. Faced with the choice of letting Vietnam be unified under the regime in Hanoi or full scale intervention along the lines of LBJ, I am pretty sure he would have opted for the latter.

    • timb

      He pledged war with China over two freaking islands off the coast of Taiwan/Formosa….you better believe he would have filled SE Asia with Americans

      • I believe you are talking about Quemoy and Matsu, both still under the administration of the R.O.C. based on Taiwan.

        • timb

          Yes and he and Nixon argued about who would be more likely to go to war over them if China seized them. World War over two tiny pieces of earth

      • Richard

        I don’t think he pledged war. He made a “commitment” in his debates with Nixon that was, to say the least, ill-advised, but it was a cynical argument to show that he was a tough guy against Communism and was promptly forgotten after the debate and clearly after he became President. I don’t think you can use that statement as a predictor of what he would do several years later in a war that was not going well.

    • ploeg

      Anybody who read The Best And The Brightest would know that JFK would have pulled out of Indochina in his third term.

      Seriously, in all likelihood JFK would have skipped the Marines and gone straight to Phoenix.

      • Bill Murray

        He would send in MacGyver?

      • Murc

        Is there really STILL a Kennedy cult?

        I’m no longer young, but I’m young-ish, and the Kennedy stuff seemed old and dated back in the 90s when the X-Files was running interminable plotlines about it. Do people still give a damn?

        • elm

          People in their sixties and seventies still give a damn. Plenty of people at the time were enthralled by the glamor of the Kennedies and didn’t notice the politics.

  • mark f

    In one of the more amusing responses to this column — which expresses something remarkable to pretty much no one except Chris Matthews — Power Line asserts that “Zoo-ey mama!,” “tak[ing] on the ‘Kennedy Cult'” “could easily get [the ‘barely-tolerated’ Douthat] fired from his post.”

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      I’m always amazed at the extent to which wingnuts seem to assume that the Oliver Stone line on JFK is nearly universally held by “the left.”

      • mark f

        I also enjoy the “Kennedy was a tax cutter who’d be a Republican now” meme. If any Republican advocated for a 70% top marginal rate and appointed AFL-CIO lawyers to SCOTUS I might actually for one.

        • Njorl

          The Kennedy tax cut was probably the only one crossing the turning point of the Laffer curve.

  • howard

    Jfk was absolutely a cold warrior; the only reason to believe he might have changed is that bobby did.

    • ploeg

      That decision was probably catalyzed by RFK being outside the administration, and even then, that change took an awful damn long time to set.

      • ploeg, i couldn’t agree more: all i’m doing is citing the only piece of evidence that exists that jfk wouldn’t have escalated just like lbj.

        • ploeg

          Not trying to contradict you, just sayin’.

    • John

      That Kennedy was willing to stand up to his advisors and make a deal about missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t mean anything?

      • howard

        it means that he didn’t want to go down in whatever was left of history as the man who started world war iii.

        it doesn’t mean a thing in terms of vietnam, no.

        • witless chum

          The other way to look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, is that Kennedy was reckless enough to prefer a public confrontation with the Soviets to a nice, quiet missile trade.

  • I read this column really hoping to find something to disagree with. But no, Douthat is pretty much dead on.

    • DocAmazing

      You have to engage in some Olympic-level hand-waving to characterize Oswald as pro-Castro (he was in the employ of an anti-Castro organizer during his Fair Play for Cuba activities) and as having shot at General Walker (the evidence for which is, shall we say, slender).

    • Halloween Jack

      Seriously? Douthat points to this Christopher Hitchens piece in the Atlantic, which, after a pointless section on Patrick Kennedy dodging a DUI charge (of all the things that, you know, Hitchens would criticize someone for), fantasizes about a third Eisenhower term; never mind that Ike had already had a heart attack and stroke by the time he left office.

  • Walt

    If you’re ever in Dallas, I recommend going to the assassination museum they have in the old Texas Book Depository. You can stand in the window where Oswald shot from. They have a marker on the street where JFK’s car was — it’s just not that far from the window. I think Oswald could have got him with an atlatl.

  • Lee

    This is the best Douthat column that I ever read, which isn’t saying that much, but on this issue is practically completely right.

    My guess that Kennedy nostalgia exists because his presidency occured during a time of prosperity for most Americans and if you were a White American it was peaceful besides the Cuban Missle Crisis. Than Kennedy was assassinated and everything seemed to go to hell when what really happened was that all problems that were simmering reach full boil. People are confusing correlation with causation. If JFK had to full terms than he’d probably be not so well remembered because he would have been worse domestically and foreign policy wise than LBJ probably. LBJ was better in implementing domestic policy and Kennedy would have been more hawkish on Vietnam probably escalating it into Laos and Cambodia.

    • timb

      And, Kennedy would have never passed the Civil Rights of 64 and 65, whereas Johnson could

      • c u n d gulag

        What you two said!

      • Njorl

        I think this is an interesting point.

        Johnson would never have passed them either, without the enormous majorities he had in both houses of congress. Kennedy’s death was probably responsible to a significant degree for getting those majorities. Goldwater wouldn’t have seemed like such a dangerous reactionary if Kennedy hadn’t been shot.

        Kennedy’s greatest achievemnet was probably successful posthumus martyrdom. Like many martyrs, he was assigned a cause after death.

        • djw

          Johnson would never have passed them either, without the enormous majorities he had in both houses of congress. Kennedy’s death was probably responsible to a significant degree for getting those majorities.

          The CRA of 1964 was passed with the same Congress we had when Kennedy was shot, many months prior to the landslide of 1964.

    • Fighting between US and North Vietnamese backed forces was already going on in Laos under Kennedy. As I mentioned above Vang Pao’s “secret army” in Laos was being armed by the CIA in the early 1960s to fight against the Pathet Lao. The North Vietnamese provided assistance to the Pathet Lao.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      ….if you were a White American it was peaceful besides the Cuban Missle Crisis.

      There was also the Berlin Crisis. It was certainly a time of prosperity for a broad, white middle class, but the Cold War was rarely scarier than it was during the Kennedy administration.

      Indeed, LBJ feared that the Soviet might be behind–or be seen by the public as being behind–the Kennedy assassination and that World War III might be triggered as a result. As best we can tell, this was the real motivation for the official rush to judgment that led to the Warren Commission.

    • my guess is that kennedy nostalgia exists because of his youth.

      remember: his predecessor was ike, his opponent was nixon. in comparison, he was sexy, funny, and distinctly youthful (for a real-time sense, read norman mailer’s “superman comes to the supermarket”).

      and suddenly, in the first assassination of a president in decades, he was struck down in his mid-40s.

      i think that’s why there remains a sense of loss associated with jfk, even if his actual performance as president was nothing to admire.

      • witless chum

        This is approximately the way my mom, who was born in 1946 explained it. The fact that he was young enough to have little kids in the White House meant a lot to people, she said, after Ike, who was somewhat doddering in comparison.

  • David W.

    All JFK was doing was continuing along the path Eisenhower started down when Vietnam was partitioned in 1955 along Communist and non-Communist lines. The future war was baked in at that point no matter what JFK or LBJ did, other than allow South Vietnam to fall as Nixon/Ford finally did.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Let’s not get carried away in praising Douthat.

    Yes, the column is correct in its general argument (and, yes, that is surprising), but along the way he indulges in some passing Clenis hysteria.

    And though I haven’t read Stephen King’s latest novel, judging from reviews, this Douthat claim seems a bit off:

    But its narrative power still depends on accepting the false premises of the Kennedy cult — premises that will no doubt endure so long as the 1960s generation does, but still deserve to be challenged at every opportunity.

    Doesn’t its narrative power derive from its characters’ accepting the false premises of the Kennedy cult? Though I suppose, its interest derives in part from its readers’ acceptance of it (which may be one of the reasons I don’t plan to read it).

    Also the concluding paragraph:

    This last example suggests why the J.F.K. cult matters — because its myths still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.

    This is Anti-Obama Wingnuttery Lite: “charisma,” “celebrity,” “fine words.” It’s a wonder Douthat didn’t mention that Kennedy used a TelePrompTer! There was more wrong than right with the Kennedy Administration (on this I agree with Douthat and most of my fellow historians), but its problems didn’t flow from Kennedy’s charisma any more than Obama’s problems flow from his.

    • phew! i was getting worried that i might actually have to read it!

      • Halloween Jack

        No worries; Douthat spoils it for you in the same column.

    • The three “myths” are pretty weak, actually – if you find yourself agreeing with Douthat’s framework it’s because you’re projecting a case onto his thin column, not because he’s making a case. I guess that makes it easier to agree with him – because you’re actually agreeing with yourself.

      His final paragraph doesn’t fit with his column, nor does it mesh with his own body of work. Let’s hear him take on his own icons. Next column, Ronald Reagan?

    • dave

      “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement”

      Palin? Perry? GWB?

      If that’s ‘anti-Obama’ language, he’s throwing stones in a big ol’ glass house.

  • TT

    I think the historical record is more complicated on the issue of Kennedy and withdrawal from VN than many declare it to be. Certainly in 1961, particularly after his disastrous initial meeting with Khrushchev, he saw defeating the insurgency there as a decisive conflict. However, by summer 1963 his attitude toward Diem had cooled to the point where he was openly questioning the legitimacy of the RVN government. His own government had become badly split on the issue, and by late 1963 it was increasingly difficult to figure out which side Kennedy came down on.

    I’m not saying Kennedy would have withdrawn completely, but there is some evidence that he had decided in favor of drawing down the advisory presence, a possible precursor to eventual negotiations. True, he gave Lodge the go-ahead for US backing of the 11/63 coup, thus ultimately enmeshing the US further in the country’s politics. Perhaps he figured that the ARVN generals would give him a better hand with which to play. And whether he could have withstood the politicl heat of attempting to withdraw and negotiate in the aftermath of such a momentous decision is anybody’s guess.

    What I am saying is that proponents of the Of Course JFK Would Have Escalated school do not have as airtight a case as they assume, and have to do better than simply relying on the “but he was a Cold Warrior!” argument.

    • Richard

      Good point. The plain fact is that we don’t know what he would have done. Everybody in the mainstream of the Democratic Party who had a chance at the presidency was a “cold warrior”. Many evolved from that. And even among the “cold warriors”, there were lots of nuances.

      With regard to the Civil Rights Bills, I think its true that he could not have passed them (and, of course, Johnson did) but their passing had as much to do with the fact of JFK’s death and the attempt to do something for his legacy as it had to do with Johnson’s political prowess.

      • howard

        richard, it’s precisely because the mainstream of the democratic party was “cold warrior” that it’s hard to imagine jfk behaving significantly differently than lbj.

        after all, when fulbright, for example, started to oppose the war, did the mainstream of the democratic party embrace his position? when as late as december, 1967, when mccarthy announced that someone had to oppose vietnam escalation and it may as well be him, did anyone in the democratic party mainstream endorse him?

        as we are currently seeing in the euro disaster, it’s very hard for politicians who have embraced a way of thought (jfk and “cold warriorhood,” merkel and tight money) to evolve in office.

        • Richard

          I’m not saying that he would have changed positions, I’m saying that we can’t be sure. If I had to bet, I would agree that it is more likely than not that he would have done what LBJ did but I don’t think that is a slam dunk argument. My point is the one made by TT- that the historical record is complicated.

          • howard

            it’s entirely possible that, had richard nixon not resigned, he would have had an awakening and turned into a socialist: after all, we don’t know he wouldn’t have.

            • Richard

              Yes, heavy handed satire wins an argument every time. I think there is a big difference in the odds of Nixon going socialist and JFK deciding not to send a half million troops to Vietnam.

              • richard, if you’re going to make an argument like “we just don’t know enough,” then you have to expect heavy-handed sarcasm in return.

                the fact is, there is no documented reason at all to believe that jfk had any qualms about us engagement in vietnam: tt didn’t bring any such facts to bear (because, to the best of my knowledge, they don’t exist).

                now, as i said above, bobby kennedy did come around, but not in 1963, not in 1964, not in 1965, not in 1966, and bobby was already more progressive than his brother.

                (let’s also note that it’s not like lbj brought in a whole new set of advisers and policymakers)

                so if you’ve got some documentation, bring it on: otherwise, hand-waving about how we just can’t know isn’t very convincing.

                • Incontinentia Buttocks

                  A minor point (though I otherwise agree with your comment): At the time he became Attorney General in 1961, the highlights of Bobby Kennedy’s career had been a stint as a counsel to Joe McCarthy’s Senate Committee on Investigations and a couple years as chief counsel to the Senate Labor Rackets Committee. I don’t think that he was–or was seen as being–more progressive than his brother Jack during the years of the Kennedy presidency.

                • ib, as i recollect it (confirmed, fwiw, by wikipedia) you are absolutely right that in the ’50s, bobby was probably to jack’s right, but his tenure as ag – with its direct exposure to the racist resistance to integration – pushed him leftwards, so that by the point he ran against keating in 1964, he was already more progressive than jfk had been, and he kept moving leftward from there.

                • Richard

                  I got too much work to engage in a point by point discussion of evidence pointing (inconclusively of course) that JFK may not have committed a half million troops but, in addition to the arguments by John and Charlie below, there were numerous rumours just before the events in Dallas that Dean Rusk was going to resign as Secretary of State and that JFK was looking for someone who would be more of a leader and not acquiesce so much. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that the new Secretary would lead the way out of Vietnam but since JFK’s first choice for Sec of State in 1961 (according to Schlesinger) was Fulbright, there is a fair possibility that the new Secretary would have been more sceptical of increased involvement in Vietnam (added to the fact that JFK had become increasingly disenchanted with the ruling forces in South Vietnam).

                  And, as stated below, Bobby was no progressive while he served in the Kennedy Administration and was as cautious as JFK was in the area of civil rights.

                • Richard

                  Also, let me add that Rusk tried to resign after JFK’s death but LBJ convinced him to stay because of the succession crisis and the need for continuity. He clearly would have been out of the post in 1964 had JFK lived. I thi8nk that is the same for a number of other cabinet positions – they stayed on at LBJ’s uriging and would have been gone had JFK lived. That doesn’t prove anything one way or another but it is evidence that the chance of a change in foreign policy is not fanciful daydreaming Your claim that JFK’s crew continued to advise LBJ is true but you assume that those same people would have been in power had JFK lived which is a very dubious assumption.

                • howard

                  richard, the issue at hand is not whether jfk would have done precisely the same things that lbj did.

                  the issue at hand was whether jfk was ready to write off vietnam as a waste and not escalate at all.

                  rumors about dean rusk don’t change that fundamental point, nor do they do anything about mcnamara, bundy, and sundry other best and brightest. it’s not like dean rusk was the only guy advocating for military involvement in vietnam….

                • TT

                  “so if you’ve got some documentation, bring it on: otherwise, hand-waving about how we just can’t know isn’t very convincing.”

                  This 2003 article by James K. Galbraith highlights much of what I was getting at earlier.

                  http://bostonreview.net/BR28.5/galbraith.html

                  McNamara arguing in favor of a phased total withdrawal in both May and October of 1963 complicates the case for an inevitable escalation of the war by Kennedy in 1964. To me it’s indisputable that by 1963 Kennedy and McNamara were, at the very least, seriously reassessing the scope, scale, and duration of the US commitment to VN. How Kennedy might have undertaken such a major change in policy is unknowable since we cannot at all assume that events in VN would have played out exactly at they did under LBJ had Kennedy lived.

                  I think “what if” scenarios with respect to historical questions are useless; however, the historical record is most certainly not.

                • Richard

                  But assuming JFK had lived, it is very probably the case that, based on the history of cabinet turnovers, the entire gang – Rusk, McNamara, etc – would have not been around for a second term. And the rumour about Rusk was not just conjecture – it was reported at the time that he was thinking of quitting.

                  I don’t think the evidence is clear that he had already made the decision to significantly escalate or that the evidence is clear that he would have made that decision had he not been killed. You seem to take the position that it is crystal clear that he would have significantly escalated and I dont think the historical record backs that up.

                • howard

                  tt, i appreciate the link (as a side note, i first became aware of peter dale scott as a kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist; it’s been hard for me to take him seriously since).

                  however, i’m going to say that jamie galbraith appears to bury the most significant point in a footnote: his father “recalls Kennedy in 1962 saying to him privately and unmistakably that withdrawal from Vietnam, as that from Laos and the detachment from Cuba, was a matter of political timing.”

                  in short, it’s one thing to say we’ll leave without victory (let us, for the moment, assume that galbraith is the final word here and jfk was preprared to leave without victory). it’s another thing to find the political timing to leave without victory.

                  as nixon, 1969-1972, and bush 43, “the surge,” both demonstrated, leaving without victory is not an easy sell to the american public, and would have been an ever harder sell in 1963-65.

                  a decision to withdraw 1000 troops without talking about it demonstrates the point.

                  which is to say, having read this essay, i’ll still say that i see no reason to accept it at total face value, especially when you consider that the combined vote for the hawk candidates in 1968 (that is, nixon’s “secret plan for victory” and wallace’s “bomb them back to the stone age”) won 57% of the vote.

                  assuming that kennedy, a cold warrior (nothing here disputes that) would have sucked it up to stand firm on a desire to be out by 1965 is an extremely broad leap, especially considering that even in this defense of kennedy we learn that he didn’t want to make a big deal about withdrawing 1,000 troops….

                • rea

                  A perhaps significant point is that Johnson made the big decisions to escalate while planning to run for re-election in ’68, but Kennedy would have been in his second term, free from such political considerations.

        • John

          I think the case for Kennedy not getting as deeply mired in Vietnam as Johnson is as follows: Johnson and Kennedy both seem to have had some instinctive notion that escalation in Vietnam would not work. Johnson, however, was not sure enough of himself in foreign affairs to be willing to go against his hawkish advisors. By the time it was clear that the whole thing had gone wrong, Johnson’s own political capital had been too deeply invested in Vietnam to escape. Kennedy, however, showed in October 1962 that he was willing to buck his advisors when he disagreed with them. Given that there is some evidence that Kennedy was becoming skeptical of US involvement in Vietnam, there’s some reason to think he might not have made the same mistakes Johnson did.

          • Charlie

            Yes, I think the key thing that’s missing from this debate is the factor of LBJ’s incredible lack of confidence regarding his own judgement in foreign affairs. You can’t really game out this counterfactual without bringing LBJ into the discussion. And he had a unique mix of raging arrogance and deep insecurity that is quite unlike JFK. I still tend to think JFK would have made a pretty big mess in Vietnam for a variety of other reasons, it just wouldn’t be quite the epic clusterfuck that LBJ created.

  • That’s gotta hurt.

  • Manju

    he still relies on the same kind of half-assed functionalism as Stone (and Naomi Wolf.) The fact that lots of people hated JFK doesn’t prove that this caused Oswald to assassinate him.

    Word. The Manchester book is the Mother of this Eliminationist Rhetoric meme, which culminated with a Krugman-led Lefty Freakout over Jared Lee Loughner. As with Oswald, the Right was to blame for another non-righty / lefty trying to assassinate another conservative / centrist Dem.

    The backstory is this:

    After JFK’s assassination, Jackie is disappointed with Oswald’s Lefty persuasion. She wants a racist. That is, she wants Civil Rights as Camelot’s legacy. So she commissions “Death of a President” to help give her this. Oswald may well be a Commie, but the Racist Right still killed him.

    Add LBJ’s clever evocation of JFK’s name (in order to pass the 64cra) along with fan-boy historians like Arthur Schlesinger jr, and JFK as civil rights hero becomes solidified Democratic concrete. Erased is Malcolm X’s view, along with many others within the more mainstream Civil Rights Movement.

    Manchester’s novel helps maintain this ahistorical whitewashing. This is not to say it’s completely false, just that it is full of half-truths. It is certainly true for example that folks like the pro-Byrd unpledged electors in Alabama and Mississippi were up in arms over an explicitly and demonstratively pro-civil rights Democratic President. But it is also true that Kennedy won a majority of votes in those states.

    Missing in Manchester’s narrative is Sen Kennedy’s role in stopping the strong version of the 57cra by voting to send it to James Eastland’s racist Judiciary committee. Eastland, Dem from Mississippi, becomes an early backer of Kennedy’s presidential bid. Only segregationists (Johnson and Smathers) are seriously considered for the VP slot. Nixon has no chance in the South. With Eastland’s endorsement, JFK wins a majority of those voters now being blamed for his death.

    The Kennedys wanted to erase this legacy. So a myth was born. The atmosphere created by these racists and other loonies was to blame.

    Only, the problem is that these folks were ultimately part of JFK’s coalition. And Oswald was a communist.

    • Malaclypse

      Were the Bavarian Illuminati also implicated, or just Jackie? Blink twice if you fear to answer.

    • witless chum

      Kennedy in Vietnam would have been on of my submissions in the “Guess the Topics Manju Won’t Show Up to Crankify About Racist Democrats Fest ’12.”

      I never win these things.

      • Manju

        “Kennedy in Vietnam” is part of the topic. I addressed another part: Kennedy as victim of Right-Wing hatred, since I’m familiar with the source of this meme: William Manchester’s “Death of a President”. The Frank Rich piece to which Douthat is responding explicitly refers to it.

        I’m also familiar with the historical context that led to the commission of this work: make JFK a civil rights hero by connecting his assassin to the segregationists. As Manchester himself reported Jackie saying:

        “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist. It even robs his death of any meaning.”

        So civil rights is indeed an important cog in this meme. In your defense, you are wise enough to fear this discussion.

        • Uncle Kvetch

          In your defense, you are wise enough to fear this discussion.

          Now go away or I shall mention the name Robert Byrd a second time. And a third, and a fourth…

        • Malaclypse

          Was that one blink, or two?

        • Walt

          We also fear talking to the crazy person sitting next to us on the bus. I’ll let Dave Chappelle explain.

  • Ed

    What I am saying is that proponents of the Of Course JFK Would Have Escalated school do not have as airtight a case as they assume, and have to do better than simply relying on the “but he was a Cold Warrior!” argument.

    Yes. From what we know we can’t be sure that JFK would have acted exactly as LBJ did. The force and occasional duplicitousness that enabled LBJ to work more effectively with Congress to get stuff done helped him on the domestic front and hurt him when he committed to Vietnam. Nor would JFK have been overawed by his foreign policy specialists in the way Johnson was. Douthat certainly doesn’t get any points from me from jumping on this particular bandwagon. These days it seems to me that Kennedy is underrated as much as overrated.

    I also like the quotes around “atmosphere of hate” in Dallas, as if the fact of Oswald’s political history means liberals just made that up to be mean. There were many and good reasons why Kennedy was advised against making the trip.

  • Tom Fitz

    Read:

    Richard Parker, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (2005)

    Sorry, don’t have the page numbers to hand, but I get the impression JFK wanted to limit our role in VN, gave specific direction to that effect, which was frustrated by McNamara in collusion with the JCS. Even before I read this, I felt Robert Strange McNamera should have written his apologia from prison.

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