Peace and Antiwar Movements
The legal terms of conscription, the mobilizing of human resources for military ends, changed because of the exigencies of modern warfare and also in response to civilian pressures, first from religious groups and then from secular ones. Moreover, from mid‐nineteenth century on, organized peace advocates in Europe and the United States helped to build constraints on the conduct of war into international law and to legitimate mediation and arbitration as alternatives to warfare. They challenged the cultural glorification and romantization of warfare, especially in the context of disillusionment following World War I. Some peace advocates opposed military‐based imperialism. Many promoted international organization, hoping to secure change with order at the interstate level. Some of them endorsed collective military security under international auspices, and many promoted arms control and disarmament in order to limit military confrontation. There were even experiments with alternative missions for the military. Finally, challenges from organized peace advocates affected public policy on specific wars, notably in the debates over intervention in World Wars I and II, and on the terms of withdrawal from Vietnam. In all these respects, the influence of citizen groups on policy governing war and military institutions has been conditioned by their organizational bases and rationales.
Peace and antiwar movements derive from at least three sets of complex historical phenomena with varying sources, principles, goals, and constituencies. Two of them have roots in the ancient and medieval world: modern peace advocacy, which inherited and adapted the “Just War” tradition, and absolute pacifism as expressed in religious nonresistance. A third source of antimilitarism has been grounded in modern political economy.
Regional economic and political interests characterized opposition to some specific U.S. wars—New England Federalists in the War of 1812, for example; northern Whigs in the Mexican War of 1846–48; Northern Peace Democrats and Southern Democrats in the Civil War—but regional economic groupings were not against war per se, and they are not normally included in histories of peace movements. Some economic movements were very much related to organized peace advocacy, though: the free trade campaigns of Richard Cobden and John Bright; anti‐imperialism in Britain and the United States; socialist class consciousness; and a pervasive suspicion of banking and business interests such as that which surfaced in the “merchants of death” rhetoric of the 1930s.
Nonetheless, the primary carriers of antiwar ideology and action have been religious nonresistants and internationalist peace advocates. In this regard, it is useful to delimit the word pacifists. Coined in Europe at the turn of the century, it originally referred to all those who sought to mitigate, limit, and eventually end warfare through various forms of internationalism. During World War I, however, pacifist was increasingly narrowed to denote those who on grounds of principle refused altogether to sanction war or participate in it. The word retains that sense in common American usage, although the broader sense is sanctioned by dictionaries and is common in European usage. For the purpose of this essay, the broad program of creating alternatives to war is called peace advocacy, while pacifism is used in its narrower sense, as the rejection of war or military service altogether.
Such pacifism has characterized the so‐called peace churches—the Mennonites, Brethren, and Society of Friends (Quakers). They cultivated a religious commitment to refuse military service and to reject warfare, aggression and violence being the way of the unredeemed world. Quaker principles including religious rejection of violence were broadly influential in eighteenth‐century England and America. In 1815, following the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, religious nonresistance was given an institutional base in the London, New York, and Massachusetts peace societies. The constituency of the Massachusetts society was limited to Christian nonresistants, and it soon waned; the London and New York societies included a broad spectrum of peace advocates, and they endured. In the United States, the peace cause achieved national status when the American Peace Society was formed in 1829 (although in fact it remained essentially northern). Indeed, Charles DeBenedetti interprets the peace movement as the longest continuous American reform movement.
Constraining Military Institutions and Missions.Twentieth‐century U.S. military institutions and missions were to some extent constrained by organized peace advocacy and nonresistant pacifism, the clearest impact of which was with respect to the administration of conscription.
The nonresistance tenet of Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, and members of some other sects had been tested during the Civil War, and it divided them. In the Confederacy, conscientious objectors (COs) to military service were persecuted and deprived. In the Union, objection on the basis of religious authority was recognized through military exemption, subject to various conditions such as the payment of fines.
The World War I provision for COs under the Selective Service System was based on the Civil War precedent and on prevailing British policy. It was implemented, however, largely in response to pressure from the peace churches, other pacifists, and the National Civil Liberties Bureau (subsequently American Civil Liberties Union), which pacifists created. There were about 4,000 COs in World War I (about .001% of all men inducted). Exemption was limited to members of recognized sects and organizations in which war in any form was rejected on principle, and it applied only to combat service. Excluded were men whose principles forbade military service itself, whose position was based on a mainstream religious conviction or on secular principles, or who objected to a particular war but not necessarily all wars. Such men, if they persisted in their resistance, were confined in army camps or imprisoned, except for a small number who were furloughed for civilian work.
In anticipation of U.S. entry into World War II, conscription was modified, again largely in response to organized pressure from peace churches and other pacifist groups (aligned as the National Service Board for Religious Objectors). The government formed a working arrangement with them to administer Civilian Public Service proj ects for men whose objection was based on religious training and belief. They were assigned to projects of so‐called national importance such as conservation, hospital service, and farming. The work projects were ill defined, and no provision was made for secular objectors or those who rejected the system of military service itself, so that the pacifist coalition experienced dissension and withdrawals. Still, Civilian Public Service administered camps and other service units for about 11,000 COs who came from some 200 religious bodies or had no religious affiliation.
After World War II, the peace churches and other pacifist groups lobbied for a broad, tolerant interpretation of conscientious objection. They also led a mainstream coalition that defeated President Harry S. Truman's proposal for universal military service. By that time, exemption from military service on the grounds of conscientious objection had become a legal right that subsequently was broadened by the courts to include both religious and secular principles. During the Vietnam War, several pacifist organizations and some churches even endorsed so‐called selective conscientious objection to specific wars (on the basis of Just War tradition), while thousands of men made the draft the focal point of demonstrable antiwar resistance. When President Richard M. Nixon ended conscription in favor of a voluntary military, the decision was at least as much political as it was professional.
The history of conscientious objection most clearly registers the impact of religious nonresistance and absolute pacifism on the military institution of conscription, but it also illustrates the secularization of principled objection, the broadening provisions of the law, and finally the focusing of antiwar activism both on the legitimacy of a specific war and on military conscription in general.
Peace advocacy, a broader tradition than religious nonresistance, addressed the apparent anarchy of the nation‐state system in an age of growing economic, intellectual, and political interdependence. Peace advocates came from the rising professional classes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They focused on incremental steps to undercut the idealization of war, and they developed approaches to conflict that might eventually supplant warfare, in particular: international law including a law of war, mediation, arbitration, and international organization.
One approach was to restrict the conduct of war through international conventions. By 1873, when international law associations appeared (in large measure the work of peace activists), the laws of war had been defined in the 1864 international convention of Geneva. As subsequently revised and widely ratified, the Geneva Conventions on warfare demonstrated that even when locked in battle, governments had a mutual interest in the welfare of their respective military and civilian personnel. Twentieth‐century conventions proscribed specific classes of weapons (such as poison gas) and acts of war (such as massacre of the defenseless). The fact that such conventions have been violated only underscores the existence of international norms that influence military conduct. Wars of aggression were prohibited by the 1928 Kellogg‐Briand Pact (which owed its existence to initiative taken by peace advocate and internationalist James T. Shotwell). Although widely denigrated as a futile gesture, the Kellogg‐Briand Pact was cited along with other international law as grounds for the Nuremberg War Trials following World War II.
Related to international law was the process of arbitration, for which there was an international campaign before the Civil War. The idea acquired prestigious support in both the British Parliament and the U.S. Senate. Spurred by the arbitral settlement of the Alabama case (1872), the campaign expanded to other nations, notably Switzerland and France. Delegates to the intergovernmental Hague Peace Conference of 1899 drew upon plans articulated by peace and lawyers' associations when they endorsed mediation and arbitration in a “Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes” and created the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In the decade before World War I, arbitration was a rallying point for proliferating peace societies in Europe and America.
World War I dramatized the value of permanent international organization, and arbitration became the key to League of Nations procedures for conflict resolution. This vision of the League was largely a result of organized peace advocacy, mainly British and American. Its charter invoked the threat of diplomatic, economic, and even military sanctions to ensure that nations would attempt mediation and arbitration before resorting to war. Those provisions predicated a change in military mission from unilateral to collective security. The change was not institutionalized by the United States, which rejected League membership, or even in Europe, where League members failed to link the pacific resolution of conflict to disarmament and collective security.
World War II was a consequence of that failure, and out of the United Nations alliance there emerged a UN organization with strengthened collective security provisions. By the time they were invoked, however, the world had become polarized in a cold war, so that even the UN‐sanctioned Korean War was actually a U.S.‐based alliance system. The experience of peacetime military alliances such as NATO no doubt expanded the political dimensions of military command, while at the same time the United Nation experimented with limited peacekeeping operations, sometimes in conjunction with initiatives from nongovernmental organizations. By the end of the century, arbitration and mediation enforced with sanctions had become established procedures in international conflict—so much so that during the Bosnian Crisis in the 1990s, U.S. troops were deployed within a multinational military force to enforce a mediated settlement in a civil war in which war crimes were explicitly recognized and condemned.
All this is to suggest that organized peace advocacy contributed to changes in the conduct of war and in military mission insofar as it helped to initiate and shape international law on the conduct of war, arbitration and other processes of conflict resolution, and international organization—including even the threat of collective force. This is not to suggest a simple cause‐and‐effect relationship, but rather to note that citizen activism has been one of the factors shaping modern international and military systems.
Constraining Foreign and Military Policy.Peace and antiwar movements have constrained U.S. policy on the use of military force in at least three respects: intervention in foreign wars; disarmament and arms control; and unilaterally initiated warfare. In a political context, modern peace advocacy must be distinguished from isolationism. Both peace advocates in the general sense and progressive pacifists have been overwhelmingly internationalist insofar as they advocated U.S. leadership in economic and peace efforts; but when faced with the prospect of war, they have divided between neutralist nonintervention and reluctant support for military forces. In any case, the controversy over U.S. intervention in World War I established the rationale and organizational basis for subsequent peace and antiwar campaigns.
By 1914, there was an established peace movement in the United States that was part of an international phenomenon. Its leadership came primarily from middle‐class professionals; but a major sponsor and chief financial constituency was the business community, which provided backing for groups like the American Peace Society, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the World Peace Foundation, and active local peace societies in New York and Chicago. Those groups had friends in the foreign policy establishment as well as in business. Many of them avoided controversial measures like Theodore Roosevelt's enlargement of the navy, and supported arbitration, conciliation, and international law. They were internationalists who valued order and stability on a world scale, which they thought would come through good management: commerce and communication, cultural understanding, the cultivation of mutual interests, and a prudent use of power.
The fury with which Europe was swept into war in 1914 profoundly shocked these peace advocates. A few of them concluded with Hamilton Holt, editor of The Independent, a progressive journal of the time, that internationalism needed an authoritative international base, which they promoted through the Association for a League to Enforce Peace (1915). Most established peace advocates avoided political issues, however, especially the question of intervening in the European War. When the country did intervene, the established movement overwhelmingly supported what was billed as the “war to end war.”
The resulting vacuum of leadership left space for new peace leaders. They were progressives accustomed to political action, who viewed the informed middle class as their primary constituency, and who included outstanding women reformers like Jane Addams and Lillian Wald. They proposed to end the war through mediation, and they resisted the sharply increased military budget recommended by President Woodrow Wilson. The campaign for mediation was promoted especially by the Woman's Peace Party (1915) in active cooperation with European women (the basis for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1919). The idea was for the United States to lead a neutral bloc of nations in a standing offer to mediate a peace settlement. Meanwhile, the American Union against Militarism (1915) coordinated a political campaign against President Wilson's military preparedness program, arguing that preparation for war would make military intervention more likely. Two other constituencies completed the new peace advocacy: absolute pacifists from mainstream denominations joined the American Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR, 1915), while the Socialist Party of America articulated a strong antiwar position. A coalition of these elements tried to rally opposition to intervention as late as the spring of 1917. The political significance of this politically active coalition was to reinforce American neutrality by reconciling it with an internationalist orientation and to distinguish military intervention from other forms of engagement abroad.
In wartime, the new progressive peace advocacy was reduced to absolute pacifists, many of whom found refuge in the FOR, and adamant socialists whose antiwar position gave their opponents an excuse for political persecution. Even nonpacifist critics of war policies became politically vulnerable and socially alienated. Thomas Knock has concluded that the wartime administration alienated those very constituencies, like progressive peace advocates and socialists, whose support Wilson needed to carry the League of Nations to victory.
The significance of the antiwar movement of 1914–19, then, was twofold. In the first place, the establishment‐oriented prewar peace movement became divided between what might be called conservative and liberal internationalists: the former supported commercial and cultural involvement abroad but clung to political unilateralism; the latter advocated membership in the League of Nations and the World Court. This division was carried into the politics of the postwar era. Secondly, organized peace advocacy acquired a progressive leadership that distinguished military intervention from internationalism per se and created an organizational base for politically oriented pacifists.
That base became operational in the context of the Washington Conference on Naval Arms Limitation (1921–22). Pacifists and peace advocates formed the National Council for Prevention of War (1921) as an agency for information on the conference, and it became an ongoing lobby on disarmament and peace issues. In turn, it developed a citizen network that included constituencies like the League of Women Voters, Future Farmers of America, church denominations, and the YMCA‐YWCA, as well as peace groups. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, although part of the National Council, put its own lobbyist ( Dorothy Detzer) on Capitol Hill. Public pressure was generated against military spending and for international disarmament efforts such as the League‐sponsored conference of 1932. Separate committees mobilized opposition to military training in schools and colleges. Thus, peace advocates acquired a political role in the 1920s. Their influence was proportionate to their unity of purpose, however, and the constituent groups in the movement differed sharply over the priorities of the League of Nations, the World Court, international law, disarmament, and peace education.
That changed in the next decade. Beginning with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, war threatened Asia and Europe, while the nations that dominated League policy proved unable to coordinate a collective security response. In consequence, the various elements of the U.S. peace movement forged a common front that briefly united liberal internationalists with progressive pacifists.
Pacifists in the National Council, Women's International League, and FOR played key roles in organizing and popularizing the 1934 Senate investigation of the munitions industry's role in World War I (the Nye Committee), thus tapping into a longstanding populist identification of foreign war with special interests. The following year, the progressive pacifists mobilized political support for strict neutrality legislation. They also gained the initiative in the Emergency Peace Campaign (1936–37), a coalition forged with liberal internationalists of the League of Nations Association (which succeeded the League of Nations Non‐Partisan Association in 1929). The basis of the coalition was a platform that included legislation to constrain special interests, reforms to open up and stabilize the world economy, closer cooperation with the League of Nations, and strict neutrality (an impartial embargo against trade and credit on all belligerents). Strict neutrality was valued by pacifists, who hoped that it would prevent U.S. military intervention, and by liberal internationalists, who assumed that it would assure the League powers of U.S. noninterference with strong collective security measures. Once more, then, neutralism was coupled with internationalism to define U.S. military policy. Strict neutrality legislation was adopted in 1935 and refined two years later.
By 1937, the Emergency Peace Campaign was breaking apart. Liberal internationalists like Clark Eichelberger and James T. Shotwell had grown increasingly uncomfortable with strict neutrality and absolute pacifism. In 1938, they broke with pacifists over the proposed Ludlow constitutional amendment for a referendum on war. Creating their own political coalition, they campaigned against that legislation, for neutrality revision, and after 1939 for all aid to the European Allies “short of war.” In 1940, their group coalesced into the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. For a brief time, on the other side, pacifists found themselves uncomfortably aligned with isolationists such as the America First Committee; by 1941 pacifists had largely left the political arena to strengthen their own nonresistant communities for wartime trial, especially regarding COs.
Thus, in order to understand the divisions and realignments over national policy on the use of military force in the decade before 1941, it is necessary to appreciate several things: the distinction within the peace movement between neutralism and isolation; the shift of liberal internationalists from neutralism to wartime alliance (hopefully short of military deployment); and the resulting brief alignment of pacifist internationalists with isolationists, from which pacifists withdrew. Above all, it is important to remember that the policy debate was carried on within the broad peace movement, and that the League of Nations wing consciously functioned as a political ally of the Roosevelt administration, from at least 1939 on.
The political role of liberal internationalists extended into wartime because the administration explicitly relied on them—as by then a well‐organized coalition—to build public consensus for a United Nations organization. Growing out of the military exigencies of the UN alliance, the United Nations was thus subject to both the geopolitical apprehensions of political leaders and, in some measure, the internationalist expectations of a citizen peace movement. Moreover, much of the public hope invested in the United Nations was transferred to a new and Western alliance, NATO, as the United Nations became polarized in the Cold War.
Public support for arms control and disarmament was generated by a resurgent peace movement that grew out of the nuclear arms race fueled by the Cold War. This took place in two phases: the test ban movement of 1957–63, and the Nuclear Freeze Campaign of the early 1980s.
The test ban movement grew out of concern over the radioactive fallout from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. It was initiated by atomic scientists who challenged the sanguine assurances of the Atomic Energy Commission. As public apprehension rose, liberal internationalists like Norman Cousins joined progressive pacifists like Abraham J. Muste in the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE, 1957). SANE mounted a strong program of national education and mobilized support for an international ban on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, some pacifists applied techniques of direct, nonviolent action with which they had experimented in race relations since 1942: they sailed into Pacific testing zones, picketed tests in the United States, and demonstrated at weapons‐producing sites and elsewhere—not only against nuclear testing but for disarmament.
The test ban campaign lost a measure of focus when the Eisenhower administration and the Soviet Union put unilateral moratoriums on testing; but it continued to add organized public constituencies, notably women and young people. Those constituencies were activated when testing was resumed by both sides early in the Kennedy administration, soon under the threatening cloud of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Norman Cousins personally helped pave the way for the negotiated treaty of 1963 banning atmospheric testing, and Kennedy recruited the SANE network to mobilize public support for ratification.
Nearly two decades later, and despite arms control agreements initiated by the Nixon administration, attempts to achieve detente between the Soviet Union and the United States broke down. A new round in the spiraling nuclear arms race began under President Jimmy Carter and accelerated sharply under Ronald Reagan. Large‐scale protest gathered force in Europe, while in the United States a coalition of peace groups backed the idea of a mutual, verifiable freeze in nuclear weapons. Although coordinated by a national organization, the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, the freeze reflected grassroots activism that was elicited by growing public awareness of the destructive realities of a nuclear exchange. An important result of the Nuclear Freeze Campaign was to provide essential political support for arms control, which had been greatly weakened early in Reagan's administration. A second consequence was the existence of informed resistance to Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, itself quite possibly a response to the popularity of the Freeze; and a third was to lay the groundwork for enthusiastic public support of the disarmament initiatives eventually worked out between Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan.
The Vietnam War presented a different case of antiwar opposition from the conflicts involving European Allies in the two world wars. It was different because, although initiated by the U.S., the 1965 air war against North Vietnam and the direct, massive engagements of U.S. troops in the South were not preceded by a period of extensive national debate. It was different in that national policy was challenged on a large scale during wartime.
After an initial period of strong public support, Lyndon B. Johnson's administration faced growing, sullen resistance that became active political opposition in 1968. Richard M. Nixon entered office as a peace candidate. Despite his withdrawal of U.S. troops under the policy of “Vietnamization,” the fact that he continued the war through 1972 and in some respects expanded it into Laos and Cambodia elicited further organized opposition on the home front. Both presidents sought the support of the political center, and each attempted to push antiwar opposition to the political margin. Both administrations treated the Vietnam antiwar movement as an alien force, despite the repetitive conclusion from major intelligence probes that even the movement's radical wing was independent of foreign or Communist direction. The unresponsiveness of the Johnson administration and active harassment under Nixon strengthened tendencies toward confrontational politics within the antiwar movement. Nonetheless, the political contest increasingly shifted from the streets to the Congress, as antiwar efforts were invested ever more in electoral politics and lobbying.
Opposition accompanied every step of the escalating war in Vietnam. It represented a shifting, unstable coalition of political, pacifist, and cultural currents in the 1960s. Still, the various parts of the coalition espoused one or more of five positions on the war: (1) that it was un feasible, the cost not being justified by U.S. interests, and the United States not being able to impose self‐government on Vietnam; (2) that it destabilized the region and distanced U.S. allies; (3) that the support of repressive government in the South undermined U.S. ideals and interests; (4) that in some measure it represented the arrogance of imperial wars; and (5) that its level of destruction was immoral. Opposition to the war varied greatly in rationale and tactics.
At its core, the organized antiwar movement clustered around two poles. One was a very tenuous alliance of the surviving Old Left, a youthful New Left, and direct‐action pacifists who folded opposition to war into their various agendas (for the Socialist Workers Party the war was a single issue, but they aligned with the diversified Left anyway). Their tactics included political confrontation: large‐scale demonstrations, draft resistance, and civil disobedience; they attracted something of the counterculture, and the resulting media coverage largely stereotyped the whole movement in their image. This wing crested in 1968–69 and quickly declined thereafter. The other pole was an informal coalition of liberals with a single‐issue antiwar focus. They were the initial source of “teach‐ins” in the spring of 1965, and in the next few years they attracted numerous constituencies—from religion, labor, health care, sciences, and business. Their tactics were public education and debate, petitions, lobbying, and electoral politics. Increasingly, this wing of the movement moved into mainstream politics, into the Congress and the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections. In so doing, it lost a measure of visibility because the dominant media image of antiwar effort was street politics. Associated with the liberal wing, however, were growing antiwar veterans' groups—notably the Vietnam Veterans Against the War—that achieved a good deal of credible visibility by their public campaigns.
The movement cannot itself be credited or blamed for the withdrawal of public support from at least 1968 onward. It did, however, keep before the public the issue of whether the war in Vietnam was morally or practically acceptable. It probably exacerbated popular anxiety about social and cultural instability and linked it to the war. Taken quite seriously by Johnson and Nixon, organized opposition may well have elicited some of their duplicity and extralegal harassment. Certainly, it strengthened the congressional role in policymaking. In all these respects, antiwar protest helped to provide a check on the prosecution of war essentially on the terms of the executive branch.
About two decades later, in the 1980s, a fresh, largely grassroots coalition emerged in solidarity with Central American liberation movements, especially in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. There were national organizations, notably the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, or CISPIES (1980–81), which lobbied effectively with the Congress; but these were supplemented by a loose network of innumerable citizens' groups having contacts in Central America. Often the transnational contacts were along professional lines—farmers, lawyers, educators, editors, religious leaders, and politicians. The Solidarity movement, it was called, thus indicating its main focus and grassroots base.
This movement, and its lobbying agents, challenged the Reagan policies of aggressive support for the Nicaraguan Contras to overthrow the Sandinista revolution, and for the largely military government in El Salvador, which was fighting a revolutionary challenge. The history of the U.S. Solidarity movement has yet to be written; but it seems reasonably clear that it contributed significantly to congressional checks on presidential initiatives that were essentially, if covertly, military. In contrast to this, unilateral military force was employed suddenly and briefly in Panama and Grenada, perhaps on the understanding that quick closure would preclude political debate. Public discussion did foreshadow the Persian Gulf War against Iraq; even so, military strategy there was designed to control information and avoid protracted engagement, and the war ended relatively quickly.
“No more Vietnams!” That phrase connotes positions that range from no more military intervention abroad to no more military operations subject to public debate and political pressure. In either case, it suggests the extent to which military institutions and missions are responsive to citizen pressure in a democratic society. Insofar as peace and antiwar movements have contributed to public attitudes and values, to alternative means of resolving international conflict, or to political constraints on the conduct of warfare, to that extent they have proved relevant to American military history.
[See also Grenada, U.S. Intervention in; Hague Peace Conferences; Just War Theory; Militarism and Antimilitarism; Nicaragua, U.S. Military Involvement in; Nye, Gerald; Panama, U.S. Military Involvement in; Veterans: Vietnam War; War Crimes.]
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"Peace and Antiwar Movements." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peace-and-antiwar-movements
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