Modern history


Midwinter Break

BY THE END of January 1919, the main outlines of the peace settlements were emerging. The Russian question, the League of Nations and the new borders in central Europe had all come up, even if they had not been completely settled. Progress had been made, too, on some of the crucial details of the German treaty by special committees: on war damages and on Germany’s capacity to make reparation; on Germany’s borders, its colonies and its armed forces; on the punishment of German war criminals; even on the fate of German submarine cables. The big question, though—how to punish Germany and how to keep it under control in the future—had barely been touched on by Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Wilson, the only men who could really settle it.

Also emerging was what a Swiss diplomat called the “great surprise at the conference”: a close partnership between the British and the Americans. True, there had been difficulties over the mandates, but at the Supreme Council, on the committees and commissions and in the corridors, British and Americans found that they saw eye to eye on most issues. Wilson, who never wholeheartedly liked Lloyd George, had succumbed a little to his charm, chatting away cheerfully as they went in and out of meetings and even going out to the occasional lunch or dinner. He had also come to recognize that he was better off dealing with a strong Liberal as prime minister than a Conservative.1

On January 29, Wilson told House that he thought it would be a good idea for the American experts to work closely with the British. House, whatever his own reservations, obediently passed this on to both the Americans and the British. Lloyd George, who valued good relations between Britain and the United States highly, was delighted. So were the Canadians. “Our relations with the British, who are the only people here who are not playing chauvinistic politics (a fact that it took Wilson about a week to discover),” said Seymour, the American expert, “are so close that we are exchanging views with absolute frankness on the territorial settlement of Europe.” Members from the two delegations fell into a pattern of frequent consultation, exchanging confidential memoranda and talking on the secure telephone lines that American army engineers rigged up to link the Crillon and the Majestic. “Our unanimity,” wrote Nicolson later, “was indeed remarkable. There—in what had once been the cabinets particuliers of Maxim’s—was elaborated an Anglo-American case covering the whole frontiers of Jugo-Slavia, Czecho-Slovakia, Rumania, Austria and Hungary. Only in regard to Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey in Europe did any divergence manifest itself. And even here the divergence was one of detail only, scarcely one of principle.” 2

As relations between Britain and the United States flourished, those of each country with France deteriorated. The British saw the French as competitors for Ottoman and Russian territory in the Middle East and Central Asia. They also suspected that once Wilson had left for his brief trip home, the French would try to shape the German terms to suit themselves. “I find them full of intrigue and chicanery of all kinds, without any idea of playing the game,” wrote Hankey. When France faced a financial crisis, with downward pressure on the franc in February, the British reaction was cool. They could not, they told the French, make a loan to tide them over. It was only when House interceded with Lloyd George that some funds were made available. The French accepted the loan but remembered the delay. The British and the Americans shook their heads over what they saw as French incompetence and irresponsibility.3

Relations between the French and the Americans were especially poor. French diplomats blamed Wilson for holding up the real business of the conference—the punishment of Germany—with his League. The French finance minister, Louis-Lucien Klotz, told his colleagues that the Americans were trying to sell their excess food to Germany in return for cash payments, which would, of course, make it more difficult for the French to collect the reparations due to them. The Americans in return complained that the French were stinging them for their accommodation in Paris and for the expenses of their army. In the cinemas, French audiences, which had once cheered every appearance of Wilson on the screen, now stayed silent. French policemen and American soldiers brawled in the streets. Some of the Americans were overheard to say that they had been fighting on the wrong side. The Parisians made fun of Mrs. Wilson, and the French papers, which had been generally favorable to the American president, now started to criticize him.4

The attacks infuriated Wilson, who was convinced that they were orchestrated by the French government. His voice trembling with indignation, he showed a visitor a confidential document which told French newspapers to exaggerate the chaos in Russia, to stress the strong possibility of a renewed offensive from Germany and to remind Wilson that he faced a strong Republican opposition back home. Increasingly, in private, Wilson poured out his bitterness: the French were “stupid,” “petty,” “insane,” “unreliable,” “tricky,” “the hardest I ever tried to do business with.” He still thought the ordinary French people were all right, he told his doctor, but their politicians were leading them astray. “It was due entirely to the fact that the French politicians had permitted so many apparent discriminations against Americans that the rank and file of the people of the United States had turned from being pro-French to being pro-British. And the President also said that the British seemed to be playing the game nobly and loyally.”5

Like Franco-American relations, the weather turned colder. Wet snow fell over Paris; American soldiers had snowball fights in the Champs-Elysées. There was skating in the Bois de Boulogne and tobogganing at Versailles. Because of the shortage of coal, even the grand hotels were icy. People came down with colds or, more dangerously, fell prey to the flu epidemic which had started in the summer of 1918. The military doctors in the Crillon dispensed cough mixture and advice. Smoking, said one, was an excellent preventative. 6

Delegates—in the end, there were well over a thousand—continued to arrive. The British issued each of theirs 1,500 visiting cards to leave with their counterparts because that was what had been done at the Congress of Vienna. After many complaints about the waste of time, Clemenceau ruled that the practice be abandoned. Many delegates were diplomats and statesmen; but, for the first time at a major international conference, many were not. The British brought over virtually the whole of the Intelligence Bureau from the Ministry of Information, including men such as the young Arnold Toynbee and Lewis Namier, later among the most eminent historians of their generation. The Americans had their professors from House’s Inquiry, and Wall Street bankers such as Thomas Lamont and Bernard Baruch. The professional diplomats grumbled. “An improvisation,” said Jules Cambon, the secretary-general at the Quai d’Orsay, but such views did not bother Lloyd George or Wilson, or Clemenceau for that matter. “Diplomats,” in Lloyd George’s view, “were invented simply to waste time.”7

Paris was also filling up with petitioners, journalists and the merely curious. Elinor Glyn, the romantic novelist, entertained prominent men at her corner table at the Ritz and wrote articles asking “Are Women Changing? ” and “Is Chivalry Dead?” Franklin Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, persuaded his superiors that he had to supervise the sale of American naval property in Europe and arrived in Paris, a resentful and unhappy Eleanor in tow. Their marriage was already falling to pieces; now she found him too attentive to the Parisian women. William Orpen and Augustus John settled in to paint official portraits of the conference, although the latter spent much of his energy on riotous parties. British Cabinet ministers popped over for a day or two at a time. Bonar Law, the deputy prime minister, bravely flew back and forth, dressed in a special fur-lined flying suit. Lloyd George’s eldest daughter, Olwen, a lively young married woman, came over for a brief visit. Clemenceau offered her a lift in his car one afternoon and, as they chatted, asked if she like art. Yes, she replied enthusiastically, and he whipped out a set of salacious postcards.8

Elsa Maxwell, not yet the doyenne of international café society that she would become, secured a passage from New York as companion to a glamorous divorced woman who was on the lookout for a new husband. The two women gave marvelous parties in a rented house. General Pershing supplied the drink; Maxwell played the latest Cole Porter songs on the piano; and the divorcée found her husband, a handsome American general called Douglas MacArthur. Outside, early one morning, two young officers fought a duel with sabers over yet another American beauty.9

Attractive women had a wonderful time in Paris that year. Few delegates had brought their wives; indeed, it had been expressly forbidden most of the junior ranks. “All the most beautiful & well dressed society ladies appear to have been brought over by the various Departments,” wrote Hankey to his wife. “I do not know how they do their work, but in the evening they dance and sing and play bridge!” The puritanical suspected that worse was going on than bridge. An American female journalist traveled “with complete frankness and tremendous enthusiasm” with an Italian general. In the hotels where the delegations stayed, women wandered freely into men’s rooms. A couple of Canadian Red Cross nurses who made quite a career of mistaking the number on the door and then refusing to leave had to be sent home. The war appeared to have loosened the old inhibitions. “Vice is rampant in Paris,” said Elinor Glyn severely. “Lesbians dine together openly, in groups of six sometimes, at Larue’s. . . . Men are the same. Nothing is sacred, nothing is hidden, not even vice and avarice. 10

Paris offered many distractions: the races at St. Cloud, excellent restaurants if you could afford the prices and could get in, and the Opéra, where there were productions of the great favorites: Les Contes d’Ho fmann, Madame Butterfly, La Bohème. The theaters were gradually reopening, with everything from the classics to farces. Sarah Bernhardt appeared in a gala for a French charity, and Isadora Duncan’s brother did interpretative dances. Ruth Draper came over from London to give her monologues, and Canadian delegates were slightly shocked by the musical Phi Phi. “We concurred, however,” wrote one to his wife, “in thinking there was something to be said for the open eyes. I should like to know if, through greater knowledge, the French escape diseases of a kind which, there is no doubt, are prevalent with us.” Even Wilson, who was usually in bed by ten P.M., went out to a revue; he found some of the jokes too crude but enjoyed “the decent parts.” Elsa Maxwell carried Balfour off to a nightclub for the first time in his life. “Allow me to thank you,” said the elder statesman with his usual courtesy, “for the most delightful and degrading evening I have ever spent.” 11

Other delegates found more innocent pastimes: early morning walks in the Bois de Boulogne, bridge games in the evening. Balfour tried to play tennis whenever he could. Lansing passed his evenings quietly reading philosophy. The chief Italian delegates, Sonnino and Orlando, kept to their hotel. Lloyd George went out occasionally in the evenings to restaurants or the theater, although Frances Stevenson found that his arrival always caused an unfortunate stir. She also complained one evening when he flirted with a young woman from the British delegation. “However, he was quite open about it & I think it did him good, so that I did not mind.” 12

Social life in Paris started to revive. When Prince Murat and Elsa Maxwell went together to a costume ball—Murat as Clemenceau, and Maxwell, who was rather plump, as Lloyd George—their car was stopped on the Champs-Elysées by a huge, cheering crowd. In the bar at the Ritz, people met to drink the new cocktails. Out at Versailles, in her famous villa, the decorator Elsie de Wolfe (later Lady Mendl) gave teas for the more prominent delegates. Mrs. Wilson tried to drag Wilson out to some of the parties and receptions, to the dismay of his admirers.13

At the Hôtel Majestic, Ian Malcolm, Balfour’s private secretary, gave readings of his comic poems, “The Breaking Out of Peace” and “The Ballad of Prinkipo.” There were amateur theatricals in the basement. After Orpen did posters for one production which showed two naked children, the next revue had a chorus singing “We are two little Orpens / Of raiment bereft.” A British officer, who had come hundreds of miles to report on the situation in central Europe, went away in disgust. “Nobody at his level,” he told an American colleague, “could be bothered to listen to his account of the appalling conditions in Poland because they were totally preoccupied with discussing whether the ballroom should be used for theatricals to the exclusion of dancing on Tuesdays and Thursdays or just on Tuesdays.” Lloyd George’s youngest daughter, the sixteen-year-old Megan, had the time of her life. The hotel, said the wits, should be called the Megantic. Her father finally put his foot down and she was shipped off to a finishing school.14

The dancing at the Majestic became famous. The young nurses and typists—“like nymphs,” said an elderly diplomat—knew the latest dances, from the hesitation waltz to the fox-trot. Spectators were fascinated. “Why,” asked Foch, who dropped in one day, “do the British have such sad faces and such cheerful bottoms?” The Saturday night dances, in particular, were so popular that the authorities grew concerned about the impression being made and considered putting a stop to them. 15

The Paris Peace Conference had far fewer, however, of grand balls and extravagant entertainments than the Congress of Vienna. The most popular forms of social life were lunches and dinners, where the delegates got much useful work done. Lloyd George, more energetic than almost everyone else, had breakfast meetings as well. The supplicant nations laid on lavish meals where they poured out their demands. “I am beginning my work as social laborer again,” wrote Seymour to his wife. “Dinner with Bratianu tomorrow, lunch with Italian liberals on Saturday, dinner with the Serbs in the evening, and dinner with Czechoslovaks—Kramarz [Karel Kramář] and Benes—on Monday.” The Poles gave a lunch for the Americans that lasted until five in the afternoon; one after another, Polish historians, economists and geographers outlined the justice of Poland’s claims. The Chinese invited the foreign press to a special dinner. As the courses followed, one after the other, hour after hour, their guests waited to hear their hosts’ case. In impeccable English the Chinese chatted about this topic and that, everything but the Peace Conference. At 3:30 in the morning, the American correspondents went home, leaving one of their number to report. When he finally left, as dawn was breaking, the Chinese had still not explained the reason for the dinner.16

Some of the overseas delegates visited the battlefields. They tried, in letters home, to describe what they had seen: the splintered trees, the little wooden crosses with palm leaves dotting the fields, the shrapnel littering the road, the shell craters, the tangles of rusting barbed wire, the tanks and guns buried in the mud, the scraps of uniform, the unburied bones. “For miles and miles,” wrote Gordon Auchincloss, House’s son-in-law, “the ground is just a mass of deep shell craters, filled with water, and there are dozens of tanks, all shot to pieces, laying about the fields. I have never seen such horrible waste and such intense destruction.” They ventured into the trenches and picked up German helmets and empty shell cases for souvenirs. One party found some new fuses, “lovely playthings for the children.” They marveled at the mounds of rubble which had once been cities and towns. Like the ruins of Pompeii, said James Shotwell, an American professor, after he had visited the old cathedral city of Reims, although he was relieved to find a restaurant among the ruins serving sausages and sauerkraut.17

By the middle of February, the pace of work slackened as Wilson left on a quick trip back to the United States—officially, for the closing sessions of Congress; unofficially, to deal with the growing opposition to the League of Nations—and Lloyd George went back to London to cope with domestic problems. Balfour stood in for Lloyd George on the Supreme Council and Wilson, choosing yet again to ignore his own secretary of state, chose House as his deputy. Lansing, depressed and unwell—he was trying out a new treatment for his diabetes—felt the slight deeply. And it was by no means the first. When Lansing, an experienced international lawyer, had made some suggestions about the League of Nations at a meeting of the American delegation, Wilson had said curtly that he did not intend to have lawyers drafting the peace treaty. Since he was the only lawyer present, Lansing took this as an insult to both himself and his profession. Wilson repeatedly gave House the important jobs; Lansing was left to brief the press, something he hated. Wilson seems to have taken a malicious pleasure in stirring up trouble between House and Lansing and he was delighted when he heard anything to Lansing’s discredit. “Everything Mr. L. does seems to irritate him,” wrote Mrs. Wilson’s secretary in her diary after a visit from a tearful Mrs. Lansing, “the fact that they go out to dinner so much, accept invitations from people he (the P.) doesn’t like. He is simply intolerant of any form of life save the one he leads.” Wilson’s behavior was cruel and ultimately costly: Lansing would take his revenge when the peace settlements came up for approval back home.18

Both House and Balfour were anxious to speed up the work of the conference in the absence of their superiors. They decided to concentrate on getting at least general terms ready for Germany (the details, it was assumed, could be negotiated directly in what was still expected to be a full-blown peace conference). The special commissions and committees (in the end there were almost sixty) were told to have their reports ready by March 6. That would leave a week for tidying up before Wilson’s return. The plan was to call the German delegation before the end of the month. This was wildly optimistic. 19

The delegates groaned but plowed ahead. When Nicolson met Marcel Proust—“white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced”—at a dinner at the Ritz, he found the great writer fascinated by the details of the work. “Tell me about the committees,” Proust commanded. Nicolson started by saying that they generally met at ten in the morning. Proust begged for more details. “You take a car from the Delegation. You get out at the Quai d’Orsay. You climb the stairs. You go into the room. And then? Be specific, my friend, be specific.”20

By the time Wilson left Paris, the League’s covenant had largely been drawn up, some progress had been made on the German terms and most of the territorial commissions had been created. But almost nothing had been decided on the Ottoman empire, and the treaties with Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria had scarcely been considered. There was less and less talk about a preliminary peace conference and more about the quantity of work that had to be got through before the enemy states could be summoned to Paris. Although it was not yet acknowledged, what was happening in Paris was now the Peace Conference proper. In the hotels and meeting rooms, there were gloomy speculations about whether a peace could be made before the world went up in flames.

On February 19, as Clemenceau was leaving his house in the Rue Franklin to drive to a meeting with House and Balfour at the Crillon, a man in work clothes who had been lurking behind one of the public urinals jumped out and fired several shots at the car. Clemenceau later told Lloyd George that the moment seemed to last forever. One bullet hit him between the ribs, just missing vital organs. (It was too dangerous to remove and he carried it for the rest of his life.) Clemenceau’s assailant, Eugène Cottin, a half-mad anarchist, was seized by the crowd, which was waiting as usual to see the prime minister’s comings and goings, and nearly lynched. Clemenceau was carried back into his house. When his faithful assistant Mordacq rushed in, he found him pale but conscious. “They shot me in the back,” Clemenceau told him. “They didn’t even dare to attack me from the front.” 21

“Dear, dear,” said Balfour when the news reached the Crillon, “I wonder what that portends.” Many people in Paris feared the worst, especially when news came in a couple of days later that the socialist chief minister of Bavaria had been assassinated. Lloyd George cabled Kerr from London. “If the attempt is a Bolshevist one it shows what lunatics these anarchists are for nothing would do them as much harm as a successful attempt on Clemenceau’s life and even a failure will exasperate opinion in France and make it quite impossible to have any dealings with them.” 22

Clemenceau carried the whole thing off with his usual panache. Visitors found him sitting up in an armchair, complaining about Cottin’s marksmanship—“a Frenchman who misses his target six times out of seven at point-blank range”—and arguing with his doctors: “Doctors, I know them better than anyone because I am one myself.” To the nurse who said that his escape was a miracle, he replied that “if Heaven intended to perform a miracle, it would have been better to have prevented [my] aggressor from shooting at [me] at all!” He refused to allow Cottin to be condemned to death: “I can’t see an old republican like me and also an opponent of the death penalty having a man executed for the crime of lèse-majesté.” Cottin got a ten-year prison sentence but was released halfway through, much to Clemenceau’s annoyance, after the left took up his cause.

Messages of sympathy poured in, from Lloyd George and King George in London, from Wilson out on the Atlantic, from Sarah Bernhardt—“just now Clemenceau is France”—and from the thousands of French who regarded Clemenceau as the father of their victory. The pope sent his blessing (the old anticlerical radical sent his own in return) and ordinary soldiers left their decorations on Clemenceau’s doorstep. Poincaré, who had initially been as shocked as anyone, was furious. “Singular collective madness, strange legend which hides the reality and will falsify, no doubt, history.” The day after the attempt, Clemenceau was walking in his garden; a week later he was back at work. He was severely shaken, though. Wilson, among others, felt that he never again had the same powers of concentration. 23

Back in London, Lloyd George was having more success confronting his enemies. He jumped off the train on February 10 and went straight into meetings with Bonar Law and his chief adviser on labor questions. “I saw him a little later,” reported the secretary of the cabinet to Hankey, “and he was extraordinarily cheerful and vigorous and happy about your doings in Paris and full of schemes of dealing with the miners and the railway men should they come out during the next week or two.” In the end he managed to head off the threatened strikes, arranging for commissions of inquiry and bringing management and labor together as he had so often done before. In his four weeks in London he also created a new Ministry of Transport and introduced a whole array of parliamentary bills dealing with social issues. 24

Wilson’s trip home was much less successful. The George Washington ran into bad weather and, as it finally reached the coast of New England, nearly came to grief on a sandbar. And trouble was waiting on land. In Washington the last days of the old Congress were marked by partisan bitterness and a filibuster by Republicans who hoped, among other things, to delay important bills until after the recess when the newly elected Congress, with its Republican majority, would meet. Ominously, the Republicans were increasingly taking the opportunity to attack the League. In the country as a whole, support for the League remained strong but leading members of the influential League to Enforce Peace were privately contemplating revisions to build bridges to moderate Republicans.25

Wilson showed little interest in compromise. He landed in Boston on February 24 and immediately gave a rousing and partisan speech. He and the United States, he said, were carrying out a great work in Paris; those who questioned this were selfish and shortsighted. On their seats the audience found copies of the draft covenant for the League. The senators in Washington had not yet seen it. This was tactless, and it was not Wilson’s only political blunder. Boston was the hometown of his great rival, the Republican senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge.

Lodge, of whom it was once said that his mind was like his native soil, “naturally barren, but highly cultivated,” came from the New England aristocracy. He was short, bad-tempered and a tremendous snob. He shared Wilson’s conviction that the United States had a mission to make the world a better place and was even prepared to contemplate some form of league to keep the peace. But he disagreed with Wilson’s methods and scorned his conviction that the League could solve all the world’s problems. And he loathed the man—not just, as is sometimes said, because they disagreed, but also because he thought him ignoble and a coward. Wilson’s speech that day in Boston was further proof to Lodge not only of the president’s folly, but also of his baseness. Wilson had asked him and the other members of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee to hold off all discussion of the League until he had had a chance to explain it to them in person in Washington. 26

The two men had been antagonists for years. They had disagreed over the start of the war, when Lodge had been for intervening on the Allied side at once and Wilson had opted for neutrality, and over its end, when Lodge would have marched on to Berlin and Wilson chose to sign an armistice. Now they disagreed over the peace. Wilson put his trust in the League and collective security as a way to end war. Lodge, a pessimist with little faith in the perfectibility of human nature, preferred to trust power. He wanted to hem Germany in with strong states, a renewed Poland, a solid Czechoslovakia and a France beefed up with Alsace and Lorraine and perhaps even the Rhineland. If the United States joined any association at all, it should be one with other democracies, where there was a community of interests, not a league which threatened to draw the country into vague and open-ended commitments. 27

Lodge represented the moderate middle of the Republican party. On one wing stood those, mainly from the Midwest, who recoiled from any contact with wicked Europe, and on the other the internationalists, often from the East Coast, who supported the League enthusiastically. Wilson could have reached out to many in the Republican party but instead he drove them away, with his refusal to take any leading Republicans along to Paris, with his insistence that, in the congressional elections of November 1918, a vote for the Democrats was a vote for peace and a vote for the Republicans something quite different, and now with his actions on his return trip to the United States.

Unfortunately, at the same time he did little to conciliate the doubters in his own party. He refused to talk at all to a Southern senator who he said had been nothing but “an ambulance-chaser” in his law career. Even his little jokes now had a sour edge. His remark when he saw a new grandson for the first time made the rounds: “With his mouth open and his eyes shut, I predict that he will make a Senator when he grows up.”

From Boston, Wilson hurried on to Washington. On February 26 at Colonel House’s urging, he gave a dinner in the White House for the members of the key Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees. The evening did not go well. Lodge, seated next to Mrs. Wilson, had to listen to her happy chatter about the wonderful reception her husband had received in Boston. Some of the guests complained that, after dinner, they were not offered enough cigars or enough to drink. More seriously, they came away thinking that Wilson had hectored them, as one said, “as though they were being reproved for neglect of their lessons by a very frigid teacher in a Sunday School class.” When he saw House again, the president was resentful. “Your dinner,” he told him, “was not a success.”28

As he was to do so often, Wilson found reassurance in telling himself that the people were with him even if their representatives were not. And he was probably right. When a leading American journal asked its readers whether they favored the League, more than two thirds said yes. Unfortunately the public did not vote on treaties but the Senate did—and there a two-thirds majority, which was necessary to ratify a treaty, was not so easily obtained. On March 4, as Wilson was preparing to head back to Europe, Lodge circulated a round-robin rejecting the covenant as it was drawn and asking the negotiators in Paris to postpone any further discussion of the League until the treaty with Germany had been finished. Thirty-nine Republican senators signed, more than a third of the total membership of the Senate. Wilson’s initial reaction was to wonder if he might somehow bypass the Senate altogether. 29

The Congress duly adjourned on March 4, in keeping with its calendar at the time, leaving much unfinished financial and other business. Wilson issued a public rebuke: “A group of men in the Senate have deliberately chosen to embarrass the administration of the Government, to imperil the financial interests of the railway systems of the country, and to make arbitrary use of the powers intended to be employed in the interests of the people.” That afternoon he started north for the George Washington and Europe. On March 5, in one last speech, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, he wound up his brief stay in the United States with another attack on the opponents of the League: “I cannot imagine how these gentlemen can live and not live in the atmosphere of the world. I cannot imagine how they can live and not be in contact with the events of their times, and I cannot particularly imagine how they can be Americans and set up a doctrine of careful selfishness thought out in the last detail.” 30

When his train pulled into Paris on March 14, only a small group of French dignitaries greeted him at the station. As he drove to his new quarters, at the Place des Etats-Unis, just opposite Lloyd George’s apartment, there were no ecstatic crowds as there had been the previous December. The house, the property of a wealthy banker, was not as grand or as large as the Hôtel Murat. The daisies were beginning to emerge, and so were the problems at the Peace Conference.

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