NATO: Origin Story, Meaning, Founding Countries, Article 5, & Other Major Facts

Created in the aftermath of World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, popularly known as NATO, is a military alliance of some of the most powerful North American countries and European countries. The original purpose of the alliance was to counter any possible aggression against Western Europe by the Soviet Union.

However, over the decades, the objectives of NATO have seen some modifications. Also, NATO has seen significant increase in its membership since its formation in 1949.

What are some of the factors that have accounted for NATO’s growth in membership? Perhaps it has to do with NATO’s famous Article 5, which states that an attack on a NATO member is tantamount to an attack on the rest. What else do we know about NATO’s Article 5? And has the article ever been invoked?

World History Edu presents the history and changes that have characterized this more than seven-decade Atlantic alliance, whose combined military capability knows no equal in the world.

NATO: Quick Facts

Full name: North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Formed: August 24, 1949

Members as at May 2022: 30

Headquarters: Brussels, Belgium

NATO’s origin story: Why was NATO created?

NATO - origins and purposes

NATO, a trans-Atlantic political and military alliance, was created to defend against the Soviet Union and halt the spread of communism around the world

Following the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two heavyweights in the world. As Europe recovered from the devastation of the war, there was growing unease among many Western European countries about having a powerful country such as the Soviet Union right next to their borders. The Soviet Union’s placement of large armies and military bases all over eastern and central Europe did not do much to convince the West that they were of no threat.

As a result, a collective-defense alliance was created by European nations and their North American allies to defend Western Europe against possible Soviet attack. The members committed themselves to working together on all matters related to military in order to deter all kinds of aggression from what was then Europe’s most powerful eastern neighbor.

Secondly, NATO was created to prevent nationalist militarism from taking roots in Europe. Europeans and the world in general were worried of something similar to what happened in Germany in the late 1930s happening again. Therefore, Western Europe went into an alliance with North America to serve as guardians against extreme and deadly forms of nationalism in Europe. Take the example of the events that happened in February 1948, when communists aided by the Soviet Union began sabotaging elected governments across Europe. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was a prime example, as it had support from the Soviet Union to overthrow the democratically elected government of the country.

In summary, NATO was formed because Western Europe was militarily and economically weak at the time. Therefore it needed to stand together and ally with the U.S. and Canada so as to secure its collective defense against the Soviet Union that was desperate to assert itself in Europe.

The North Atlantic Treaty 1949

Also known as the Washington Treaty, the North Atlantic Treaty, which was signed by 12 founding members in Washington D.C., United States on April 4, 1949.

NATO’s formation is in line with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which states that independent countries have the inherent right to defend themselves either individually or collectively.

The Marshall Plan and NATO

Following the end of WWII, a good number of politicians in both the U.S. and Western Europe feared that Europe’s devastated economic position could serve as a conducive environment for the growth of communism and extremism. Therefore, the Truman administration launched the Marshall Plan (also known as the European Recovery Program) in 1948.

The Marshall Plan, a huge economic package aimed at helping Europe recover quickly from WWII, entreated Western and Southern Europe to stand united in the face of possible Soviet aggression and the expansion of communism. This explains why Britain came to see the Western European Union agreement it signed with France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg as insufficient to keep Europe safe. Those five countries set out build stronger military alliance with other Western and Southern European nations. And so an Atlantic alliance was conceived.

Command system and HQ

Following the birth of NATO in 1949, there was a strong need for an effective military structure in NATO as the Soviet Union had cracked the code on the atomic bomb and the outbreak of Korean War in 1950.

Paris initially served as the home of NATO’s military headquarters. However, following France’s withdrawal from the central military command, NATO’s Supreme Headquarters relocated to Casteau, Belgium and then finally to Brussels, Belgium.

Steering the affairs of NATO is the North Atlantic Council. Representatives from the various NATO countries constitute the council, which convenes a meeting at least twice a year. The secretary-general of NATO chairs the council meeting.

A long tradition developed in terms who occupies what position in NATO. The secretary-generalship of NATO always goes to a European, while the Supreme Commander position tends to go to an American. General D. Eisenhower served as the first head of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), while Lord Ismay of the United Kingdom was appointed NATO’s first Secretary General.

In the alliance structure, the Military Committee serves as an important command component. It is made up of senior military officers (i.e. chiefs of staff) from the NATO countries. Under the Military Committee are two important commands – Allied Command Transformation and the Allied Command Operations. The latter, which is headed by the Supreme Allied Commander, has its headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.  The former, on the other hand, has its headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, United States.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower – the first Supreme Allied Commander of NATO

The United States and its European allies made sure that NATO was staffed with the very best military minds from both continents. This was evident in 1950, the year in which the Korean War broke out. In December 1950, U.S. President Harry S. Truman appointed General Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Eisenhower, who would later succeed President Truman in the White House, was a distinguished military general, having led the Allied Forces to victory in WWII.

Germany’s role in NATO

West Germany’s bid to join NATO in the mid-1950s caused a bit of apprehension among NATO member states at the time. There were some who did not think it was a good idea rearming Germany less than a decade after WWII. However, NATO leaders on both sides of the Atlantic duly acknowledged the immense role West Germany could play in halting the spread of communism in Europe as well keeping Europe safe from any future aggression from the Soviets.

The decision to admit West Germany yielded so much benefits for NATO in the years that followed. Today, not only does Germany play a prominent role in NATO’s air force capability, but it is also home to significant number of NATO troops.

The German Army – the Bundeswehr – also contributes its fair share in terms of troops and funding to NATO. However, due to its tarnished past history (i.e. World War II), Germans in general have been very reluctant to put in a lot in its military budget.

Europe’s most powerful economy has also shied away from taking leading role in Europe’s military alliance pact. Following Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many German military experts were dismayed about what they saw as Germany’s unpreparedness in response to the crisis. There was growing call for the German army to increase its defense budget to make the army more prepared and outfitted with the best military equipment.

NATO forces and its Rapid Response Force

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has taken several steps to boost its Response Force. The NRF was created by the alliance to offer a rapid military response in a crisis. Since the Crimean crisis the NRF troop numbers has grown from around 12,000 to 40,000. In 2022, NATO switched on certain elements of the NRF in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. NRF troops were deployed in strategic areas all across NATO’s eastern flank to ward off any possible incursions by Russia.

As of the summer of 2022, Germany, a NATO member which often gets a lot of sticks for not taking a leading role in Europe’s collective security, contributes almost 14,000 troops to the NRF. The Ramstein airbase in Germany for example serves as NATO’s eyes in the air. With that NATO’s air force can patrol the skies of Baltic countries to spot any form of Russian incursion.

As of 2022, the combined military troop strength of NATO hovered around 3.5 million troops and personnel. NATO troop’s deployment increased in the wake of Moscow’s unjustified attack on Ukraine. Majority of those deployments went to Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Also the alliance’s presence was enhanced in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, former Soviet Union countries.

Original members of NATO

NATO history

The original 12 founding members of NATO are: the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal.

In 1948, Britain and four other countries on the continent – France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg – entered into a collective-defense alliance under the Brussels Treaty. The goal was to have united front just in case the Soviet Union pointed its weapons at Western Europe.

About a year later, in 1949, the U.S. and its northern neighbor Canada joined this defense alliance in Europe, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The five other original members of NATO are Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, and Denmark.

Expansion of NATO

About three years into its existence, NATO admitted two more countries. The 1952 admission of Greece and Turkey into the trans-Atlantic alliance came despite the acrimonious ties those two neighboring countries shared. Historians like to point to the fact that Turkey and Greece’s membership in NATO has in so many ways served as an outlet for the de-escalation of tensions between the two.

NATO, a trans-Atlantic security alliance, was originally established to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. NATO also wanted to promote greater European political integration.

In 1955, West Germany’s request to enter the military alliance was quickly accepted as the West looked for every possible means to gain an edge over the Soviets in the Cold War. That same year, the Soviets, on the other hand, responded to having NATO forces right next to their border (i.e. East Germany) with the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets intended for the Warsaw Pact to act as a counterweight to the West’s expansive drive.

In 1982, about seven years after death of long-time Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Spain’s bid to join NATO was unanimously accepted.

The reunification of Germany in the early 1990s meant that Germany as a whole became part of the Western security bloc. All the while the Soviet Union was grasping for air as the world watched the Eastern bloc and communism decline.

Spain was the first nation to join the transatlantic Alliance since 1955. Spain’s ascension took place in 1982.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union all throughout the 1990s encouraged prospective NATO applicants eager to do away with the vestiges of communism. In spite of the strong disapproval from Russia, a country largely considered the successor of the Soviet Union, NATO members went ahead to welcome three former Soviet adversaries – Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic – in 1999.

In what was perhaps NATO’s greatest coup since its inception in the late 1940s, a staggering number of European countries were admitted into the security bloc in 2004. Those countries were: Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Slovakia. As expected, the Russians were again far from pleased with NATO’s expansion further east. The tensions were de-escalated with a lot dialog and some form of political and economic compromises.

In 2009, two Balkan countries – Croatia and Albania – became members of NATO. A decade later Montenegro, another country in the Balkans, joined the U.S.-led security trans-Atlantic alliance.

As of 2022, North Macedonia (formerly called Macedonia) is considered the 30th member of NATO. The Southeastern European nation of less than two million people joined NATO in 2017.

Rationale behind NATO’s enlargement

NATO’s admission of former Soviet allies has been the result of Europe’s quest to have a fully integrated bloc underpinned by the ideals of democracy, respect for human rights, press freedom, and free market economy. Newly admitted NATO states were then placed on a path to membership of economic and political blocs such as the European Union and other international organizations.

As expected, NATO’s enlargement has been strongly opposed by Russia, who raises many security concerns over having to NATO’s forces right on its doorstep. The Russians have decried NATO’s expansion, calling it provocations of the highest order.

NATO member states

Image credit: DW

NATO’s “Massive Retaliation” policy of the mid-20th century

In the last decade of the 20th century, NATO moved from the doctrine of nuclear retaliation to an interventionist policy which seeks to peaceful resolve conflicts before or after they rear up. And say political dialog or peaceful resolution fails, NATO boost the military capability to deploy temperate and delicate force to get to peaceful outcomes.

NATO’s goal is to safeguard transatlantic peace and security. It does not rely on military power alone. Although it is not a civilian organization, it has contributed, in association with many of its allies and international organizations, in the promotion of democratic structures, sustainable civil societies, governance, and the furthering of economic alliance all over the world.

In other words, NATO has adopted a comprehensive approach to dealing with security threats. This point is very much evident in the Strategic Concept the alliance adopted in 2010.

NATO during the Cold War

NATO had fewer forces than Warsaw Pact members. The alliance therefore had to make up for this disadvantage by having advanced military capability, including all kinds of nuclear weapons – intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

Disagreements between US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, leaders of the Western and the Eastern communist blocs respectively, came close to plunging the world into an all-out nuclear war.

The Cold War era witnessed very high tensions between two nuclear-armed blocs – NATO in the West and the Soviets in the East. There was the Cuban Nuclear Crisis of the early 1960s that put the entire world on the brink of nuclear war. The 1970s (i.e. the détente period) saw tensions ease a bit only for them to pick up beginning in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

In the early 1980s, democratic activists began finding their voice in Eastern Europe and other Soviet satellite states. This resulted in the gradual disintegration of the Eastern bloc. Amidst all of that the communist countries found themselves in a very perilous economic situation. Economic and political reforms were needed fast.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, NATO and the Soviet Union tried their hardest to patch things up and prevent the reoccurrence of a crisis similar to the one in the early 1960s. Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. The treaty required the two blocs to remove from their arsenal ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges.

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987

Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987

Beginning around the 1980s, the Soviet Union, having had disastrous results from its communist’s policies, was eager to introduce sweeping reforms that would help it catch up with the West, which was far ahead in all spheres.

Under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union began lifting its “Iron Curtain” that it had placed all around central and eastern Europe. Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact was abandoned. Germany was reunited, and other democracy-hungry nations that were formerly in the Soviet Union started moving into the orbit of NATO.

Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991 bringing an end to the Cold War. Image: Collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989

Post-Cold War – NATO pursues greater political integration, collective security and democratization

With the Soviet Union gone, NATO started to soften its stance on Moscow. NATO also embarked on a host of internal reforms in order to keep up with the fast-paced environment of the 21st century. The goal of the military alliance moved towards keeping the peace, stability and unity in Europe.

The reformed security organization reached out to former Warsaw signatories such as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. Much of that work was carried out by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (formerly the North Atlantic Cooperation Council) which was established in December 1991.

The post-Cold War era also witnessed NATO’s focus shifting to keeping the peace in areas such as the Balkans that was reeling from the devastating wars of the 1990s. NATO member states committed heavily to the Partnership for Peace program which was set up in 1994 to foster European security through non-threatening military training exercises.

NATO in the 21st century

For a time in the first decade of the 21st century, there were concerns raised in some European capitals over Europe’s over reliance on the U.S.-led NATO. Some military experts called for Europe (i.e. the European Union) to develop its own defensive capabilities. Such calls left people unsure whether such moves would make NATO stronger or weaker.

A more extreme view at the time was that NATO had outlived its relevance as the enemy (i.e. the Soviet Union) that it was built to defend against was no longer around.

There were also some few calls from both Europe and Russia to consider the possibility of admitting Russian into NATO. Proponents of this claim that were such an alliance to go through, the West would be better placed to counter any threats that might stem from China, a behemoth of economic and political power in the 21st century.

The growing tensions between the West and Russia, as well as Europe’s inability to independently develop its own defensive capabilities, resulted in NATO becoming ever more relevant in the 21st century.

To meet the demands of the 21st century, the military alliance prioritizes not just defense and security, but also trust-building and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. NATO’s purposes have evolved over the years from stopping the Soviets to promoting the well-being of its member countries. The alliance has been able to more than double its size over the past half century due to its commitment to guaranteeing the security, freedom and sovereignty of member states.

Berlin, Germany

NATO’s crisis-intervention force

The disintegration of the Soviet Union created a power vacuum in the Balkans and the Caucasus where a sudden rise ethnic violence and nationalism was seen. Instability was rife especially in the former Yugoslavia.

Starting in the 1990s, NATO worked with Russia to ensure that former Soviet nations committed themselves to a peaceful resolution of conflicts as well as the respect of the territorial and political sovereignty of their neighbors.

In 1995, NATO sprang to action and intervened in the Bosnian conflict. NATO air forces targeted Bosnian Serbs operating around the city of Sarajevo. After the war, NATO deployed a peacekeeping force – the Implementation Force and later the Stabilization Force – to Bosnia.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, NATO troops intervened again in the Balkan region. During the Kosovo conflict, NATO imposed a no-fly zone and carried out air strikes against Serbian forces who at the time were committing heinous acts and crimes against humanity in predominantly Muslim Albanian regions in Kosovo. The perpetrators were led by Yugoslavian leader and ultra-Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006).

NATO’s intervention and subsequent deployment of peacekeeping forces (i.e. the Kosovo Force) helped protect the lives of several thousands of Muslim minorities from attacks by war criminal Milošević.

Germany and NATO

German KFOR soldiers on patrol in southern Kosovo in 1999

The United States’ role in NATO

The United States is one of three NATO member states with enormous nuclear weapons stockpile and capabilities. The other two are Britain and France.

Back in the late 1940s, the idea of having a unified Western front to counter the Soviets aligned with U.S.’s foreign policy. Having the U.S., a colossal nuclear power, in NATO served to reassure all of Europe that the continent would be protected in case of a Soviet nuclear attack.

All throughout the Cold War, the United States invested heavily into building its Western allies’ military capabilities. A U.S.-led NATO force dwarfed in comparison to the sheer number of troops that the Soviet Union possessed. Therefore NATO focused on having superior weapons including advanced nuclear defensive systems. Also, the U.S. set about deploying strategic nuclear weapons in many western European countries. Allied forces in Europe also benefited from non-nuclear battlefield weapons and technologies.

In a pact signed among NATO member states, both the United States and the host country of U.S. nuclear weapons were given veto rights on the use of those nuclear weapons.

Since the formation of NATO, the United States has always led affairs of this Atlantic military alliance. The U.S. also contributes the most in terms of NATO’s military budget.

As of 2022, the number of U.S. troops deployed in Europe is more than 80,000, including troops that are not active-duty troops. Germany is home to the most number of U.S. troops in Europe.

Other European countries that host significant numbers of U.S. troops include Britain, Spain, Italy, and Turkey. The latter country has almost 2,000 U.S. troops to ward off any Russian threat from the Black Sea or Mediterranean Sea area.

To this day, the U.S. has not reneged on its commitment to building stronger military and non-military cooperation with Alliance. It consistently champions the Alliance to direct its energies towards political, economic and scientific growth.

Why did France withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966?

Today, France, a key NATO member state, has troops stationed all across Europe, especially on the Eastern flank of NATO’s boundary. France, along with Germany, also plays a leading role in NATO’s air force and naval defensive abilities. However, that wasn’t always the case.

From 1966 to 2009, France, a founding member of NATO, refused participating in NATO’s integrated command. It must be noted that France continued being a NATO member state throughout that period. The French simply did not want to participate militarily in NATO’s central command. Why did France take such a bold decision?

In the late 1950s, there were some French politicians, led by then-French President Charles de Gaulle, who did not like what they felt was United States hegemony in NATO. Gaulle and his allies were also dismayed by what they believed was NATO’s interference in its foreign policy and military setup, arguing that France was losing its sovereignty.

The following decade saw France complete its withdrawal from NATO’s military command structure. France also evicted NATO forces, HQ and staff from its territories. However, France did not leave the military alliance. Gaulle kept his country’s seat in NATO’s council, stating that France’s goal was to change the form of its alliance with NATO without changing its substance. France’s nuclear weapon arsenal did remained separate from NATO’s strategic planning setup all throughout the Cold War.

In recent years, France has been one of the largest contributor to NATO’s military and civil budgets. Other big spenders in the Alliance include the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

France’s years out of NATO’s strategic military command structure lasted for close to half a century. In 2008, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France will rejoin the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Funding NATO – which country contributes the most to NATO?

Since the mid-2010s, the burden-sharing issue in NATO has taken center stage in the United States. Those who bring it up maintain that many NATO members have been guilty of not allocating enough to defense spending. The Treaty in 1949 requires each member to share the “risk, responsibilities and benefits of collective defense”.

All throughout the term of U.S. president Donald J. Trump, NATO came under a lot of criticism from the Republican president for being over reliant on the American tax payer. Trump blasted NATO member countries that failed to commit significant percentage of their budgets to the collective protection of Europe. The Trump administration brought the topic of “burden sharing” in NATO to the forefront.

Also, the former U.S. president singled out Germany for its continuous refusal to increase its budget allocations to the German army. Many Americans started questioning the rationale in having the U.S. foot a significant portion of the bill for Europe’s own security.

Experts maintain that if the issue of funding of NATO is not properly resolved in the coming decades, the military alliance risked becoming an ineffectual bloc, and at worst collapsing in a few decades.

NATO’s Article 5

Article of 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of the biggest perks of being a member of the security alliance. It states that any armed attack against any NATO member be seen as an attack against the alliance itself.

Has Article 5 ever been invoked?

In its more than 70 years of existence, NATO’s Article 5 has been invoked just once. This happened in 2001 after the September 11 attack against the United States. The heinous carefully planned attack took the lives of 2,977 people.

Never in history had the world seen a more united NATO than what was shown after 2001. NATO re-strategized its military operations in order to effectively go against radical groups wherever in the world that sought to harm any NATO member state.

Albeit some strong criticisms from the populations of the various NATO member countries, NATO leadership was resolute and united in their military intervention in the Middle East in 2003 and the 2011 air operations it carried out to topple long-time Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.

NATO's Article 5

Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949 has been invoked once, by the United States, in the wake of the September 11 attacks against the United States. NATO’s Article 5 is a collective defence clause.

Other notable facts about NATO

Here are a few more important facts about NATO:

  • NATO spent an estimated $3 billion in its first two decades of existence. Much of that money went into building military infrastructure in the various member states with the United State of America shouldering about one-third of the military expenses.
  • US-driven NATO’s military aid and economic support not only restored stability in a post-WWII Europe, but it also helped turn Europe’s war-battered economy around. The growth Europe saw was nothing short of an economic miracle.
  • NATO has been used as a tool to consolidate democracy, political reforms and stability in Europe.
  • The remaining 13 NATO articles are concerned with member countries committing to improving democratic institutions, military coorporation, and improving military capability of the alliance.
  • Since NATO’s formation in 1949, no member country has requested to leave the military alliance.
  • As of May, 2022, the total number of countries in NATO stood at 30. Three out of five of the permanent members of the United Security Council are NATO countries. They are the United States, Britain, and France.
  • Following Russia’s military incursion into the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, NATO severed coorporation with Russia. Moscow’s attack on Ukraine in 2022 further strained this relationship.
  • NATO members are barred from entering into any international commitments that conflict with the Treaty and commit them to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations (UN).

NATO’s open-door policy

NATO does not place any limit (under article 10 of the treaty) on the number of European countries that can be admitted into the alliance. In 2008, NATO received Ukraine and Georgia’s membership aspirations with very positive remarks. In the years that followed the alliance set those former Soviet satellite states on a path of political, military and institutional reforms.

How does a country get admitted into NATO

In addition to meeting those reform goals, NATO will admit any European country into its alliance provided the newcomer can bolster the military capabilities of the alliance.

Today, NATO uses it Membership Action Plan to help European countries aspiring to be part of the alliance. NATO, in partnership with many organizations and the European Union, offers targeted support in the areas enumerated above.

Sweden and Finland’s 2022 bids to join NATO

For many decades, Scandinavian countries Finland and Sweden maintained a neutral posture in terms of NATO’s stance against the Soviet Union (and later Russia). However, when the unthinkable happened, in terms of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Sweden and Finland got spooked. In May 2022, the Nordic countries submitted applications to join NATO.

NATO membership

Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO in May 2022

Following the announcement of those bids, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan registered his opposition towards Sweden and Finland’s admission into NATO. Turkey, a NATO member state, cited its differences with those the two Nordic countries, accusing them of being safe havens for political organizations that Turkey does not approve of.

It must be noted that every NATO member country has the right to block the accession process of any European nation aspiring to join the alliance. Per Article 10 of NATO’s founding treaty, every NATO applicant must convince all NATO member states why it should be accepted into the alliance.

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