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Final peace talks in Paris, interrupted by ferocious Yuletide bombing, epitomized the byzantine and often bizarre maneuverings that let the United States find a way out of Vietnam.

IN TET’S WAKE, FORMAL PEACE TALKS between the United States and its Vietnamese adversaries began in May 1968 in Paris. Years of acrimonious public talks accompanied by increasingly fruitful private negotiations finally, in the context of the failed 1972 Easter Offensive and a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam, yielded a breakthrough. Just weeks prior to the U.S. presidential election, on October 8, 1972, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho handed National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger a draft treaty that would allow Nguyen Van Thieu’s government to remain in existence to negotiate with the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam for a permanent political settlement after a cease-fire. Days later, a Tho-Kissinger final draft was hammered out, only to be met with an angry and obstinate Thieu, who accused the United States of betrayal. On October 26, with the agreement facing collapse and Moscow and Beijing exerting pressure to close the deal, Hanoi publicly disclosed the secret talks’ chronology and the agreement’s terms. In an excerpt from Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam—which delves deep into heretofore unexamined archival documents from all sides—Lien-Hang T. Nguyen maps out the “bloody path to peace” that followed.

According to North Vietnamese sources, the October 26 public announcements resulted in an out- pouring of world support for Hanoi as Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and Revolutionary Government (PRG) Provisional officials held press conferences there and in Paris to advance their cause. In Hanoi’s assessment, the majority of the international media reported sympathetically on the DRV’s negotiating plight and called on President Richard Nixon to sign the agreement. At midnight on October 26, China’s Premier Zhou Enlai received DRV and PRG representatives to express China’s support of the (North) Vietnamese Workers Party (VWP) decision to publicize the agreement.Although the Vietnamese noticed that Zhou spent more time criticizing South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu than castigating Nixon, they agreed with his advice to coordinate their negotiating strategy.

On October 27, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met with DRV and PRG representatives in Moscow to inform them of the Communist Party Politburo’s decision reached the night before. The Soviet Union was solidly behind the VWP’s announcement. Moreover, Moscow was prepared to exert pressure on Washington to conclude the war, but not to the extent that it would endanger negotiations. It no longer mattered to Kosygin if the signing of the agreement took place before or after the U.S. presidential election, which it was apparent Nixon would win. On October 27, the United States indicated its desire to meet on November 1, but it received an ambiguous response on October 30 from the DRV, stating that its leaders needed time to study the request. On November 4, Hanoi finally proposed a meeting for November 14, in order to show that Hanoi did not“pin its hopes”on the U.S. election. On November 7, Politburo member To Huu cabled Hanoi’s man in the South, Pham Hung, with detailed instructions on how to maximize the Vietnamese Communist position in the upcoming round of talks. The communication shows that the North and South Vietnamese Communists collaborated on a negotiating strategy and that the PRG-NLF (National Liberation Front, a k a Viet Cong) might not have possessed the agency or autonomy to break from Hanoi’s will at this crucial point in negotiations.

On November 7, the same day he was reelected in a landslide, thus winning an overwhelming mandate for his Vietnam policy, Nixon acknowledged the DRV’s note but pushed the private meeting to November 15. Facing an increasingly dovish Congress that identified Thieu as the only obstacle to American withdrawal from Southeast Asia, Nixon needed to resolve the Vietnam problem by dealing with not only Hanoi but also Saigon. On November 9, Nixon sent General Alexander Haig to Saigon with a personal letter to the South Vietnamese president.

Prior to Haig’s arrival, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker had already informed Thieu of Kissinger’s intention to meet with Le Duc Tho in mid-November and had outlined the U.S. negotiating position. First, the United States ensured that the proposed National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord (NCNRC) would not become a coalition government by replacing the DRV’s terminology co cau chinh quyen (governmental structure) with the RVN’s co cau hanh chanh (administrative structure), and by stipulating that the NCNRC’s functions would include only “promoting” and not “supervising” the implementation of the agreement. Regarding military issues, the United States would insist on the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops and respect for the DMZ. The purpose of Haig’s visit, then, was to gain Thieu’s acquiescence to the U.S. position by providing carrots and wielding sticks. The carrots included the benefits of Enhance Plus,the expedited transfer of approved Vietnamization equipment programs and the promise of retaliation against North Vietnam if Communist forces violated the agreement. The sticks, to be applied if Thieu did not abandon his dangerous course, including“self-defeating”public“distortions,”were that the U.S.-RVN alliance would fall apart and that Nixon might have no choice but to take what historian Jeffrey Kimball terms “brutal action” against Saigon.

Although shaken over the course of the two-day meeting on November 11 and 12, Thieu did not back down and presented Haig with South Vietnam’s own demands for the upcoming Kissinger-Tho meeting, including total PAVN (North Vietnamese Army) withdrawal before any Vietnamese election.“With respect to troops in the South,” Thieu stated, “this is a life or death issue.” He reasoned that if the duplicitous Kissinger remained as the U.S. negotiator during these private meetings, then Thieu had to make his voice heard. According to Haig, Thieu could not “bring himself to an open break with us. On the other hand, he [would] exercise every ploy in his dictionary to achieve further delay, hopefully without commitment.” This was exactly what Thieu did. Two days before the private meeting between Kissinger and Tho, which had been delayed further to November 20 because of Le Duc Tho’s illness, Thieu presented Bunker with Saigon’s 69 suggested modifications. Moreover, Thieu organized a task force to follow the negotiations and beefed up the RVN’s presence in Paris. Sending Hoang Duc Nha, who was a cousin and adviser of Thieu’s, to Paris, the South Vietnamese president equipped him with blank stationery that included his signature and presidential seal. Thieu wanted to make sure that he had his men ready to draft an immediate letter of protest to Nixon in case Kissinger sold out South Vietnam at the meeting.

Hanoi and Washington agreed to hold three rounds of talks until the signing of an agreement: November 20 to 25, December 4 to 13, and January 8 to 13. The VWP entered these discussions with little room for maneuver for three reasons.First, Saigon had resolved to utilize its opposition to a settlement as a weapon to ensure that the United States not capitulate to Hanoi’s demands. Thieu would only accept an agreement if Nixon really intended to cut off aid and sign a separate agreement with the DRV. Second, with reelection no longer a concern, Nixon was inclined to try extreme military force to extract more concessions from Hanoi and to placate Saigon. Nixon reasoned that if Hanoi was ready to sign an agreement in October before the election, now faced with four more years, Hanoi might be convinced to compromise further by a brutal bombing campaign. Third, the DRV had no guarantee from China or the Soviet Union that either would intervene on its behalf if Nixon opted to use his overwhelming military might to punish Hanoi for its purported intransigence in Paris.Although Beijing and Moscow increased aid to help Hanoi defend itself from Nixon’s bombs and mines, they coupled aid with increased pressure on Hanoi to settle.

Although North Vietnamese leaders claimed that they were no longer operating under a rushed timetable to settle, the Politburo still desired a speedy settlement based on the October draft and did not intend to retract any concessions or revert back to dam va danh (talking while fighting). The VWP leadership’s overriding concern was to escape further destruction and damage to its war effort by American bombs in order to preserve its forces for battle against South Vietnamese troops after U.S. withdrawal. Since Nixon was in a position to exploit détente with the Soviet Union and China,and use South Vietnam as an excuse to prolong negotiations, the Hanoi Politburo wanted to prevent any decline in the VWP’s position at the negotiating table in Paris and on the military front in South Vietnam. Although North Vietnamese leaders ordered their forces to go on the offensive in the Central Highlands as well as the Mekong Delta in order to “liberate”more territory, these were not large-scale attacks that would threaten the negotiations in Paris.

During the first day of talks on November 20, Le Duc Tho unleashed his fury on Kissinger by reading a stinging five-page denunciation of Washington’s deception regarding the October peace. Compared to Vietnam’s past dealings with the fascist Japanese and colonial French, Tho claimed, Hanoi found U.S. duplicity even more flagrant.Attempting to bring some levity to the tense meeting, Kissinger remarked that he had at least succeeded in unifying North and South Vietnam in a common hatred for him.

Tho, however, remained in bad spirits as Kissinger grudgingly presented a list of 69 modifications, dictated by Saigon’s demands, which appeared impossible to resolve by the end of the month. The more substantive revisions included: wording regarding the DMZ that would render illegal North Vietnamese troops below the 17th parallel, the withdrawal of PAVN troops simultaneous with the release of political prisoners, changes to weaken the NCNRC, and striking any mention of the PRG.

With Saigon exerting external pressure on the private negotiations, the Politburo predicted two possible outcomes for the November round of talks. If Tho could force Kissinger to drop the ridiculous demands and negotiate seriously again, then the war could end before January 20, 1973. If the United States allowed its “puppets” to drag out the negotiations, Politburo leaders surmised, then the war would continue for another three years. After reviewing Thieu’s list, Le Duan and the Politburo instructed Tho and Thuy to remain steadfast, to protect the core principles of the October draft, and to only be flexible with minor details. When Tho met with Kissinger on November 21, he lambasted the list of modifications and presented his own set of new demands including striking any mention of the withdrawal of PAVN forces from South Vietnam since, he claimed, these troops were volunteer forces fighting on behalf of the PRG-NLF. A no-nonsense Kissinger dug in his heels as well, and now demanded that North Vietnam guarantee an immediate cease-fire for Cambodia and Laos to coincide with the one for South Vietnam. Moreover, Kissinger ignored Tho’s demand not to mention the withdrawal of PAVN forces, exhorting the North Vietnamese negotiator that if Hanoi agreed to remove its troops from the South then the question of political prisoners would be more easily resolved.

Hanoi leaders made a risky move at the November 22 meeting. Tho ignored the October agreement and demanded that all political prisoners in the South be freed simultaneously with American prisoners and the withdrawal of all foreign troops. In return, Hanoi would remove a number of PAVN troops around the DMZ. Historian Robert Brigham has attributed Hanoi’s retraction of the October agreement on civilian prisoners to increased NLFPRG pressure on Hanoi leaders. However, given the extent of control that the VWP possessed over southern affairs throughout the period of negotiations, it is unlikely that Nguyen Thi Binh and other southern revolutionaries became rogue diplomats, breaking from the party line by demanding the release of their comrades. Rather, the VWP most likely ordered the PRG to stand firm on this issue because Hanoi leaders could not. In other words, the VWP was using the good cop–bad cop tactic that Vietnamese Communist leaders had employed since the start of negotiations. Perhaps the real objective in Le Duc Tho’s demand was to hold on to American prisoners as leverage, since the United States was adamant that the release of POWs not be linked with any other issue. Instructions sent by the Politburo to Paris that day support the notion of a unified diplomatic front rather than tension between Hanoi and the PRG. Le Duan’s Politburo instructed Tho and Thuy to coordinate the negotiating strategy of the private talks with the public forum while Hanoi stepped up its propaganda campaign to denounce U.S. Indochinization, particularly with increasing weapons transfers to Saigon and Phnom Penh. Since world opinion was leaning more heavily on the United States to uphold its promises to end the war, Politburo leaders concluded, Tho and Thuy would be able to reject U.S.-RVN demands that North Vietnam withdraw its troops from South Vietnam.

The rest of the talks in late November degenerated to stonewalling, pounding fists, and issuing threats. While Kissinger rejected the linking of the release of political prisoners to American POWs, Tho refused to countenance Washington’s new demand that American advisers be allowed to remain in South Vietnam. Even when some issues were resolved, including the wording about the DMZ, new issues sprung to the fore.When Washington insisted on Saigon’s demands regarding the NCNRC, Tho slammed his fist on the table and said there was a limit to what Hanoi could endure, particularly after agreement had been reached between Washington and Hanoi on the October draft.

While the negotiators took a long break and shared a Thanksgiving-themed meal on November 23, it dawned on Hanoi’s leaders that North Vietnam would not be able to escape another round of American bombs before a settlement could be reached. North Vietnamese fears were confirmed when Kissinger and Haig cornered Tho before a private meeting on November 24 to deliver Nixon’s threat that if Hanoi refused to negotiate seriously and honorably, the United States would resume military activities. Kissinger tried to soften Nixon’s warning by saying that he would do his best to exert maximum pressure on Saigon, but Hanoi had to show flexibility as well.When the formal negotiating session began, Kissinger reiterated the necessity of showing that Saigon’s demands had been taken into account. Tho, however, was neither moved by Nixon’s threat nor sympathetic to Kissinger’s position. On the final day of meetings,Kissinger“decided to play for a week’s delay before seeking final agreement with Le Duc Tho,” since the South Vietnamese continued to be intransigent and the North Vietnamese insisted on their demand that South Vietnamese civilians be released. Tho grudgingly agreed to Kissinger’s request for a delay, prompting Kissinger to believe that the United States had“reseized”the initiative with not only Hanoi but Saigon as well.

While Kissinger sensed a weakening in Hanoi’s position, Tho was convinced that he had emerged victorious in the late November round of meetings. In particular, Tho noted to Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh that Washington had retreated on three issues: the presence of North Vietnamese soldiers, the general nature of the NCNRC, and the recognition of the PRG’s legitimacy. Leaders in Hanoi, however, had a somewhat more somber assessment than Tho did in Paris. According to the Politburo, the United States must have sensed a weakening in North Vietnam’s position. Not only had Washington retreated on the agreed October draft, but Hanoi had only put up a show of resistance before it put forward a more flexible offer. The Politburo surmised that the Americans believed that they could conclude the war and negotiate the peace from a position of strength and thereby produce an agreement that would prove advantageous to the Saigon regime. The only recourse, in Hanoi’s opinion, was to stick to the terms of the October draft in the upcoming December talks while the Politburo increased Communist defenses around Hanoi and Haiphong and prepared for the evacuation of its urban population to the countryside.

Nonetheless, North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris cabled the Hanoi Politburo stating that even though Washington had entirely changed the substance of the October draft with its new demands, the DRV should still strive for an early solution. As a result, VWP leaders entered the second round of talks pessimistic but still intent on producing an agreement. Meanwhile, Nixon dealt firmly with South Vietnamese leaders, including Thieu’s special adviser, Nguyen Phu Duc, and South Vietnamese ambassador Tran Kim Phuong, who continued to mount objections to any U.S.-DRV settlement that allowed PAVN troops to remain in the South. Vowing to “go it alone,”these South Vietnamese officials tried the patience of their patrons. While Kissinger called Duc a “little bastard,”Nixon explained that the“major trouble” in Saigon was Hoang Duc Nha, whom the president described as a “punk kid in the Palace.”

On December 4, the first day of the second round of talks, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho stuck firm to their respective demands regarding the preamble of the agreement, the Vietnamese text on the NCNRC, substantive issues involving North Vietnamese troops in the South, the release of political prisoners, and provisions concerning Cambodia and Laos. Kissinger concluded that Hanoi might be prepared “to break off negotiations and go another military round.”

When the two sides reconvened on December 6, Tho tried to gain Kissinger’s sympathy by presenting the PRG as a potential obstacle regarding the NCNRC. Kissinger evidently believed the North Vietnamese negotiator, commenting in his memoirs that Hanoi was “obviously under tremendous pressure from the Viet Cong on this issue.” On December 7, in a last-ditch effort, Tho requested a return to the October draft. When Kissinger refused to budge, the DRV negotiator dropped all pretense of playing it cool and acceded to most of America’s demands. In particular, Hanoi was ready to“abandon”the PRG, if in fact they ever disagreed, by dropping the demand for the release of political detainees in the South.

The next day, Kissinger gained more ground as Tho acquiesced to American demands regarding the DMZ in return for U.S. acceptance that the PRG be mentioned in the preamble. Nonetheless, there were still many outstanding issues. When the December 9 meeting appeared as if it would end in stalemate, Kissinger reported to Nixon that during the break, Tho took him aside and suggested that if Kissinger could“start the next phase of the meeting with a concession, he would make a big concession.”

On December 10, an ailing Le Duc Tho tried to end the grueling four-hour meeting 45 minutes early. According to diplomat and personal secretary to Tho, Luu Van Loi, Tho was exhausted after he confessed to the Americans that he had overstepped his orders by conceding too much: “I have been harshly criticized….Last week I repeatedly contacted Hanoi. The instructions received from my government are more rigid than the formula I gave you. The fact is that at the demarcation line, one side belongs to the North, the other is the liberated zone of the PRG.We should have had nothing to discuss about regulations for movement across the demarcation line, but endeavoring to settle with you, we have proposed this formula.” The Politburo had sent orders the day before telling the delegation to refuse the U.S. formula.

Although Tho understood the necessity for compromise at this juncture, perhaps Le Duan and the Politburo did not. The historical record remains silent on any disagreement between the “comrades Le” on this matter. By December 11, then, the only issue that remained was the status of the DMZ. Kissinger continued to push for the North and South Vietnamese to discuss the modalities of movement across the demarcation line, thus prohibiting any movement— military or civilian—until after the two Vietnamese settled the issue. At the December 12 meeting, however, Tho insisted that no reference be made to civilian movement, which Kissinger construed as Hanoi’s attempt to leave open the possibility for military movement. By this point, the Politburo expressed its frustration to its negotiators: “Signing now or later, timing is no longer an issue.”With negotiators unable to settle the DMZ issue, progress remained impossible for the remainder of the meetings.

When Tho informed Kissinger that he was due to leave Paris for Hanoi on December 14 and that he would be in touch by messages, Kissinger concluded that Hanoi had “decided to play for time,” because the North Vietnamese leaders either were too divided or sought to exploit the split between Washington and Saigon. With the Western holiday season imminent, the Politburo resolved to advance the diplomatic struggle and use U.S. domestic pressure and world public opinion to force Nixon to sign an agreement. North Vietnamese leaders believed international opinion favored them over Washington.

At the final meeting on December 13, which Kissinger described as even more “ludicrous and insolent” than the previous meetings, the negotiations remained deadlocked. During the lunch break,Tho refused to relent on the two major outstanding issues— the DMZ and the signing procedure—because, as Kissinger reported, “Hanoi’s keeping him on a tight leash and overruling various deals he made with me.”

As U.S.-DRV talks hit these bumps on the road to peace, Thieu launched a major public relations campaign to try to derail the entire process and kill off any chance for a settlement. Appearing before the RVN National Assembly on December 12, the South Vietnamese president denounced Kissinger’s efforts in Paris. The next day, Thieu informed key politicians and leaders in Saigon that he intended to reject any draft settlement. On December 14, as Le Duc Tho left Paris for consultations with the Politburo, Nixon ordered a resumption of the bombing for December 18, the day that Tho was due to return to Hanoi, with Operation Linebacker II. During the 12-day “Christmas bombing”campaign, known in Hanoi as the“12 days of darkness,”3,420 sorties carpet-bombed the Hanoi Haiphong area, inflicting severe physical and psychological damage on North Vietnam. Nixon intended to convey a message to Hanoi and Saigon that Washington was determined to force a peace, and neither Vietnamese party could stand in the way. In a personal letter to Thieu on the eve of the bombing, Nixon wrote,“These actions [bombings] are meant to convey to the enemy my determination to bring the conflict to a rapid end….I do not want you to be left, under any circumstances, with the mistaken impression that these actions signal a willingness or intent to continue U.S. military involvement if Hanoi meets the requirements for a settlement which I have set.”

While Thieu was“shaken”by Nixon’s letter, Hanoi remained silent. When Nixon announced a 36-hour Christmas truce and halted the bombings, the DRV still did not exhibit any desire to resume negotiations.

Although the Chinese and Soviets issued strong condemnations of the fiercest bombing campaign in the war, both allies again privately pressured Hanoi to settle with the Americans. On December 23, Soviet ambassador Ilya Shcherbakov listened sympathetically to Pham Van Dong’s condemnation of Nixon’s bombing campaign, but when the opportunity arose to push Hanoi toward accepting the American offer to resume talks, the Soviet official pounced. Four days later, during a discussion with Deputy Foreign Minister Hoang Van Tien, it was apparent to Shcherbakov that Hanoi no longer needed any convincing to negotiate. The North Vietnamese official asked Moscow to persuade the United States to stop the bombing.

Meanwhile, Chinese leaders also encouraged the North Vietnamese to return to negotiations. On December 29, Mao Zedong criticized some “so-called Communists,” who encouraged the Vietnamese not to negotiate and to“fight for another 100 years.” “This is revolution; otherwise it is opportunism,” Mao said to PRG head delegate Nguyen Thi Binh, who represented the obstinate South Vietnamese comrades whom Mao saw as bent on torpedoing the peace for their own selfish motives. In other words, if the PRG’s demands regarding the release of political detainees prevented Hanoi from accepting the settlement in early December,then Mao was sending a thinly veiled warning to Binh not to engage in “opportunism.”

Binh, on the other hand, prefers to remember the powerful effect of people’s diplomacy at this juncture in the war. With 27 U.S. aircraft shot down, including 15 B-52s, 44 captured American pilots and another 42 killed or missing in action, not to mention the damage wrought on North Vietnam, including more than 2,000 civilians killed and more than 1,500 wounded, public outrage forced Nixon to end the bombing campaign and his approval ratings plummeted. Meanwhile,VWP leaders took note of official pronouncements by statesmen as well as headlines worldwide, taking solace in the condemnation of Nixon’s brutal campaign in the United States, the socialist bloc,Western Europe, and the Third World. Influential American journalists decried Linebacker II as a barbaric act by a mad tyrant, an act that was unnecessary for the United States to get out of Vietnam.

On December 31, North Vietnam Communist leader Truong Chinh met with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing and asked the Chinese leader his opinion on the DRV’s negotiating prospects. Zhou tried to convince his Vietnamese guest to negotiate seriously with the aim of reaching an immediate agreement, since the Americans were definitely on their way out of Southeast Asia. The Chinese leader repeated this advice to Le Duc Tho a few days later.“The most important [thing] is to let the Americans leave,” Zhou stated.“The situation will change in six months or a year.” North Vietnamese leaders, however, did not have to be browbeaten into showing flexibility and approaching negotiations seriously; Nixon’s bombs had done their damage. On December 26, the heaviest day of bombing, Hanoi had notified Washington that it was ready to resume negotiations on January 4. Washington ended its bombing north of the 20th parallel on December 29, allowing Kissinger and Tho to meet in Paris early in the new year.

On January 8, 1973, the third and final round of Tho-Kissinger talks began and concluded with a settlement that some officials and scholars argue resembled the 1972 fall draft agreement. They claim that the resultant January draft was essentially achieved on Thanksgiving Day 1972, incorporating some of the December and January compromises. Moreover, Nixon’s brutal bombing campaign failed to break Hanoi’s will and only resulted in Washington’s accepting terms that it had rejected. According to others, however, the final round of talks did produce differences. The DMZ provisions were strengthened, but “civilian” movement remained an issue for later negotiations. Nguyen Thi Binh’s last-minute demands for the simultaneous release of civilian detainees were omitted, but PAVN troops were allowed to remain in South Vietnam and so were American advisers. In addition, the PRG remained in the preamble, but not in the document.

Thieu, in contrast, after getting over Nixon’s threats in mid-December, was greatly encouraged by the Christmas bombing and thus continued to hold out for PAVN withdrawals and other significant changes to the agreement. Nixon, however, could no longer appease Thieu. In early January, legislation to cut off all funds to Indochina contingent on the return of American POWs passed both the House and Senate. Thus, given the very real threat of an immediate cutoff of U.S. aid, the South Vietnamese president finally relented. Even though Nixon had forced Hanoi’s—and Saigon’s—hand, the American public and world opinion, which had become more sympathetic to the Vietnamese Communists thanks to the DRV and PRG’s adept international and transnational diplomacy, denounced the brutality of Nixon’s aerial campaign.

After more than four years of acrimonious negotiations and bitter fighting, the Paris agreement and cease-fire signed in late January 1973 managed to end the American phase of the war but gave little respite to the Vietnamese. A new stage of fighting—the war of the flags—ensued as Hanoi and Saigon scrambled to stake out territory and ground while the Americans, Chinese, and Soviets watched. Although Le Duan may not have definitively won the war for peace, he managed to prevent Nixon and Thieu from gaining victory with a negotiated settlement that could have resulted in the permanent division of Vietnam. True victory, however, would have to wait.


An associate professor at the University of Kentucky, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen was born in Saigon in 1974 and fled to the United States with her family in April 1975.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.