Oral History Interview with
Secretary of the Treasury in the Truman Administration,
1946-53. Other Federal positions once held include Executive Vice-President
and Director, Defense Plant Corporation, 1940-43; Assistant to the Director
of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 1940-44; Federal Loan Administrator,
1945; Director, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1945-46.
Secretary Snyder has been a longtime close friend of Harry S. Truman beginning
with their service in the U.S. Army Reserves after World War I.
John W. Snyder
March 12, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess
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Transcript | Additional Snyder Oral History
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened September, 1970
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder
March 12, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Snyder, Mr. Truman took no part in the 1946 campaign and very
little in the one in 1950. Can you tell me why the decision was made to
hold down his participation in those two campaigns? Let's start with 1946.
SNYDER: At that time Robert Hannegan was the chairman of the Democratic
National Committee. He had been under Mr. Roosevelt. Mr. Roosevelt had
given him that position, prior to his 1944 campaign. To answer your question,
Mr. Hess, I can only give you my impression. It was for a combination
of reasons. Basically, Mr. Truman felt that Mr. Roosevelt had been the
one that was elected President, and that his policies and his plans were
paramount in all decisions that were made, because he was the choice of
people and they elected him on those plans and on those policies. So,
when the campaign for 1946 began to get underway -- Bob Hannegan had been
chairman of the Democratic National Party and he had steered the Roosevelt
campaign to a resounding success -- Mr. Truman felt that he should be
guided by the counsel and advice of Mr. Hannegan in the off-year election.
It seemed to me that Mr. Hannegan decided, and those around him probably
contributed to it, that it was Roosevelt's name that was magic with the
voters, and what they ought to be playing on was the continuation of the
Roosevelt era, and that Mr. Truman was pinch hitting for Mr. Roosevelt
in his absence, and that the entire remainder of the term would be focused
on the statements and on the policies and on the campaign promises of
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The campaign began to shape up that way and
Roosevelt was quoted in nearly every speech that was made. They kept
pointing to the great leader who carried us through the recovery from
the depression; who helped build up a great new view of civil rights,
and had inaugurated civil rights programs, and had started many of the
social reforms; and that he was the one that brought in the Social Security,
and the FDIC to guarantee their deposits, and protection of the little
man. It got to the point that Hannegan was insisting on playing records
at political gatherings of the voice of Roosevelt, and his speeches, or
excerpts from them, would be played. I have heard Hannegan say at times,
"Mr. President you don't need to bother about this, we'll take care of
this particular place," a place where Mr. Truman might think he could
have been helpful. "You have so much to do." He kept pressing that Mr.
Truman had so much to do that they would put this across. Mr. Truman actually
began to take less interest than probably he
normally would have. He would have contributed to the idea that this
was a continuation of the Roosevelt policies and so forth, because he
stayed with that as long as he was filling out Mr. Roosevelt's term. It
became evident, in my opinion, along in October, that this was not taking
well with the public. Traveling around I found that there was a slippage
that was beginning to show up.
HESS: Where did you go?
SNYDER: I could get you my list of places, but I don't recall. The Secretary
of the Treasury travels an awful lot making speeches and things. I happened
to have the list right here and I would say I visited almost all part
of the country.
That did not make too much of an impression on Mr. Truman because he
didn't change his program any, and he didn't press to take a more
active part because he said that Hannegan was the chairman, and it was
his job, and that the Congressmen and Senators who were up for election
-- as a matter of fact there began to be some little dissension among
HESS: In what way?
SNYDER: Particularly that they felt that there ought to be a greater
drive from the President.
To answer the question that you asked initially, I think that about covers
my recollections and impressions unless you have some questions.
HESS: I have a couple. In your opinion did Mr. Truman feel that he was
being shunted into the background?
SNYDER: I don't know that he exactly felt that way. He realized that
possibly the emphasis was on Mr. Roosevelt, and he contributed to that
idea somewhat because he was trying to carry out the
policies of Mr. Roosevelt. So I don't know if he actually felt that he
was being shunted aside, but the end result was that.
HESS: What was Mr. Truman's view of Robert Hannegan after the defeat
SNYDER: Well, Hannegan didn't stay much longer after that.
HESS: What brought about his departure?
SNYDER: His health. At least that was the statement.
HESS: He had high blood pressure.
SNYDER: He had high blood pressure and had a very serious operation performed
on his spine that was to have corrected it.
HESS: Was that about this time that he had the operation?
SNYDER: Right around that period. I could find out for you, because he
and Senator Symington had the same operation within a relatively short
time. If it is important to know just when the operation was, why, it's
easy to find. You have the date of his resignation there, don't you?
HESS: Not with me, no, I don't.
SNYDER: I do have and I will have to look it up for you, but I think
that it was along in the first part of '47 when he had the operation,
maybe in '46. He was not as fortunate as Mr. Symington. Maybe Mr. Symington
took better care of himself and followed the doctor's instructions more
carefully. He was a real success, whereas Mr. Hannegan's began to cause
him considerable trouble. He attributed it both to his health and his
desire to make a little money, because he had been in politics all his
life, he said, and had never
had a chance to build up an estate for his family for the care of the
children, education and so forth. So, it was a combination of the two.
I think he publicly used the one about getting out in private life. Privately
I think that we all understood that it was largely because of his health.
You may find in the public record that his reason was...
HESS: To build up an estate for his family.
HESS: Why I brought it up about the date of his operation, I was wondering
about the weight of the percentages behind the reason of his retirement,
the health as opposed to the other.
SNYDER: Do you want to stop that a minute and I'll call Symington's secretary.
HESS: You mentioned Mr. Hannegan's successful handling
of the 1944 campaign as being among the reasons that the President placed
some reliance in what he had to say in 1946. As I understand it we have
covered this quite adequately on tape, I believe, about Mr. Hannegan's
promotion of Mr. Truman for the vice-presidential spot in 1944.
SNYDER: Right, we discussed that.
HESS: Do you think that that was part of the reason...
SNYDER: He felt that Hannegan had the experience and the contacts, and
so forth, because of his experience in the national campaign of ‘44.
HESS: All right, one hypothetical question. Mr. Hannegan's handling of
the 1946 campaign did not seem to be too successful. Do you think that
it would have prevented the loss of the Congress. to the Republicans if
it had been
handled differently, if Mr. Truman had gone out and waged a vigorous
SNYDER: Mr. Hess, of course that is highly speculative. In the light
of the success that Mr. Truman had two years later, I have always been
inclined to think that if he had had a better exposure to the public in
the 1946 campaign, the Nation and he would have greatly benefited by it.
It took some time. I think that that would have given him a better opportunity
to get the feel of national campaigning because if you recall Mr. Truman
was given a very limited part of the campaigning in the 1944 campaign
and really was not given free rein to develop his ideas about the national
campaign techniques that he had to learn four years later when he was
running for President. It was not until he threw aside many of the cut
and dried beliefs and started out on his own on his whistlestop program
that he really began to get
results from his campaigning. He might have learned that in the 1946
campaign if he had really had the motivation and the opportunity to put
on an aggressive campaign. To try to say whether you could have changed
the trend at the time, would be hard to say. I have always felt like he
HESS: Another hypothetical question. In 1946 did Mr. Hannegan approach
the President with the idea, "We will use Roosevelt's voice on tape, and
we will slant this from the Roosevelt angle. We will read excerpts from
Roosevelt speeches." Was that cleared with Mr. Truman? Do you know?
SNYDER: I don't know whether it was ever cleared with him, but he was
told that it was going to happen and he didn't object to it.
HESS: Now my hypothetical question: Do you think
that after being told that this is the way that the campaign was going
to be structured, as almost a Roosevelt campaign, that if he wanted to
come out and campaign that it would have been throwing himself into competition,
more or less, with the late President?
SNYDER: He would have been developing a controversial situation at that
time, yes. There is no question but what the national committee had geared
itself to the belief that Roosevelt was the great leader, the great name,
the same way probably that the Republicans relied on Lincoln for so long,
don't you see. Lincoln was the magic word. Remember, four times Mr. Roosevelt
had been elected, and to this group that had been around him pretty closely,
they just felt that his word was magic in the land, which it had been,
HESS: Do you recall what some of the other major
Democratic politicians thought about this, at this time? Take Jake Arvey
SNYDER: No, Mr. Hess, I have told you a number of times I did not take
an active part in politics, therefore, I did not attend many, practically
none of the workshops, discussions, the planning, and meetings of that
sort. It would only be when I was with Mr. Truman at the time the matter
would come up. I do recall being at the White House one time, we were
over in the State Dining Room, when they played one of the records of
Mr. Roosevelt's voice.
HESS: Was this during the campaign?
SNYDER: It was right at the beginning of the campaign. I recall that
one or two of us felt like it was calling for the voice from the grave.
HESS: Was the President present?
SNYDER: Yes, he was there. There was quite a number gathered there. I
forgot the function, but we had gone over to the State Dining Room and
this record was played at that time. I remember the deep impression that
it made on me personally.
HESS: Do you recall the President's reaction?
SNYDER: It's hard to say. I think it was tongue in cheek. He would be
the best source on that as to how he really felt about it.
HESS: Does that pretty well cover events in 1946?
SNYDER: Unless you have something else.
HESS: One other question. Mr. Truman took very little part in the 1950
campaign also, which was an off-year election. Do you recall why his participation
was held down?
SNYDER: At that time he had so many real problems
on his hands with the Korean war and with our economy and fighting inflation
and things of that sort that he really didn't have the time to devote
to it. It would have been very effective if he could have, I think, but
the reason was an entirely different reason than the '46 campaign. This
time it was because of the tremendous weight of the load of the Presidency.
Of course, Presidents normally have not taken a very active part in the
off-year elections. I believe that you will find that the case if you
HESS: There is one question on 1946, of course that is when the 80th
Congress came in, and many historians say that that is when Mr. Truman
was really allowed to go off the defensive and go on the offensive. Some
even go so far as to say that he would not have won in 1948 if he hadn't
had the 80th Congress to run against. What's
your view on that?
SNYDER: It was very effective anyway and he used it well and at the moment,
why -- we are always looking for stalking-horses, you know, in both non-political
and political campaigns. It was a good media and it struck the people
as a good point because there were so many things that the Congress didn't
act on that the President had recommended in his legislative programs.
It happened that more people wanted the things that he recommended than
didn't want them, and so he hit a responsive note there.
HESS: Mr. Snyder, I think that that fairly well covers everything that
we want to put down on 1946 and 1950, other than the date of the operation,
and when Senator Symington's secretary returns your call we can put that
information in at that point.
One other question for this morning, on the general subject of civil
rights, there are those that say that Mr. Truman was a man of principle
seeking to gain as much for the Negro as the political processes would
allow. Others say that he was a political opportunist compelled by pressures
to move far beyond what he actually wanted to attain. What do you think
is the proper view of Mr. Truman's attitude?
SNYDER: I think the first view is the proper one. Mr. Truman foresaw
that this racial problem had to be met foursquare; that the people of
this Nation should be all treated equally when it came to the civil processes
of the country; that the right to vote ought to be freely offered; the
right of jobs; and the right of education. He felt that very sincerely
and positively. I think I can tell you a story that might be very effective
in highlighting just how sincere he was and how
he conveyed his sincerity to a great many people.
I was at a luncheon at the Riding Club in Atlanta, Georgia with a group
of Southern bankers. They began to give me quite a going over as to some
of the things that Mr. Truman had said regarding civil rights and some
of the programs that he was sponsoring up on the Hill in the way of legislation
that had been proposed, but was still unpassed from the Roosevelt administration.
A great number of those bills and legislative programs that went up shortly
after Mr. Truman became President. This was in, oh, probably, 1948 when
this occasion happened. They were just finding a great deal of fault with
what Mr. Truman was saying and doing -- it was upsetting the South, and
giving them additional problems for them in taxes and things of that sort.
I said, "Now just wait a minute, gentlemen, you're finding great fault
with Mr. Truman and chiding me for
my association with him without really facing the facts of the matter.
It hasn't been over three or four years ago when I was right here with
you and you were praising Mr. Roosevelt." That was during the lifetime
of Mr. Roosevelt. "And you were all praising the great work that he had
done in the war and in constituting reconstruction of the country after
the depression and a great many things. You were all very high in your
praises of him. You must remember that he was the one that started this
civil rights program with all his other social legislation." One of them
said, "Yes, but the trouble is, this fellow means it."
I always thought that that was the clearest exposition of the interpretation
of most people as to his sincerity in what he was doing.
HESS: One question along these same lines. There are some historians
that point out the fact that even though Mr. Truman made liberal statements
and statements in approval of civil rights matters, that perhaps his actions
did not match those statements. Some historians pointed out that there
were very few high-level appointments of colored people during the Truman
administration. What are your views on that?
SNYDER: I don't think that it was because of Mr. Truman's personal convictions
that caused that. I think that it was largely because of the pressures
that were put on him for appointments, and recommendations, and this idea
was rather new at that time. Mr. Roosevelt had not appointed a great many
of the Negro race to jobs. It was a new concept, or a new approach to
an old concept, and I don't think that it was intentionally -- maybe he
wasn't aggressive enough in doing it and, of course, his successor, Eisenhower,
didn't appoint a great many and it was not until Kennedy's time that they
began to really step out and appoint quite a number. I think there were
some judges, but you'd have to go back to your records to find out just
how many presidential appointments of Negroes were made. I don't think
that there was any feeling on Mr. Truman's part. It was a matter of finding
competents for the job that was the principal thing.
HESS: What was the concept back at that time, how were they trying to
implement civil rights matters? Was it in trying to get public housing
for people, was it in the trying to get a minimum wage law, or was it
in trying to improve welfare matters? Just what was the thinking?
SNYDER: All of those things were a part and parcel of the program. Social
Security and education
were beginning to be pressed pretty strongly because it was felt that
they had to see that these people had an education that would permit them
to qualify for better jobs and better opportunities. Housing was a very
important part of all this. I think that the grassroots of urban renewal
was started then, trying to clean up some of the slum areas. How far that
had penetrated the South, I just don't recall. I know that New York jumped
on it very promptly and started some big projects up there. Job placement,
the Full Employment Act, all of those things were used for the purpose
of indiscriminately giving everybody an opportunity. The problem, of course,
developed slowly in the South. It was quite a transition and it couldn't
have just happened over night. It took long years and is still going on.
We are blaming the South a great deal but the truth of the matter is,
the migrants, the Negroes who have moved north in great quantities
to some of the large Negro settlements in the cities, are having as bad
or worse experience than they are having in the South. Their opportunities
in the South, actually, are about as good as they are in the North. The
South is taking the brunt of a great deal of this civil rights opprobrium
that rightly belongs in any place with large collections. We forget in
our emotionalism what brought on the South's situation in the first place.
Southern people didn't go over to Africa and bring the slaves over here,
they were sold to them by Yankee traders and by the Caribbean operators
who went over and exploited these people, and the Southerners put them
to work when they arrived here. Climate and labor shortage on the plantations
accounts largely for the slave sales in the South. The North used immigrants
under near-slavery conditions in the steel mills, coal mines and railroad
building long after the Civil War. There are isolated cases of cruelty,
and I say isolated because as a general thing, a Negro slave was a pretty
fine piece of property. You don't ordinarily beat your horses up, it is
a rare case, but even some people do beat up their horses. But they didn't
do that as a general thing. It was a cruel thing, of course, to sell people
on the auction block, and buying them that way, but they actually probably
live better than they would have in Africa or than many of the people
in the Northern slums at that time. But unhappily, the Negro race has
not developed uniformly with other races in education. There seems to
be a block.
HESS: What do you think brings this about?
SNYDER: It's inherent in their generic background, I guess. Consider
the present problem of trying
to educate the black man over in Africa, that brings out the fact that
there is a limit to the numbers who can assimilate an education beyond
the primary grades. To say suddenly that it was all entirely the South's
fault is pressing it a little too far. We're having the trouble right
here in Washington with the educating of the Negroes. You saw that article
the other day, and maybe heard on radio, where a survey was made and that
the Negro jobholders who answered the telephone were having trouble making
themselves understood, that they had a sort of a secondary language of
their own. That's right here in the capital city, after all the years
that they have been here. So it isn't purely the South's fault. We have
got to quit that and make it a uniform national approach to this problem
and not constantly be saying that it was a Southern fault. This "Old Tom"
business I think has been used for propaganda purposes by the promoters
who are not strong for the real opportunity for the Negro to advance,
but for personal opportunity of the speaker in keeping himself as the
leader and in stirring up emotion.
HESS: Would you go so far as to say that the Negro seems to be basically
and inherently somewhat inferior?
SNYDER: The problem in Africa where educational programs are being undertaken
for the native, the Bantu, the native black man, and the problems there
are just terrific. They just don't seem to be able to assimilate. Of course,
we have the same problem, maybe, with our Indians here. However, there
are quite a number of Indians who have been able to overcome that gap
and proceed to higher education. I think that we must recognize the fact
that you cannot take an average group, just march out a hundred Caucasians
and a hundred blacks and expect them to move right along in the same
degree of assimilating education. I think that is where the great problem
is going to come, in trying to force integration into high schools and
things of that sort, you're going to slow down the educational processes
in my opinion. It's perfectly proper to have the opportunity there for
those who can take the higher education and the steps of the more involved
educational subjects. Let's give them every opportunity to go right on
through college to master's and doctor's degrees. But I do not think that
because of trying to keep all the classes in the same stage of development
that you are going to be able, certainly within the next few decades,
to insist that you mix the school so that there is an equal or proportionate
number of black and white in the classrooms as you hear some advocates
propose. That's a
personal opinion from long years of observation. We should give the black
student every opportunity to progress as far as he can go in educational
matters. Some have demonstrated that they have been able to go on to higher
education. The great majority of them reach a limit of assimilation of
education by the time that they reach the high school grades.
HESS: What can the Negro of today do to help improve his own situation?
SNYDER: Be willing to work for his living and be willing to try to help
himself and help his fellow black man. We have a great dearth of sincere
willingness on the part of the black man who has made a success, who has
been able to get a higher education, to get out and work for the betterment
of his race. Most of the leaders are emotional, radical talking type of
that are in the lead of these things. To get a good man who is willing
to devote and to contribute -- there are many wealthy Negroes, but you
don't find a great many of them that are willing to contribute in large
sums to schools, to black schools, and to black hospitals and black developments,
to scholarships; and I think they should. When they made a success they
ought to try to help, and the individual himself ought to be willing to
work for what he is after instead of having it handed to him by some Federal
HESS: Back on the Truman administration, were there any measures that
you could have taken or you could take, or possibly did take, in the Treasury
Department to further civil rights matters during your period?
SNYDER: We gave every opportunity for the black man to take jobs that
he was qualified for in
in the Treasury. The question didn't come up in the Treasury except in
one place, and that was equally with white and black, was in the training
for some of the higher jobs in the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. We
had some little problem there, but it was simply because the applicants,
the ones that did apply, just were not able to acquire the qualification
for that kind of work. Generally speaking, the Treasury was a large employer
of the black man in Washington and in other parts of the country. Certainly,
I never heard of any blame against the Treasury for discrimination in
HESS: Did you have any of the leaders of the civil rights organization
come in to see you?
SNYDER: No, never.
HESS: Do you think that they were somewhat laggard in not pressing this?
SNYDER: Pressing what?
HESS: Could they have gotten more jobs from the Treasury Department if
they came in and asked for them?
SNYDER: I doubt it. At least I accepted the fact that their not coming
indicated that they were satisfied that we were giving them a pretty fair
HESS: One other question on this, and as you know the FEPC, the Fair
Employment Practices Commission, was not fully established during the
Truman years. They tried several times and it was not established. Do
you recall anything about the FEPC and the efforts to establish that during
the Truman administration?
SNYDER I remember the first discussion that came up. I think, largely,
that it was maybe too radical
a change, some of the things that they were proposing, that they wanted
to accomplish overnight, without building up a gradual approach to that
program. We had great resistance from industrial employers on EEPC, because
some of the proponents wanted to force any industrialist to hire them,
regardless of whether they were fitted or qualified for the job or not.
Maybe its poor reception could have been on account of those who were
the vocal sponsors and that a better sponsorship should have been sought
for that new concept.
HESS: One question on race relations in general. Approximately what were
the percentage of the colored people in Jonesboro when you were growing
up? Do you recall?
SNYDER: It would be hard to say. I would say 10 percent maybe.
HESS: Did they have segregated schools there at that time?
HESS: Did you have any relationships with colored people?
SNYDER: Oh, I've always gotten along just splendidly. I've been real
close friends with Negroes all my life. When I got into the banking business
down in Forrest City at least half of our Negro depositors would come
to me for counsel and advice. I remember one instance when Scott Bond,
who was a landowner, in St. Francis County, came to me and said that Judge
Rolfe had suggested that he talk with me to see if I could help him in
some of his legal problems. It appeared that Scott had overbought. He
had tried to extend himself too rapidly and then when he had
the set-back in the price of cotton -- he was entirely a cotton farmer,
he had not attempted any diversification at that time, nor had anyone
else. A little alfalfa was beginning to be planted during World War I
and afterwards, but real diversification on the farm was not started.
So, he was caught with this problem, and through sitting down and working
with him we were able to let some of the lesser desirable pieces of property,
small farms of forty, fifty, sixty, eighty acres, that he had added, to
drop those out of his program and we reshaped his affairs to where when
he died Scott Bond left an estate of some five or six hundred thousand
That's one example of the type of help that I have always tried to extend
to Negroes. We had another family there, the Williams family, who were
able to assimilate higher education. One became a doctor, one became a
pharmacist and one became an insurance man. I carried
their accounts, helped them, advised them, extended loans to them, and
they became great successes and good leaders of the colored people in
After I got into Government in St. Louis I had many, many Negro leaders
who would come to me to consult about things. I would go out and talk
with their groups there. After I got into Government, I always had a great
number of colored people who came to me for counsel, who are still writing
me notes, and at Christmas I get little messages from them. I don't know
whether this fits with what you asked, but even though I was born in the
South, I've always taken a great interest in the development of the Negro.
HESS: Was there anyone in the Treasury Department in a management position,
in an executive position, that was colored?
SNYDER: I don't think so.
HESS: We haven't put down on our tape yet our information about Mr. Hannegan's
SNYDER: The operation for the high blood pressure problem, that Hannegan
and Symington were afflicted with, was in the summer of 1947. He did not
turn out quite so well and that, coupled with his desire to get out and
try to make a little money to leave for the education of his children,
caused him to resign. The situation at that time, we were beginning to
do quite a bit of reorganization in the Bureau of Internal Revenue and
some problems were developing that Mr. Hannegan did not want to get involved
with. I would say that he probably didn't want to become involved after
having had these people come to him for sponsorship.
You see, he had been Commissioner of Internal Revenue before he was made
Chairman of the National
Democratic Party. He was brought from St. Louis and given that job. He
came up here under [Guy T.] Helvering, and succeeded Helvering as Commissioner
of Internal Revenue. Unfortunately, he had used it for political purposes,
in my opinion. He put a great many politicians in jobs that they shouldn't
have been in.
HESS: Then his retirement was in December of that year 1947. Do you recall
offhand how long he lived after that?
SNYDER: A year or so, I don't know exactly.
HESS: What was his personal relationship with President Truman? Did it
somewhat diminish after 1946?
SNYDER: I think it did.
HESS: Did you ever hear President Truman say anything about Mr. Hannegan?
SNYDER: Mr. Truman never said anything about people other than, "Oh,
he's a great fellow," or something like that.
HESS: Whether he thought so or not?
SNYDER: Many times, whether he thought so or not, yes. Mr. Truman was
not a vindictive sort of person in spite of all the advertising he got
for saying things off-the-cuff. He was very, very careful. He didn't pretend,
of course. If he definitely didn't like you, you knew that you weren't
one of his best friends. But, he was not one inclined to be vindictive
about his feelings towards people, he just let them alone. Mr. Hannegan
did become less and less influential around Washington.
HESS: All for one morning?
SNYDER: I think that's sufficient.
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