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 was 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
May 7, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
May 7, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Snyder, what do you recall about the problems involving debt management in 1951?
SNYDER: Well, Mr. Hess, the so-called "problems," frankly, should have never developed, other than just the natural problems of handling any difficult problem such as the debt of the United States. What created a situation that caused the President to issue the memorandum, which he did on February 26, 1951, grew out of a long series of occurrences. During the war, Mr. Marriner Eccles was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. He had cooperated very splendidly with the Government to help hold the cost of the debt down. He had supported the Treasury in maintaining low interest rates, as a matter of fact, maybe a little too low.
And when the war was over and we began to try to work out the gradual improvement of the general fiscal situation, the Federal Reserve was under pressure largely from the New York Federal Reserve Bank. It had always liked to feel that its officers up there were really the dictators of the monetary policy, credit policy, in the United States, and they began to press for higher interest rates. The Treasury cooperated with them, and they with the Treasury, and we began to raise the bill rate. It went from a low of, I think around 5/8ths up to about 1-1/2 percent on the ninety day bills, which were issued. Practically every Monday morning, there is an issue of the bills that came out. It's a rolling debt to meet the urgent needs of the Government, and it has become sort of established as part of the Government financing. We also began to let some of the
longer term notes and bonds begin to take on a little higher rate. And we were doing that in an orderly fashion, and going along very splendidly, until the Korean invasion took place, and we went to the defense of South Korea. At that time, the Fed, the New York Fed, particularly, of the Federal Reserve Bank began to press very hard to let the interest rates push right on up. I was concerned about that for I had seen a lesser incident than the invasion of South Korea cause two world wars; in both World War I and World War II the initial spark was much less than this invasion of South Korea. And I did not think that it was wise, nor did many others think it was wise, for us to start into an unknown situation of that sort knowing not how much it was going to demand in financing on a runaway interest rate basis. So I frankly spent a great deal of time with
Mr. Tom [Thomas B.] McCabe, who had become chairman of the board of the Fed replacing Mr. Eccles, although Mr. Eccles stayed on the board until his term of office ran out as a Governor. The pressure was so great that I finally made an arrangement with Mr. McCabe, and I did this in the presence of Senator [Burnet R.] Maybank, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He agreed that we would hold the rate at its present level for a particular financing that we were bringing up at that time. Much to my amazement one morning Mr. McCabe and the president of the New York Bank, came into my office in the Treasury, and stated that they had not bothered to tell me about it, but they were announcing that day that the rate was going up. Well, this was a body blow, this was a real shock to me for I definitely had a very clear understanding with Mr. McCabe that
this would not happen. It appears clear now that Mr. Allan Sproul, who was the president of the New York Bank, had put the pressure on Mr. McCabe. The New York bankers, and others, had put the pressure on him to show his independence from the administration, and to act as head of the Federal Reserve Bank. McCabe hemmed and hawed and said that he didn't remember making this statement and so forth, or making any agreement. Senator Maybank was positive that he did, the same as I was. Well, anyway, that really set fire to the problem, because they went through with what they said they were going to do, and I announced that we were going to issue the new bonds at the rate agreed on. They had been supporting the Government bond issues to see that they did not drop below par.
HESS: Did you try to argue them out of making that
SNYDER: Oh, very, very strenuously, but they said they had already done it so as not to embarrass me, because they knew that I would object to it, and the very fact that they knew I'd object to it made pretty clear that there had been some discussion and understanding with Mr. McCabe and me. Well, the problem developed by their not supporting the issue that we came out with that day at the old rate. That caused a great to-do. But in the meantime, I'll have to drop back a little: I gave a press conference in New York for a group of financial writers, in which I stated that because of the military action in Korea -- in support of South Korea -- that I felt that it was a fair rate that was being offered at this time under such circumstances, and that I was appealing to the bankers of the country to support that rate.
The interesting part was, following that conference, the price of U.S. bonds went up showing that it was accepted there as a situation that could be lived with. Then followed this procedure that I just told you about, the visits from the two gentlemen from the Federal Reserve Bank. Following that, of course, the bonds fell a little, and did not carry the market reaction that we had hoped they would. We had a pretty tough time and the bonds dropped for several days, and finally we had another session with McCabe; and at that time I was having very serious trouble with my eyes and had planned to go for an operation. Mr. McCabe assured Senator Maybank and me that the Fed would ride along until I got back from the operation, which would be a couple or three weeks maybe.
The day after I went into the hospital, the Fed just cut loose, and the market went
all over the place. I sat up, they got me out of bed, I'd had the operation, I sat up with a group of my people. Mr. [Charles E.] Wilson came out, who was at that time the head of the Defense Committee, but Mr. [William McChesney, Jr.] Martin, Ed [Edward H.] Foley, who was Under Secretary, and John Graham, Assistant Secretary, Ed [Edward F.] Bartelt, all came out to the hospital, and we worked out a program of agreement that I would be willing to go along with the Fed. They went back and there was some squabbling about it, and Wilson came out the next day. At that time I told him that I had worked up this agreement, that I had been working with the staff of the Fed, and that it was a fair understanding between us, but if the Treasury was to even go along with that, why, I felt that Mr. McCabe had lost his effectiveness in
the Federal Reserve position, as he apparently was not able to make decisions.
He went back and went to see McCabe and McCabe agreed to resign. We had another meeting then, and about that time, we came to this understanding. Mr. Truman had them over to the White House because I was in the hospital at the time, and he got nowhere with them. So that's when we had to come to this definite understanding that created the so-called Treasury-Federal Reserve Accord.
It was very mysteriously announced in the papers, and they tried to make a great mystery out of it. I don't think we ever published exactly what we had agreed on, but it was just that we were working together and cooperating. That brought on this memorandum which you have here. As you know, the memorandum requesting the study of the problem of debt
management and credit control was addressed to the Secretary of the Treasury, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Director of Defense Mobilization, and the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advises. That pointed out practically what I have just told you here. We were very cooperative in helping the President put this memorandum together. It set out the Treasury's position very clearly. Following that, Mr. McCabe did resign and Mr. Truman appointed Bill Martin, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, and had helped in working out this Accord. Ed Foley, Under Secretary of the Treasury, did a yeoman job and to Ed Bartelt is due a great deal of the credit, and of course, some of the staff over at the Fed were very cooperative in helping get it worked out. The Treasury and the Fed had really worked
together splendidly for many, many years. When you stop to think about it, the Federal Reserve Bank system is fiscal agent for the Treasury. They handle all of our fiscal matters. They are our paying agent; they are our distributing agent for currency and for specie and we just have to function with the Federal Reserve Bank, one of the twelve Federal Reserve Banks, began to feel that they ought to get back and resume the official position of dominance that Mr. [Benjamin] Strong, I think he was the first president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, had exerted for many years. Of course with the war coming on, that had somewhat been dampened by the war conditions and the action of Chairman Eccles.
But following this affair we worked out a working formula which we called the Treasury-
Federal Reserve Accord and it stayed in effect until after I left the Treasury.
HESS: Did that work fairly effectively?
SNYDER: It did. It worked very well until after Mr. Truman's administration was out of office, and when the new administration came in and made the abortive attempt for a peace settlement with the North Koreans, which as you know has not been settled yet, the Treasury Department then just threw the gate open. Mr. Randy [W. Randolph] Burgess, who was Under Secretary of the Treasury in charge of the financial matters, fiscal matters, credit matters, just said that "We'll let the Government securities go where they will." Of course, immediately the price of the securities dropped and the rate went up until it just threw the whole monetary system out of gear, and then they had to turn
around and reverse and come back up again, which I think demonstrated very clearly that our system of gradually increasing these rates, the rates of the securities, was the proper way of handling it, and that we certainly should not have gone into a wild interest-raising program in the face of our entering into this military action. I think that as we look back we'll find that the Treasury's position could have probably been a little more flexible had it not been for the pressure put on by the Fed.
HESS: Were they pressured by the New York bankers in turn?
SNYDER: I'm sure so, I'm sure so.
HESS: And their desire for higher interest rates.
SNYDER: That was the whole thing for the Fed in
New York to get back where the New York bankers could work with them and get the control of finance back in New York, don't you see.
HESS: And you didn't have so much trouble with the other Federal Reserve Banks, was that right, the other eleven?
SNYDER: Well, our only problem was, of course, was with the head here. If he permitted the banks to do this -- the control was here in the Board. They could have told any one of the banks, "No. That is not our policy," but the New York bank -- Mr. Sproul -- brought pressure on Mr. McCabe, who we learned later had great political ambition. This was in '51, and Mr. Truman had somewhat announced that he was not going to run again. He may not have officially announced it, but it was generally understood
that he didn't intend to run. I think that's true. Now, maybe if he had not let it be known, but anyway, the Republicans began to believe that they could win, and Mr. McCabe had somewhat got the notion, whether these were promises, or dangling carrots, got the notion that he could be Secretary of the Treasury, and so he began to get very political in his attitude. And of course, later he was one of the very, very large contributors to the Republican Party, although he was not appointed to anything after they got into office. Another gentleman, who was very ambitious and hopeful that he was going to be made Secretary of the Treasury, was Mr. Winthrop Aldrich of the Chase Bank. And he was disappointed also.
I think that just about covers it. Now, this is to be sealed. I don't want this released
until all parties mentioned here are dead.
HESS: All right, fine. We will do that. We will mark that on the copy.
SNYDER: Have you any questions?
HESS: Not on this particular matter, if that pretty well covers it.
SNYDER: I think maybe I ought to just incorporate this in our talk here, while it's in the Public Papers of the Presidents, the 1951 Volume, February 26th:
What we do about private credit expansion and about the Government securities market is, of course, only a part of the problem that confronts us. A successful program for achieving production growth and economic stability in these critical times must be based upon much broader considerations.
That was one of the problems that we had getting across. This interest rate was not going to control the situation or control inflation, and
certainly has been proven time and time again that increased interest rates have not done the job, although they were pressuring that that was the most vital thing that could be done. I don't believe so, and I think that time proved that that was really the case. There were so many other things. One more quote I want to give you, and this is a quote from the Public Papers:
We must make a unified, consistent, and comprehensive attack upon our economic problems all along the line. Our program must include, in proper proportion, production expansion policy, debt management and monetary policy, and a wide range of direct and indirect controls over materials, prices, and wages. All of these policies are necessary; each of them must be used in harmony with the rest; none must be used in ways that nullify others.
That merely brings out, Mr. Hess, that if you suddenly tighten up on the interest rates and run up the interest rates, you're going to cut back on the capacity of industry to expand, to increase production, you're going to make the
financing of their daily needs, their seasonal borrowings and everything more difficult, they are going to press prices up, without any question. All of those things have to be taken into consideration. Mr. Truman, upon my strong recommendation, agreed when the Korean conflict started, we went right to Congress and put in a tax bill to help meet the unknown cost of the Korean involvement. This was not done in World War II. It was some year and a half after we actually got into the war that Mr. Roosevelt finally began to give some tax consideration to the situation.
HESS: What caused that delay?
SNYDER: He just had a notion, which was quite true, that increased taxes were unpopular, and he was trying to bring the Nation along to give a 100 percent support to the involvement of the
United States in the World War, and so he held back the increase in taxes, I think much too long. And we did not do that in Korea. We went right in. We would have come out of Korea in much worse shape financially if we had not taken those immediate steps to tighten up, and Mr. Truman also cut back on a great number of our domestic plans and so forth, until we could see where we were going in the military picture. That of course, has not been done in this present Vietnam arrangement. Government spending has been higher than ever known in history at the same time we're involved in this war, and without question has had a material part in our present inflationary state.
HESS: Were there any prominent members of the administration who were opposed to raising taxes so
shortly after the Korean involvement?
SNYDER: Not any very strong opposition. Naturally, you were not going to get unanimity. I think the economic advisers felt that we shouldn't be doing that with the boys going off to war, and this was not a problem which they ought to bring up, but generally we had no problem, and Congress went right along with it. That was the important part.
HESS: On the problem of raising the interest rates, I'd like to bring us up to the present time, and as you know the prime interest rate has just been raised. Do you think it is more effective in fighting inflation in the present day than it was in the Truman administration?
SNYDER: I don't think so. I think there are so
many other things that you have to do along with it. It is a tool. Don't misunderstand me, it is a tool, and a good one, used in proper order. I think that in a situation like this, you've got to cut back deficit financing to the greatest extent possible. You've got to quit pouring money into the stream through deficit financing and doing a lot of the domestic things here that would cause the debt to continually rise. Deficit financing pours a lot of cash into the spending stream, which only forces competition in the way of price for the available goods that are on the market. And when the industry is working and producing the things for the military effort, it's going to cut back on its production capacity, and therefore makes a competitive cost which will force prices up. Again, in this situation here, in spite of the war effort and all that,
labor has pressed for the highest gains it's ever had. There's got to be moderation all the way across the board. It's not just the interest rates that are going to dampen that pressure for the inflationary spiral, it's all these other matters that have to be brought under control.
HESS: Just as a matter of supposition, but if things weren't brought under control, just where could it lead?
SNYDER: Well, it could lead to the point where the Government would find itself unable to finance its securities, and in that case you have seen what it has done, it would wreck your monetary system as it's done in Europe. All I have to do is just point to what did happen in Germany and France and England. You can knock the bottom out of your whole monetary program.
HESS: That subject is pretty well covered.
SNYDER: Unless you've got some other questions.
HESS: That's about it. Do you want to move into congressional liaison this morning?
SNYDER: We can. Let's see what you have that you want to inquire about. I might call your attention before we end, that just a few weeks later, February 26th was the date of that memorandum that we're talking about, and on March 3rd, which was just seven days later, Mr. Truman made a statement:
Statement by the President in Response to a Joint Announcement by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System.
Now, it was in that joint announcement that the accord was set out. I thought that we'd tie that together. And with the presidential
recognition of that, that seemed to bring the thing to a workable level that we were able to maintain at least until Mr. Truman's administration went out of office.
HESS: All right. How was congressional liaison conducted during the Truman administration?
SNYDER: Mr. Truman had on his staff several men who were charged with working back and forth with the chairmen of the committees, and with others, congressional leaders, keeping them appraised of what the administration had in mind in requesting legislation, and would build platforms of understanding, maybe weeks and months in advance of a measure that was to go up, or would currently go up and discuss with the leaders current requests for legislation. It was a continuous working arrangement with Mr.
Truman. His Cabinet members were particularly effective in going up on the Hill and talking with the Congressmen about legislation affecting their particular department.
HESS: Did he spend a good bit of time up there?
SNYDER: I spent a great deal of time, because I found that by getting the Congressmen fully aware (I'm speaking of both Representatives and Senators when I say Congressmen), to getting them to fully understand what we asked for in our legislation. I'm certain that that was one of the most effective steps that we took in connection with the tax bills. All the way through in the reorganization of the Treasury, we had innumerable bills that had to be passed to enable the Treasury to reorganize its various departments, such as
Customs, Internal Revenue, and any number of other departments, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, and the Coast Guard. We had to completely reorganize the Coast Guard from 385,000 personnel down to about 75,000. We had all the equipment that we had to dispose of; we had the installations, military installations, we had to cut back; we had the vessels that we had to realign. So it took congressional action to approve all of these various steps. And of course, the Internal Revenue we completely reorganized the Internal Revenue from top to bottom, removed the clause in the original setting up of the Internal Revenue in which all of the collectors were appointed by the President with the consent and approval of Congress; that was a revolutionary reorganization, but that all had to be done with very close liaison
with the Congress. That's certainly true of a tremendous amount of liaison with Congress, it had to be conducted with the unification of the armed services, setting up the Defense Department, and putting into it the Army, Navy, and Air Force. So it was, I think, when you look back at the record, that Mr. Truman conducted very effective liaison, either through his own staff or through the Cabinet members and the different agency heads.
HESS: Which of your subordinates did you find particularly effective in the Treasury Department?
SNYDER: Well, it would always depend on what the subject was, but generally speaking, Ernie [Ernest R.J Feidler was very effective. Ed Foley, I found that he was very, very able, and, of course, in the different units of the
Treasury, why, the head of that particular unit was always very able and helpful. Of course, we used our attorneys a great deal to explain the legal side of what we were trying to do. I think that about covers it. [While they were there the Under Secretaries O. Max Gardner and Lee Wiggins were most effective.]
HESS: All right. Concerning the White House staff, in 1949, Joseph Feeney and Charles Maylon were brought in and given the definite title of Legislative Assistants. Up until this time no one had held that specific title. Who on the staff was responsible for those actions before the time those gentlemen joined?
SNYDER: Oh, somebody was doing it without the particularly specific title, but Mr. Roosevelt had quite a number of people around him that he was using up on the Hill all the time. Mr. Truman did from the very beginning because he had been
a Senator, and he knew the importance of informing the Congress about what he was planning to do in order to get them to go along with him. I found that in the Treasury that it was so vitally important to get the leaders like Bob [Robert S.] Kerr of Oklahoma, Tom Connally, Bob [Robert A.] Taft, [Eugene D.] Millikin in the Senate; and of course Sam Rayburn; Congressman [Robert L.] Doughton, and ever so many others, to get them informed on what we were doing and why we were doing it. And once they did they went along. Senator [Harry Flood] Byrd who was initially opposed to anything, I got wonderful cooperation out of him by spending time with him explaining what the objectives were and what the effects might be.
HESS: He was very economy-minded, is that correct?
HESS: At least the public image.
SNYDER: That was the image he tried to build.
HESS: Was it a valid image?
SNYDER: It was not a valid image?
SNYDER: It was not a valid image in my opinion because when anything happened to cut back the cost of operating the Federal Government in Virginia he was always opposed to it, and very promptly. He had more public money spent in Virginia, I think, than most any other state except Texas.
HESS: Since Mr. Truman served for a good long time as a Senator, was he or was he not particularly effective in cultivating the contacts and
friendships that he had made during the time that he was Senator?
SNYDER: Of course he was, there's no question about that. You can't measure just how effective that he might be, but it's a peculiar thing that once you move from the Hill up to the White House a schism seems to come there, and they're not nearly as cooperative as you think they might be. Mr. Truman was without question one of the most popular Senators that we ever had in the Senate. I think that you'll find that that's generally conceded, that he was very popular. He was one of the best Senators to get opposing parties to get together and work out things. He resolved many arguments between the Senators and he was very effective in bringing about compromise and patching up disputes and misunderstandings. When he was made Vice
President and was presiding over the Senate, he just got along beautifully with them, and his work was very effective for the short time he was there. He was able to put across several of the administration bills by his leadership and ability to maneuver among his friends. But once he got up to the White House, that's been the history, I think, of all Senators -- has there ever been a Congressman elected President, I don't think so -- but many Senators have, and they have immediately found that they have a different situation to deal with.
HESS: President Johnson found the same thing.
SNYDER: That's right eventually. President Kennedy did. Of course, President Kennedy had not risen to the leadership in the Senate that either Mr. Truman or Mr. Johnson had. As a matter of
fact, Mr. Nixon never had a position of real leadership in my opinion in the Senate, so what his relationship is going to be in regard to getting cooperation from his old working friends in the Senate or in the Congress will remain to be seen in the future. But with Johnson and with Truman, they had developed into real leadership in the Senate and it stands out more vividly as to the reversal of that comradery, although I must say that both of them, without question, continued to have many close friends. Mr. Truman used to go up, oh, at least once a month and have lunch up on the Hill with Sam Rayburn and the House people, or over with the Senate. Les Biffle had a dining room there where he invited Senators in to visit with over lunch. Those were very effective trips.
HESS: How influential was Les Biffle?
SNYDER: Well, I think that up until after the 1948 convention, up until then he had been extremely effective. I think his effectiveness tapered off after that, although he was always able to do a great many very valuable things in bringing Senate agreement and understanding and steering bills on the calendar and things of that sort.
HESS: What seemed to be the basis of his success?
SNYDER: A thorough knowledge of procedures, and a close study of the individuals in the Senate.
HESS: You know, when the subject of employees of the Senate is mentioned, and their importance in White House congressional liaison and their uses by Mr. Truman, Les Biffle is the one that is usually mentioned. Were there others up there that Mr. Truman may have worked through?
SNYDER: Oh, there's no question about that. But Biffle stood out.
HESS: Who were some of the others?
SNYDER: I don't recall, because I only paid particular attention to my own operation. Mr. (Colin] Stamm over in the Ways and Means Committee was one that my department worked with. He was very influential.
That's one that just stands out. There were others that were the heads of the staffs of the various committees. I was trying to think of the man's name who was the head of the staff for the committee that we got the accounting reorganization through. He was extremely able and helpful. Yes, there were a great many.
HESS: Was Matthew Connelly instrumental in White
SNYDER: Probably. He would make calls. I don't know how effective he was. There's no question but that with his position, and being Secretary to the President, Appointments Secretary, that he had some influence with certain people and could accomplish certain arrangements. But as to taking a difficult problem and trying to work it out, I don't think that was really in his scope.
HESS: Many historians point out that Mr. Truman was not altogether too successful with his congressional programs. Many of the things he wanted passed were not passed, some of the things he did not want to be passed, were passed. How would you evaluate the success or failure of Mr. Truman's overall congressional program?
SNYDER: Well, Mr. Truman faced a genuine barrier to start with. He came in following a very aggressive President who had gone through the depression, had developed tremendous leverage with Congress because of his legislation to try to relieve the depression, to improve working conditions, to improve so many things, and he had built up a great momentum and leverage with the Congress; and because he too had been very successful at the polls, which adds to your leadership in an elective body. Mr. Truman came in, though, after the war, right at the time the war was tapering off; during the first few months of his Presidency World War II came to an end. Then there was a great undoing that came along. So many of those cutbacks and the cutting down of military activity and cutting down of orders and cancellation and realignment and taking advantage of all the
things that we had learned during the war and trying to get the country back into peacetime production, peacetime economy. He was faced with a tremendous, controversial difficulty. In time of war or in time of great crisis or distress, it's simpler to get a legislative body to go along with you. But when you start undoing it, you start taking off controls, you start trying to get labor back in peacetime productivity as opposed to the military crash programs. You begin to shut down plants. He had a great many more controversial problems to get through the Congress that didn't have the verve and the esprit that so many things that Mr. Roosevelt had, it somehow put him in sort of a bad light. Then too, Mr. Truman had a compulsion that he should carry on the programs that Mr. Roosevelt had run on in the 1944 campaign, and he felt he should try to carry those forward when
he became President. He ran into the difficulty of his advisers, his political advisers, or his group that were pressuring to get so many of these various programs in motion, they came up with ten point programs, and that sort of thing, and set out, one, two, three, and numbered each one of these items with the idea that, "Here is your bundle that you're going up there to try to get." So that every time one of those programs got knocked off, the whole Truman program failed according to the papers' version, don't you see, and that gave a greater cast of failure to many of his legislative programs than he actually deserved. I think that there was a tax bill or two that passed over his veto, but on the other hand, he had many that were passed with his recommendation. And when you think of what he accomplished in getting
those reorganization programs through, and so many things that Mr. Truman was able to do, his Marshall plan, his interim aid program, when you go back and measure all those big things that Mr. Truman did, I think that your appraisal of his legislative accomplishment is going to rise considerably.
HESS: All right. Shall we shut it off?
SNYDER: I think so.
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