First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power

October 9, 2002

Warren Zimmermann


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome you to our Books for Breakfast program.

Today it is with great pleasure that we welcome the renowned diplomat Warren Zimmerman to the Carnegie Council. As part of our Legacy to History series, He will introduce us to the fascinating world of five men who were instrumental in shaping our history and enabling our country to become a major player on the international stage. His book, First Great Triumph, is about imperialism, a word not very popular among Americans as a description of our past.

Although these early years of the twenty-first century are not the same as the period described in this book, many of us today do not like to think of imperialism as a way to characterize our future either. But as the Bush Administration struggles to develop a framework for its foreign policy initiatives, some observers are suggesting that the paradigm of creating imperialistic spheres of influence seem to suit this presidency just fine. Therefore, it is useful to review this prior period in our history, since many consequences of the actions taken by our country over a century ago remain with us today.

The story that Warren will shortly share with us assigns considerable importance to five major figures operating against a historic background of constraints and opportunities which not only led to the birth of American imperialism but foreshadow the ambiguities of America's involvement throughout the twentieth century.

The five individuals who set the U.S. on the road to becoming a great power are: Secretary of State John Hay, Naval strategist Captain Alfred T. Mahan, lawyer and administrator Elihu Root, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts Henry Cabot Lodge, and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Our guest is the personification of grace, generosity, and intelligence. He is not only a student of history, a teacher of history at both Columbia and Johns Hopkins, but has been one of its major players. He spent thirty-three years as an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, posted in France, Austria, Spain, Switzerland, Venezuela, the Soviet Union. He was also our last Ambassador to Yugoslavia, where he gathered the material for his award-winning book, Origins of Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and its Destroyers, which won the American Academy of Diplomacy Book Award in 1997. Additional articles have appeared in the New York Review of Books, Newsweek, The National Interest, and in many national newspapers.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our distinguished guest, Warren Zimmerman.


WARREN ZIMMERMAN: Thank you very much.

Let me begin this story on October 16, 1891, in the True Blue Saloon in Valparaiso, Chile. On that day two American sailors were killed in a brawl, an event which galvanized the United States to consider going to war with Chile. They called Captain Alfred Mahan, an indifferent sailor but a very canny naval intellectual, to do a contingency plan for a war between the United States and Chile. The war never took place because the Chileans backed down. But Mahan discovered during the course of his studies that the United States Navy might actually have been weaker than the Chilean Navy. That was 1891.

Now fast forward to February 22, 1909, Hampton Roads, Virginia, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The great white ships, sixteen first-class American battleships are arriving. They had just sailed around the world, taken almost a year and a half, the longest cruise taken by any navy before or since, 45,000 miles. As they came into the bay, they formed a column seven miles long.

There to meet them was the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. This was one of his last official acts before he stepped down a week later. As he greeted the sailors on the deck of the flagship Connecticut, he said, "We have definitely taken our place among the world's great powers."

So 1891-1909, less than eighteen years separating these two cases: one emblematic of American weakness, the other a stirring reminder of American strength. The book is about the burst of imperialism that took place during that period, mostly in 1898.

A list of the events will remind you of how full a year 1898 was:

  • April 25th, the U.S. declares war on Cuba over a human rights issue, the treatment of the Cuban people by the Spanish colonial government.

  • On May 1st, 8,0000 miles from Cuba, Commodore George Dewey destroys the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay.

  • June 21st, the U.S. Navy seizes Guam, also a Spanish island.

  • July 1st, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, dressed in a Brooks Brothers uniform he had just ordered, leads the charge up San Juan Hill, near Santiago, Cuba. The American Army reaches the top of the hill and looks down on Santiago Bay.

  • July 3rd, two days later, in the bay below the American fleet destroys the Spanish fleet.

  • July 7th, President William McKinley takes advantage of the euphoria that came from these two great naval victories in Manila and in Santiago Bay to annex Hawaii.

  • August 13th, Manila the city falls to Dewey.

  • August 14th, a day later, an American force takes Puerto Rico, thereby depriving the Spanish of the last remnant of their colonial empire in the New World.

  • December 10th, by the Treaty of Paris between the United State and Spain, Spain cedes the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States and renounces sovereignty over Cuba, which at some undetermined date, according to the treaty, was to become independent.

After 1898, the pace slackened but the direction remained stable. In 1899 the United States divides Samoa with Germany and takes the strategic island of Wake. In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt collaborates in undermining the sovereignty of the Government of Colombia to support a Panamanian revolution, which allows the United States to begin construction on a Panama Canal.

Until 1898, the United States had been a continental power. We had seized territory regularly on the American continent, first from the British, then from the Mexicans, and finally from the Indians. Now we had become an overseas power, dominant in the Caribbean and with a presence in Asia only a few hundred miles from the Asian mainland. We had acquired a global reach which we were never going to relinquish.

John Hay, then Ambassador to London, wrote President McKinley from London: "We have never in all our history had the standing in the world we have now." Every major American international event in the twentieth century is traceable directly to the influence of this transition period around 1898.

Our participation in World War I, which was reluctant but ultimately decisive; our participation in World War II in the fight against Hitler and Japan; our leadership in the creation of NATO and in the Cold War - all of these would have been unimaginable had we not moved from where we were in 1891 in the True Blue Saloon to where we were in 1909. The imperial explosion gave Americans a sense of self-confidence, a sense that they had a special mission, a belief that they could shape international events according to their values and beliefs.

Why did this happen and why did it happen at that time? Let me cite five reasons.

1. Tradition. We have always been an expansionist power, from the days of the Revolution, which was not just winning independence from the British - we had to kick them out of as much of the northern hemisphere as we could to consolidate our Revolution - but also an expansionist act as well as an act of political freedom. This trend continued through the century.

2. Growth in presidential authority toward the end of the nineteenth century. After the death of Lincoln, America had to tolerate a whole series of very weak presidents. Congress was much more powerful than the Executive Branch. This began to change toward the end of the nineteenth century. McKinley was probably the first exemplar of that, and Theodore Roosevelt a much more important one. But by 1898, the President had the authority to contemplate taking the United States into a war.

3. The extraordinary economic boom between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century. This was symbolized by the growth of railway building. Almost all of the great tycoons of that period, including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, were intimately involved with railroads. This is, of course, how Carnegie got his start, but the other two were very much involved in railroads as well.

By the end of the century, the United States was producing more steel than Great Britain and Germany combined. We had become an economic great power, and it is very hard to become a political and military great power if you are not an economic great power.

4.The rise of the U.S. Navy. More than a hundred years ago, military power was measured in terms of your navy. After the incident in Chile, there was a new burst of appropriations for battleships in the Congress, and by 1898 the United States had five battleships that could be used in the war against Spain. We also had a naval strategy, thanks mainly to Mahan, who published in 1890, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, a polemic and diatribe urging the United States to build a great navy to become a great power; if we built a great navy, we had to have bases - "coaling stations," as they were called at the time - around the world, and we had to build a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans so that our navy could operate on both.

Cuba, to Mahan, was the key. Cuba is a 600-mile-long island, one and a half times the surface area of Ireland. It controlled access to the canal that Mahan and other imperialists wanted to build. We had to control Cuba, one way or another. It wasn't safe for us if the Spanish had it.

5. Opportunity. In 1895 the Cubans revolted against Spain. By 1898, the Spanish military was greatly debilitated by the Cuban revolutionaries, and it looked like a good time to attack Spain.

The Spanish were also committing human rights atrocities on the Cuban population. Primarily here in New York with Hearst's and Pulitzer's papers, but everywhere in the country too, the press were playing back, exaggerating or even fabricating these Spanish atrocities, which got a strong head of steam growing for action against Spain.

And then, on February 15, 1898, the battleship Maine, which had been sent to Havana Bay to protect the American population which was coming under pressure from anti-American riots, blew up. The Yellow Press reported that the Spanish had blown it up, and this tipped the United States and McKinley, who was very reluctant, from an aggressive posture to a warlike posture.

This was not preemption, because the Spanish were no threat to us. This was simply a war provoked by the United States against Spain.

It also took the right people at the right time. Not only did the five subjects of my book make the United States an imperial power, they helped to define the kind of imperial power we were going to become. I will give you a thumbnail sketch of each fascinating characters.

Mahan, the Naval officer: austere, cerebral, much more at home with ideas than he was on the deck of a ship, very much like George Kennan, who also was a much better historian and military and political strategist than a diplomat. Mahan gave us a philosophy of empire based on sea power.

Theodore Roosevelt: in 1898 he was not yet forty years old and he did not have a very high position in the government. He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the number two person in the Navy Department. It was not a Cabinet-level position, so he did not routinely go to Cabinet meetings, but he was dynamic and energetic in pushing for getting the United States into war. And he didn't care whom we fought - it could have been Germany or Great Britain or Spain. He just wanted to get us into war.

In 1897 he gave a speech at the Naval War College in Newport in which he used the word "war" sixty-two times. This is a representative of an Administration which was committed to peace.

The reasons for Roosevelt's warmongering are complex. Almost certainly they had something to do with his father's having bought a substitute in the Civil War and Theodore Roosevelt was trying to live down that shame.

Henry Cabot Lodge: much neglected, enormously influential, perhaps the purest imperialist of the five. He believed that the United States should expand and retain the places that it took in its expansion. In the Senate in the mid-1890s, he said : "I cannot bear to see the American flag pulled down where it has once been run up, and I dislike to see the American foot go back where it has once been advanced." And then: "From the Rio Grande to the Arctic Ocean there should be but one flag and one country" - outright provocation to Canada and the British.

Lodge made three major contributions to American imperialism:

  • First, he made Theodore Roosevelt's career. The two were very close friends. At every point in Roosevelt's life when he had to make a decision, Lodge came in with advice, almost always unerringly accurate. Without Lodge, almost certainly Roosevelt would have not had this brilliant trajectory to the top of the U.S. Government.

  • Second, Lodge pushed through the Treaty of Paris. There was huge opposition to what we had done in 1898, particularly to taking the Philippines. Lodge's job in the Senate - a junior member of the Foreign Relations Committee - was to steer through the treaty with Spain. It wasn't an easy task, but he did it by two votes.

  • Finally, in 1919, Lodge defeated Woodrow Wilson's idea for the League of Nations. People have argued that he did that because he was an isolationist, which is not true. Lodge believed strongly that the United States should play a huge role in the world. He simply did not want to see it tied down by an international organization and international commitments that the United States might not be able to control or affect, thus he opposed the League of Nations because he was a unilateralist. His opposition was entirely consistent with the very strong imperialism that he espoused in the 1890s.

John Hay
: his extraordinary career began as one of two staff aides to Abraham Lincoln, beginning in 1861, and it ended at his death during Theodore Roosevelt's second term. Hay spanned almost the whole second half of the nineteenth century.

He was a Renaissance figure. He was a best-selling poet and novelist, a conversationalist - people said he was the best talker in the United States since the death of Lincoln; he was a very successful diplomat both as a young man and later as Ambassador to Great Britain; he was a very successful businessman, having amassed a fortune out of Cleveland. He also was a depressive who was constantly worried about his worthlessness and his inability to do what he wanted. A fascinating and complex figure.

His two contributions to American imperialism:

  • He began the rudimentary elements of an Asia policy based on his idea of the "open door," which was essentially a China policy. We probably would not have had that if we had not taken the Philippines or annexed Hawaii.

  • Second, Hay was the founder of the special relationship with Great Britain. In the late 1890s the British were still considered the number one enemy of the United States, and Irish voters in places like Lodge's Massachusetts wanted to keep them enemy number one. So the British had very little of a constituency in American politics in those days. Hay helped to change that, first of all, by persuading Roosevelt that the British actually shared our world view and our interests; and, secondly, by taking care of all of the border and territorial issues, particularly on the Canada border, that we had with the British to clear the decks with them.

Elihu Root
: from a small town New York, a corporate lawyer of extraordinary skill and success. He was the equivalent of a millionaire by the age of thirty in New York City. No experience in government at all. In 1898 McKinley calls him on the new-fangled telephone and says, "I want you to be Secretary of War," which meant Secretary of the Army. This was just after we had defeated Spain.

Root says, "I can't do that. I'm a lawyer. I don't know anything about war. I don't know anything about the Army. I have no experience with government. I have never been to Washington."

McKinley said, "I don't care about any of that. You're a smart lawyer and you will be the first person charged in the history of the United States with running colonies, and I want somebody with good common sense, a pragmatic problem solver, a lawyer like you."

So Root did it, and he did it with brilliance. He set his mark on Cuba, on Puerto Rico, and on the Philippines in a way that one can still feel today. He ranks up with the great British colonial administrators of that time in quality: Cromer in Egypt, Milner in South Africa, and Curson in India.

But what was the balance sheet of the American empire? We have taken all of these far-flung dependencies to run as colonies. How good were we at it? How did the United States rate as a colonial power? The record is mixed.

On the negative side, we did the most extraordinary thing of setting ourselves against two indigenous revolutions against the Spanish, one in Cuba and one in the Philippines.

A revolution had started in Cuba in 1895. Its intellectual inspiration was JosÈ Marti. When we invaded Cuba, we used Cuban revolutionaries for intelligence, we used them to guard roads, but we totally discarded them when the Spanish surrendered. They were not invited to the surrender ceremonies, nor were they given any role in the Cuban government, which for four years was an American military dictatorship.

In the Philippines it was even worse. The Philippines also had a revolution against the Spanish, led by the charismatic young Emilio Aguinaldo. Again, Aguinaldo's forces were very important to us in taking Manila. Dewey, who was much more honest than most of the generals, recognized Aguinaldo's contribution. But again, the same pattern was repeated: Washington decided that Aguinaldo and company would have no role at all in running the Philippines. They wanted an independent Philippines; we did not. So we cut him aside.

They started a war against us. They turned from a revolutionary opponent of Spain to a revolutionary opponent of the United States. From 1899 to 1902, we fought a very dirty war in the Philippines against Aguinaldo with huge atrocities on both sides. Unfortunately, Roosevelt, Root, and Lodge did their best to cover up this disgraceful period in our history.

On the other hand, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Root did take the welfare of people of the dependencies seriously. Even during the war in the Philippines, whenever the Americans pacified an area, they drove the Aguinaldo people out and would install a local administration to run it. By the time Aguinaldo's people were ultimately driven out, there were Philippine local and municipal administrations all over the place. Let me read you part of the instruction that Root sent to William Howard Taft, who was the first civilian administrator in the Philippines :

"Bear in mind that the government which you are establishing is designed not for our satisfaction or for the expression of our theoretical views, but for the happiness, peace, and prosperity of the people of the Philippine islands, and the measures adopted should be made to conform to their customs, their habits, and even their prejudices."

An extraordinarily enlightened document. Because Root had understood the importance of the welfare of the local people, the pacification program in the Philippines was very successful. By Asian standards, the Philippines was a democracy very early on in the twentieth century, after the termination of the war in 1902. In 1907 the Philippines had the only elected legislature in Asia. All of this is an ironic tribute to Root.

If you look at the failure of pacification in Vietnam, for example, where we failed to win the allegiance - or at least the acceptance - of the local population, you can see the difference. In the Philippines, despite the very dirty war, we did a pretty good job.

The effect of the 1898 period was marked throughout the twentieth century.

Thank you.

Questions and Answers

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

QUESTION: One could legitimately add the mass media to your five factors. You alluded to Hearst and Pulitzer, but they were even more than an influence on the opportunity, because they contributed colossally to the whipping up of public opinion.

Would you like to update these five factors, or even the sixth, to the present day? What are their equivalents?

One characteristic of all of the places captured in 1898 was American willingness to stay engaged, in some cases for decades. Do you see this as a variable in our understanding of how we should look at these traditions playing themselves out today? Has America the staying power it had in the 1890s or the first decade of the twentieth century?

WARREN ZIMMERMAN: I argue in the book that the press was perhaps less influential than most people think, particularly Hearst. Hearst was a huge warmonger. The New York Journal was pushing Cuban atrocities stories daily. But that was only New York City. He had papers in San Francisco and New York. It wasn't syndicated. So he didn't have enormous effect outside of these cities.

McKinley, who did not want to go to war with Spain but who was of all presidents probably the most politically attuned to what the people wanted to do, would take polls. In those days, there weren't pollsters. You sampled editorial opinion from newspapers all over the country. McKinley drew the conclusion that Americans wanted to go to war with Spain, and so he obliged.

Bringing things up to the present, presidential authority is an interesting question right now, because it is unclear whether President Bush has the long-term authority that it appears. He seems to be steamrollering the Congress; he will get a vote hugely in favor of an invasion of Iraq, which the American people seem to support but not with great enthusiasm. That would look like a strong imperial president, of the Theodore Roosevelt sort.

On the other hand, you remember only ten or so years ago we were all bewailing the power of the Congress, that every congressman has his individual agenda - whether it was global warming, or anti-UN, or Cuba or Iran policy. In the Clinton years, it was very difficult for the Executive Branch to do very much in foreign policy.

Now it seems to have swung again because we are in crisis after 9/11, a crisis manufactured by President Bush over Iraq. But when we get through this particular passage, the power of the Executive Branch will not necessary be all that great. Look at what happened to George Bush Sr. when the polls were very high after the Gulf War in 1991 - he lost an election the next year. The jury is out on that.

America's sticking around--we didn't stick around in Cuba. We ran it for four years, under quite a capable military governor, Leonard Wood. We then gave the Cubans their independence, but we said, "We can't give you real independence." So Root wrote an amendment into congressional legislation that said, in effect, that while Cuba is independent, the United States has the right to intervene when it deems that Cuban stability is threatened. It was very open-ended. The Platt Amendment allowed us to intervene.

We did intervene in 1906 under Roosevelt. He didn't actually want to do it, but did so at the Cuban President's urging with the argument of weakness, which we have heard so often ever since - from the Shah of Iran, from Diem in Saigon: "I'm too weak, I'm going to fall, you've got to help. And Roosevelt went in very reluctantly.

An American influence in Cuba overshadowed the local independent power of the Cubans. It might have even been better if we had kept Cuba as a colonial dependency a little bit longer and then prepared it for real independence, instead of the kind of half-way independence that we granted.

In the Philippines, we did a better job of nation-building. It would have been a disgrace, a disaster, and a shame if we had not done so. The pacification program was a form of early nation-building, and it did prepare the Filipinos for running their own affairs. The tragedy was that we waited until 1946 before we actually gave them independence.

The Puerto Rican model is the most complex of all. We have effectively bought out Puerto Rican opposition to being a dependency of the United States by allowing them not to pay federal taxes. But there is much dissention in Puerto Rico about the situation, which is still seen as a colonial relationship.

It is true that we stuck around and understood that there were responsibilities that went beyond just winning a war to take these places. But it is also true that we didn't handle them very well all of the time. Maybe it is better that we never really had a colonial mission, the way the French and the British did. It was easier to turn real power over to our colonial dependencies because we weren't very comfortable with the situation.

QUESTION: Roosevelt said that it is a nation's "virile duty" to be powerful and dominant in the world, and he was obviously operating in a competitive context with the other imperial and colonial powers of the time. Is there still a point to being an imperialistic power? Many of the criticisms about Bush and Iraq today are that America is reviving a renascent wish to become dominant in the world, to keep itself there, that it has no other choice but to continue the status quo to maintain the economic dominance that it had which drove it in 1898 and now seems to be circling back and saying, "If we're going to do it and we're still going to be rich and prosperous, we have to have a global reach and it has to be unilateral."

Is there still the same point a hundred years later as there was then?

WARREN ZIMMERMAN: I like the definition that Mahan used for imperialism: the extension of national authority over alien communities. "Imperialism" was a good word for him.

A country can be imperialist even if it acquires no territory, as long as its authority is extended. This definition applies to the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. We were an imperial country, as the leader of the NATO alliance, we were the strongest power, our voice counted more than anybody else's.

If you go back to the 1898 period, there were very good strategic, security reasons for our doing what we did, at least with Cuba and Puerto Rico.

We had to be secure against the British in Canada. We were not strong enough to fight them, so effectively we made agreements with them to regulate the borders so we would not be threatened from Canada.

We were stronger than Mexico and we had beaten them up once in a war, so the problem was not going to come from there. And when it did come, when the French tried to install an anti-American regime in Mexico during the Civil War and when the Germans tried to do it during World War I, we reacted very strongly, because our national security was involved.

You could argue by the same token that we had to control the Caribbean, and Cuba is the most important country in the Caribbean, by far. One way or another, we had to exert enough influence over Cuba to prevent it from becoming hostile. The irony is that it did become hostile. Kennedy drew the line in 1962 when he made it clear that there was a point at which we would be prepared to fight them, or to fight the Soviets.

By extrapolation, American security was certainly threatened by the Soviet Union during the Cold War because of the reach of their missiles and the ground threat to our allies in Western Europe. And, therefore, you could argue that we had to act in a somewhat imperial way toward NATO, both economically and politically - economically in that the dollar is the reserve currency, which many academics at least consider to be an imperial situation. I would like "imperialism" to be seen as a neutral word, applying the extension of authority.

If you look at Iraq, I do not see the necessity of the United States' unilaterally moving in a hostile fashion by war against Iraq because I have a different view of our national security interest than the Bush Administration.

QUESTION: Sailor Mahan was credited with naming the modern Middle East. It used to be the Far East. He wrote that book, and it was very well received in Great Britain, where he became a celebrity. He suggested that the British build more ships and get to India by sea, instead of land.

WARREN ZIMMERMAN: The British Navy is the hero of Mahan's books. He knows he is an American officer, the British are our adversary, but he cannot help himself because the British Navy becomes the hero and the model for what he wanted the American Navy to become. And, as you rightly said, they understood that in England.

QUESTION: When you were quoting Root's idea of putting locals in administration, why was he so against the indigenous population to start with? Was he against the Philippines becoming independent at that time?

MR. ZIMMERMAN: Yes. They all were against the Philippines becoming independent, even Taft, who was probably the most human of them all. For some reason, they could not make that intellectual jump to letting these people be independent. Dewey, who didn't have a great deal of political science education but knew the Filipinos and Cubans, thought the Filipinos could handle themselves as an independent country. He reneged on all of those statements afterwards, but he did make them and he did think that.

The fear was that if the Philippines became independent, they would be snapped up very quickly by Germany or Japan and then we would have a security problem in the Pacific on our hands. But there were other ways to do it. They could have become independent with a security guaranteed by us that protected them against any encroachment by the other great powers.

Extraordinary irony, that Cuba, the whole objective of the Spanish-American War, was given its independence in four years, whereas the Philippines, which was clearly an afterthought, had to wait forty-eight years.

QUESTION: You said that President Bush was manufacturing a situation with respect to Iraq. Would you comment on where we are today?

WARREN ZIMMERMAN: The book is certainly not a road map to what kind of policy we should have toward Iraq. But one of the things that these five people from 1898 did was to help define what America's security interests were for them. It tended to be a territorial definition. We had to be sure that we had no hostile powers in our hemisphere. So we had to buy off the British and Canadians, we had to control the Caribbean, we had to go crashing into Central America all the time. But those were security interests. Then the security interests gets extrapolated as weaponry gets more far-reaching, and you get the Soviet security threat, which comes from 8,000 miles away.

There is a debate over whether Saddam Hussein is a serious security threat to the United States. I can perfectly well understand that you could argue it either way. My own argument would be that there is more of a security danger to us by a military invasion of Iraq than if we dealt with him in some other way. This security danger comes from two sources: 1) we can't be sure that he wouldn't blow off whatever biological chemical weapons he's got if he knows we are invading him, which would be a threat to us - and if not to us, at least to Israel; and 2) I am unable to construct a scenario by which an American invasion of Iraq, even if it is totally successful, would not generate more terrorism in the Middle East, because even if we win in Iraq, depose Saddam Hussein, install the government of our choice, we will have to run it for a long time because of the unsettled ethnic problems there. So Iraq becomes effectively an American protectorate. I simply cannot believe that that will not generate among young Arabs everywhere greater anti-Americanism and terrorism.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for being with us this morning.

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