Diem Betrayed - Anti-Diem Propaganda leaflets
SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)
President Ngo Dinh Diem
I will give the reader a very brief review of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of the Republic of Vietnam. I could write 10,000 words, and depending on my politics could make him into a great or a despised leader. This opening section is just meant to show the reader that Diem was fully supported by the United States until it became politically convenient to let him be killed.
Ngo Dinh Diem was born 3 January 1901 in Hue, Vietnam, the son of a minister. His family was Roman Catholic and his father was a counselor to the Vietnamese emperor. In September 1945, Diem was kidnapped by Viet Minh agents and taken to see Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh offered Diem a position in his Communist government, but Diem refused. Diem then traveled to the United States. He returned to Vietnam in 1954 where he was appointed Prime Minister.
President Diem with President Eisenhower May 1957
Eisenhower called Diem the miracle man of Asia.
After the French retreated from Vietnam as a result of their defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords, Diem led the effort to create the Republic of Vietnam. Because of his strong anti-Communist philosophy, the United States backed him with money and later, massive military support.
Mervyn Roberts makes some of the following points in his paper entitled: United States psychological operations in support of counterinsurgency: Vietnam, 1960 to 1965:
Edward G. Lansdale as Deputy Assistant to the Secretary Defense for Special Operations noted that without mobilizing their total resources, the South Vietnamese could do little more than postpone defeat. This mobilization required the assistance of expanded psychological operations. Lansdale noted that American criticism of Diems leadership caused the president to feel isolated and that this led Diem to withdraw into a shell. In Lansdales mind, Diem was the indispensable man. As Lansdale wrote, The next time we have become holier than thou, we might find it sobering to reflect on North Vietnam. Do the Soviets and the Chinese Communists give Ho Chi Minh a similar hard time, or do they aid and abet him?
In order to unify the country, we need President Ngo Dinh Diem
This banner hung on the southern side of the Hien Luong Bridge on Highway 1, over the Ben Hai River, near the 17th parallel. This was the symbolic passage between North and South Vietnam after 1954.
Ngo Dinh Diem was the first president of South Vietnam. He took power on 26 October 1956 after a disputed 1955 plebiscite. At first he was popular as the economy of the country prospered. However, Diem was a Roman Catholic and this led to problems with the Republic's Montagnard natives and its Buddhist majority. The Buddhists had a political agenda, and after several set themselves on fire, Diem gradually lost the backing of the United States. There were several attempts on Diems life by his own military. From 1954 onwards, the Americans had been urging political reforms upon Diem, who repeatedly promised that reforms would be made but never enacted any. With the support President Eisenhower of the United States, he refused to hold countrywide elections in 1956 (a stipulation of the 1954 Geneva Accords), fearing, almost certainly correctly, that he would lose to Ho Chi Minh.
Diem could justify his decision by saying that the Republic of Vietnam was democratic, made up of many different parties that would split the vote. The North, under Ho Chi Minh, was a dictatorship. The votes would be along party lines as directed by the party leadership. To hold a free election was to give away the nation. The United States, now operating under the Domino Theory, and fearful of a Communist takeover of all of Southeast Asia, supported him. In late 1957, with American aid, Diem counterattacked his critics. He used the help of the American Central Intelligence Agency to identify those who sought to bring his government down and arrested thousands. In 1959, Diem passed a series of acts known as Law 10/59 that allowed the government to hold someone in jail without formal charges if they were suspected of being a member of the Communist Party.
Roberts adds that by 1962, problems with training, indoctrination and manning plagued the ARVN and Diem was adamant that he needed Vietnamese Ranger companies to fight the growing Communist insurgency. South Vietnamese military and administrative leadership was improving. Diems cohort of young nationalists had replaced many of the French-era officials. Along with the increase in U.S. military aid, this new generation of leaders brought about startling progress. In order to encourage Viet Cong desertion, Diem announced the Chieu Hoi program in 1963. This program encouraged VC to rally to the government. Throughout the summer of 1963 Diem dealt with a growing Buddhist crisis. Diems refusal to allow Buddhist temples to fly flags during Buddhas birthday celebrations in May 1963 began a wave of riots and self-immolations by monks. This turmoil was seized on by the international press to portray Diems government as illegitimate. Unwittingly, this supported a North Vietnamese propaganda effort.
North Vietnamese histories make clear the extent to which this movement was organized and agitated by Communist agents within the Buddhist movement. It also had the effect of helping lead Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to begin working with coup plotters immediately after his arrival in Vietnam that August.
Prior to the November coup, the North admitted that the South had gained control over more than two-thirds of the rural population and established more than 3,500 strategic hamlets. They further claimed that over 40,000 cadre and soldiers had entered the South by the end of 1963. Diem was fighting the Army of North Vietnam and winning.
President Diem Killed by Vietnamese Soldiers in Military Armed Personnel Carrier
Generals in the Vietnam Army plotted a coup with the approval of U.S. officials. The impetus for the coup occurred on the night of 21 August 1963. Government forces throughout the country attacked Buddhist pagodas throughout South Vietnam. Thousands of Buddhists were arrested and more were beaten and injured. The United States blamed Ngo Dinh Nhu and his special forces for this attack, but wondered if he had the blessing of Diem. Ngo Dinh Nhu was the younger brother and chief political advisor of President Diem. He commanded the ARVN Special Forces, a paramilitary unit which served as the Ngo family's private army, and the Can Lao political apparatus which served as the regimes secret police. The people blamed the government and the United States who supported Diem and had trained the Special Forces troops used in the attack. Almost immediately, Kennedy was approached by his people who wanted to remove Nhu from power, and if Diem would not follow orders, the president himself.
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Francis Leahy adds in his Master of Military Art and Science paper entitled: Why did the Strategic Hamlet Program Fail?
Frederick Nolting, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1961 to 1963, drew the conclusion that the inability of the U.S. administration to accept Diem's style of government resulted in the coup of I November 1963. Diem failed to match the standards of democratic government set by the United States and in spite of earlier pledges to refrain from interfering in the internal politics of South Vietnam, U.S. officials encouraged dissident generals to revolt.
According to Stanley Karnow, President Kennedy gave the new Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, the complete discretion to suspend U.S. aid to Vietnam. In a situation where the Diem regime was almost entirely dependent on U.S. financial support, this gave Lodge the mandate to manage U.S. policy in Vietnam, and the policy as Lodge defined It, was to topple the Diem regime.
It has been reported that Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem. Other reports say that U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge assured the Generals that the U.S. would not stand in their way. A top secret, three-page, eyes-only Ambassador Lodge, Department of State Telegram dated 24 August 1963 says in part:
US Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhus hands If, in spite of your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved We must at same time also tell key military leaders that US would find it impossible to continue support GVN militarily and economically unless above steps are taken immediately which we recognize requires removal of Nhus from the scene We recognize the necessity of removing taint on military for pagoda raids and placing blame squarely on Nhu If he remains obdurate we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell appropriate military commanders that we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown central government mechanism Needless to say; we have held knowledge of this telegram to minimum essential people and assume you will take similar precautions to avoid any premature leaks.
So, being careful not to commit itself, the telegram sent months before Diems murder wants the Nhu family fired from their various appointed government positions and if this is not done, tells the Vietnamese military there will be no more cash but if it is necessary to remove Diem, the US will provide support. It is what we call a smoking gun.
Diem learned about the coup and he and his brother fled to Cho Lon through a tunnel. After spending a day in the tunnel, they agreed to surrender to the generals. The generals said they would have a safe passage out of the country; but, on their way to get out of the country on 2 November 1963, the two were killed by troops who had their own agenda. Diem and his brother were assassinated in the rear of a personnel carrier.
Roberts talks about the death of Diem in: Let the Dogs Bark: The Psychological War in Vietnam, 1960-1968:
The radio in Saigon broadcast a herald of change on the afternoon of 1 November 1963. The first reports of a coup crackled across South Vietnams domestic service at 3:41 p.m. General Duong Van Big Minh ordered loyalist troops to lay down arms, and the station changed its name to the Voice of the Armed Forces. General Minh continued, Dear compatriots, as of this hour, the army has resolutely risen-up to liberate you from the dictatorial yoke. Minutes later, the station deceptively announced that Diem agreed to resign and three hours later it announced the declaration of martial law. On 2 November 1963, President Diem surrendered and was later murdered by coup plotters. The coup, along with the assassination of President Kennedy later that month, proved to be a critical event in the brief history of South Vietnam
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, South Vietnamese PSYWAR units focused on explaining what had happened. The principal themes consisted of reasons for the coup détat and the new military government policies. For example, the 23rd and 25th Divisions dropped a total of 640,000 leaflets using these themes during the first week alone
Leaflet 88 President Nguyen Van Thieu Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky
I have read some reports that imply that Nguyen Van Thieu might have been the person who ordered Diem killed. There is no evidence of this. Other reports say the order was given by General Duong Van Minh. Those reports claim that Minh did not believe he had enough support among the people if Diem attempted to return to power. Allegedly, the other generals in the plot were not told of Minhs plan and it caused a fracture that never healed and doomed the new government to failure.
Diem was first replaced by General Big Minh Duong Van Minh. There were then a number of different leaders; Nguyen Thanh; Nguyen Van Thieu, Nguyen Cao Ky (Vice President and Prime Minister); Tran Van Huong; and right at the end - Big Minh again as the South tried to bargain with the oncoming victorious North Vietnamese Army. One Vietnamese told me that it reminded her of postwar Italy, with a new head of state every time you opened a newspaper. It was a mess, and one that the United States helped create.
The United States government first claimed that it had no knowledge of the coup that overthrew Diem, but later admitted that American officials met with the generals who organized the plot and gave them encouragement to go through with their plans. Diem simply would not allow himself to be ordered about by the Americans. He was the president of an independent country, but apparently was considered an impediment to the accomplishment of U.S. goals in Southeast Asia. President Kennedy was aware of the plot to overthrow Diem, but there is no evidence that he had knowledge of his assassination. Curiously, President Kennedy was assassinated three weeks later and some Vietnamese have called that karmic retribution.
Ho Chi Minh
Diem had been a strong anti-Communist and Ho Chi Minh allegedly said when hearing of the coup:
I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.
The North Vietnamese Politburo was even more surprised:
The consequences of the 1 November coup d'état will be contrary to the calculations of the U.S. imperialists...Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists The coup d'état on 1 November 1963 will not be the last.
To give an example of how the Viet Cong feared Diem we need only look at a catalog of VC leaflets disseminated in 1962 and filed in a United States Information Service booklet entitled National Liberation Front Propaganda. A brief look at some of the enemy leaflets discloses: An anti-Diem leaflet telling of Viet Cong victories against his army; a charge that Diem has killed elderly religious Vietnamese; a leaflet calling for the people to rise up against the oppressor Diem; A letter to the Vietnamese Army telling them that Diem is just carrying on French colonialism; a 41-page document alleging Diem crimes against the people; and a leaflet that said For the past eight years our land has been a sea of blood, all in a vain attempt to stop the revolution. I could add another dozen, but the reader can see that the Viet Cong considered President Diem to be a serious contender.
The previously classified Confidential MACV Combined Intelligence Center VC PROPAGANDA FACTBOOK dated 29 March 1969 says about the Viet Congs attacks on Diem:
Viet Cong propaganda initially assailed the Diem regime. All of Vietnam's troubles were blamed on the Diem government by the massive National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFLSVN) agitation, propaganda, and indoctrination program. The fall of the Diem regime on 1 November 1963 presented the NFLSVN with both an opportunity and a crisis. The virtual anarchy in the countryside presented the NFLSVN with an unprecedented opportunity to extend its control. The swift non-Communist takeover, however, presented the NFLSVN with a new enemy, the new military junta, which had new strengths and weaknesses. VC propaganda had concentrated its efforts at toppling the Diem government, but the sudden unexpected collapse of that government left a void in the VC propaganda program.
CIA Director William Colby said the Diem assassination was America's primary error in Vietnam, and with proper backing Diem might have won the war in just a few years.
Lyndon B. Johnson said about the Washington Liberals who hated Diem:
They started on me with Diem. He was corrupt and he ought to be killed. So we killed him. We all got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs and assassinated him. Now, we've really had no political stability [in South Vietnam] since then.
The independent researcher and author Nguyen Ky Phong had this to say about Diem:
Diem was not the best but he was much better than his predecessors, especially emperor Bao Dai. He also stood out among his contemporaries as an incorruptible, unapproachable anti-French patriot. His ascension to power was neither based on his relation with the colonialists or any power, at least before he was appointed Prime Minister by Bao Dai with American and French consent. While many Vietnamese national leaders indulged in the privileges that accompanied their positions, President Diem did not. He lived a life of an ascetic.
He did have weaknesses. His dependency on his brothers and parochial and religious associates was too great to allow him to make an independent and realistic assessment of the actual situation in Vietnam. He traveled from time to time to visit his subjects, but some believe that the people he met were told what to say and how to act. There were reports that his three brothers used his name to build financial and political influence for themselves. Governmental and Civil Service procedures were not followed or enforced by the president, which caused grave discontent and distrust within the rank and file of civil servants. Certain military officers were promoted due to their wealth, family or connection with the president's staff or family. The position of Secretary of Defense was not filled until the final days of the regime. The position of Presidential Advisor was delegated to the president's brother (Ngo Dinh Nhu) without the consent or advice of the senate or any authoritative government agency. During the length of his presidency Diem was unable to fend off accusations of nepotism, cronyism and favoritism.
The question of what might have happened if President Diem was left in power is difficult to answer. There were two earlier attempts to overthrow Diem. The abortive November 1960 coup détat should have been a warning to Diem but he failed to react or order any reform to appease the opposition. Could the Diem regime have survived had the United States not acquiesced to a coup to replace him? Would he eventually have changed his course, replaced his many yes-men and overhauled his entire administration? And, even if he were to do all that, would South Vietnam have survived the relentless and determined attacks from the Communist North? Diem was not allowed to live so we will never know might have happened.
Ken Welch says about the loss of President Diem in Tiger Hound: How we Won the War and Lost the Country:
The strategic hamlet program was abandoned. The communists were thus given carte blanche to expand their efforts. Throughout the country, they simply walked into small villages and recruited people that already had weapons and training courtesy of the United States Army. The communists fully appreciated President Diems strategic hamlet program. In the first 12 months following Diems assassination, communists killed over 11,000 village officials.
Another Vietnamese national that lived through the Diem Regime said:
Diem and his family (Nhu and his wife) killed many people. I remember hearing whispers that if you didn't vote for Diem at the election time, you would have midnight visitors and that wouldn't be good for you. Vietnam at that time needed a strong leader to fight the war. Diem (and his family) was that, but they went too far with the Buddhists, most Vietnamese are Buddhists and many of them were in control of the armed forces back then. Diem should have focused his fight on the North and not with the Buddhists. Big Minh (Leader of the military coup) was a good Buddhist man. He loved his country and people. He was a good general but not strong and ruthless enough to lead the county.
I have read reports by some Vietnamese that said that the Vietnam War was lost when Diem was killed. None of the later leaders were as strong anti-Communists as he was. After Diems death there was a parade of leaders, none of whom showed any great leadership abilities.
With the loss of Diem the United States was forced to send more troops to Vietnam and became more heavily involved in the fighting. The ultimate effect of United States participation in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem was to commit Washington to Saigon even more deeply. Having had a hand in the coup, the United States had more responsibility for the South Vietnamese governments that followed Diem. The weakness of the Saigon government thus became a factor in U.S. escalations of the Vietnam War, leading to the major ground war that the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson opened in 1965 with the eventual deployment of 500,000 troops to Vietnam. We might say that the United States sealed its own doom and the death of 58,000 American soldiers when it took part in Diems death.
In the title above I talk of American betrayal. Why is that? I dont hold the United States responsible for the overthrow or death of Diem. The Americans knew a little of the coup but that was a Vietnamese operation. What bothers me is what came next. The United States could have backed the new regime and said that they were patriotic Vietnamese officers that wanted what was best for their nation. Nobody could fault the U.S. for that. Instead, American propagandists at the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) prepared about a dozen leaflets that attacked Diem personally. Diem had been backed by the Americans so to turn on an old ally and publically insult and berate him is a betrayal in my eyes.
When I write these articles on wartime PSYOP I always try to find the most colorful and most illustrative leaflets available. Unfortunately, in the case of the anti-Diem leaflets, they are almost all text. Just a very few have illustrations. They also tend to be rather long with tedious political messages. I shall illustrate a few of the leaflets just to prove the theme of this article, but the reader should understand that in most cases I will cut the long messages down to only a few interesting lines. I only want to translate the more flammable text of the leaflets, not the entire messages.
Roberts mentions the campaign to vilify Diem and support the new government:
On 2 November 1963, President Diem was overthrown and later murdered. Despite his shortcomings, Diem had made progress in unifying the nation and fighting an insurgency increasingly manned by Northerners. His death unleashed a period of instability at a vital moment that allowed the insurgency to grow to a structural threat to the nation. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, Vietnamese PSYWAR units were focused on explaining what had happened. A total of 140,000 leaflets were dropped by the 23rd Division during the first week of November 1963. The principal message consisted of explaining the coup détat and the new military government. As one MACV report described the process in Darlac Province, ten-man teams were attached to each district to provide each district with a means to counter VC propaganda against the new government.
Perhaps the earliest anti-Diem leaflet is SP-40. The SP was a JUSPAO symbol that meant Special project. Later in the war the SP was removed from U.S. leaflets. Some of the text on this leaflet is:
TO THE CADRES, REGULAR TROOPS, GUERRILLAS AND MILITIAMEN STILL IN THE COMMUNIST RANKS
After living for years under the cruel, dictatorial and feudal rule of the Ngo family, the people of South Vietnam and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam rose up on 1 November 1963 and overthrew the rotten regime Now that the treacherous regime has been overthrown by the mighty revolutionary movement sweeping free Vietnam, The Revolutionary Army makes to you all this cordial appeal and invites you to return to the side of the people and the Army so that we can work together to build a happy, free, and democratic regime for Vietnam .
Is a letter to the Military Cadres in South Vietnam Liberation Front. It is dated 7 November 1963. Some of the text is:
The Army of the Republic of Vietnam has overthrown Ngo Dinh Diem and released South Vietnam from a dictatorial regime. Dear friends, you have always said that you are fighting against the dictatorial regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Now that the Diem regime has been overthrown by the Army, if you are patriotic, there is no reason not to cooperate with the new government .
A similar un-coded leaflet is a letter from The Provisional Administration of Long An to the Military Cadres in South Vietnam Liberation Front Dated 7 November 1963. Since it is similar to the above leaflet I wont depict or translate it.
Leaflet SP-48 is a letter leaflet entitled: Compatriots of Binh Duong, Increase your Vigilance, Unite to Annihilate Communism, dated 13 November 1963 from the Province Chief of Binh Duong. This letter explains that although there has been a revolution, Vietnam is still a Republic.
Another all text anti-Diem leaflet that says in part:
Proclamation: Military Revolutionary Council
To Those who are Among the Viet Congs Ranks:Confronted with the corruption of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, the Armed Forces became fully aware of the necessity of liberating the people in order to establish a truly democratic regime .
SP-53 is an all-test leaflet entitled To Those who are Among the Viet Congs Ranks. It talks of the totalitarian regime of Diem being toppled.
On 1 November 1963, the Revolutionary gunfire of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam exploded to overthrow the despotic, cruel and corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem regime The Army has successfully eliminated Nhu-Diem and their lackeys in order to liberate you from their oppressing yoke .
SP-57 is an all-text leaflet letter from the Rung Sat Special Zone Commander, Major Nguyen Hai Dang, to Compatriots Living in the Special Zone and Neighboring Areas. Some of the text is:
For the past nine years you have lived under the oppression of the corrupt and cruel Ngo family. You lived in constant fear, not able to make use of your eyes and your ears Recently, adding to their crimes, the Nhu-Diem clique plotted to sell the country to the Communists.
I remind the reader again that Diem was the selection of the American government and known as a fierce anti-Communist. Here he is dead just a few days and American propagandists are writing that he was selling the country to his sworn enemy. I find this despicable.
SP-58 is an all-text letter leaflet entitled Appeal to Young Men Serving in the Communist Ranks from Major Nguyen Hai Dang. Some of the text is:
During the past nine years, under the despotic, corrupt, and cruel family dictatorship of Ngo Dinh Diem and his clan, sufferings were ignored and you were oppressed and plundered without pity .
SP-62 is an illustrated letter addressed to All Cadres, Soldiers and Guerrilla Partisans serving in the Viet Cong Ranks from a defector named Van Cong Chuc, dated 1 December 1963. The former Viet Cong mentions the successful revolution and the overthrow of the Diem regime. He says that the leaflet can be used as a surrender pass. At the upper left is a photo of Van Gong Chuc, the District Chief, Chucs father and the Civic Action Leader. At the lower right the defector received gifts from the Womens Youth Organization.
Leaflets SP-65 and SP-67 both depict photographs of members of the new revolutionary Council At the left is Major General Duong Van Minh, Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. The text says:
He is a man of the people. He has suffered much at the hands of evil people He is a kindly man and loved by all who know him.
Prime Minister Nguyen Ngoc Tho is at the right. The text says in part:
He is an ardent Buddhist He has great interest in the overall national plan for the development of the Vietnamese economy.
The back of leaflet SP-65 tells of the aims of the new national government now that Diem is gone. It reminds the people that:
For the glory of greater Vietnam all loyal Vietnamese must cooperate with the government against the foreign led Communist guerrillas.
Lieutenant General Duong Van (Big) Minh
[This un-coded leaflet was probably printed by the Vietnamese Army. Minh led the South Vietnamese army under Prime Minister Diem. After the assassination he led Vietnam for three months before being replaced, and briefly led South Vietnam again in 1975 before surrendering the nation to the North Vietnamese Communists. He got the nickname, Big Minh, because he was six feet tall and weighed 198 pounds. It also distinguished him from General Tran Van (Little) Minh.
The front depicts a photograph of Big Minh and the text:
Lieutenant General Duong Van Minh
Chairman of the Revolutionary Soldiers Committee.
The back shows a scene of tanks and people in front of the Presidential palace and the text:
Commemorate the Success of the 1-11-1963 Revolution.
The Gia Long Palace, after a night of smoke and fighting was finally assaulted and occupied by Revolutionary troops to end a dictatorial, corrupt and anarchist regime.
The back of SP-67 mentions some of the accomplishments of the new government. Some of them are:
Liberated from prison all those illegally held; brought new freedoms to the people; Established a new system of justice with equal treatment for all .\
This leaflet is heavily illustrated with four photographs. Some of the text is:
The despotic government of the Ngo Dinh Diem family was put to an end by the November 1st Revolution.
The leaflet goes on to say that the local Province Chief, Major Ly Troung Nhon will present hamlet students with gifts from the new government. The pictures show: a school girl with new textbooks; Tools given by the American for the hamlet workers; school children with their new textbooks and school children given copybooks at the dedication of a new hamlet school.
SP-74 is an all text leaflet letter to Dear Compatriots from Major Lu Mong Chi, Province Chief, Bien Tuy Sector. Some of the text is:
The dictatorial, family ruling regime of Ngo Dinh Diem is being replaced by a truly free and democratic regime. A new page of our peoples history begins .
This ends our brief look at the Vietnamese and American propaganda campaign to destroy the reputation and legacy of the First President of Vietnam. Diem was no angel, but he was Americas man, supported by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and paid with US tax dollars and CIA clandestine funds. To turn on him is such a way is not what we expect from a loyal ally. I think it is disgraceful.
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