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Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States. Roosevelt served longer than any other president. His unprecedented election to four terms in office will probably never be repeated; the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, passed after his death, denies the right of any person to be elected president more than twice.
Roosevelt held office during two of the greatest crises ever faced by the United States: the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II. His domestic program, known as the New Deal, introduced far-reaching reforms within the free enterprise system and prepared the way for what is often called the welfare state. His leadership of the Democratic Party transformed it into a political vehicle for American liberalism. Both in peacetime and in war his impact on the office of president was enormous. Although there had been strong presidents before him, they were the exception. In Roosevelt’s 12 years in office strong executive leadership became a basic part of United States government. He made the office of president the center of diplomatic initiative and the focus of domestic reform.
Roosevelt was born at his family’s estate at Hyde Park, in Dutchess County, New York. He was the only child of James Roosevelt and Sara Delano Roosevelt. James Roosevelt was a moderately successful businessman, with a variety of investments and a special interest in coal. He was also a conservative Democrat who was interested in politics. His home overlooking the Hudson River was comfortable without being ostentatious, and the family occupied a prominent position among the social elite of the area. Sara Delano, 26 years younger than her previously widowed husband, brought to the marriage a fortune considerably larger than that of James Roosevelt. The Delano family had prospered trading with China, and Sara herself had spent some time with her parents in Hong Kong. Thus, Franklin was born into a pleasant and sociable home, with loving parents and congenial, rather aristocratic companions.
Roosevelt often taken on European trips, and he also spent much time at a vacation home that James Roosevelt purchased on Campobello Island, on the Bay of Fundy, in New Brunswick, Canada. It was a pleasant life for the young Roosevelt, who was fond of the outdoors. He soon developed a passionate interest in natural history and became an ardent bird watcher. He grew to love outdoor sports and became an expert swimmer and a fine sailor.
His mother supervised his education until he was 14. French-speaking and German-speaking tutors did most of the actual instruction and helped him develop early a talent for those languages. Young Roosevelt was a voracious reader. He was particularly fond of adventure tales, especially those that touched on the sea. He also developed an absorbing interest in stamp collecting, a hobby that taught him both history and geography and that was to afford him pleasure and relaxation during all of his adult life.
Rossevelts selected Groton School in Massachusetts, which had a reputation as one of the finest of the exclusive private schools that prepared boys for the Ivy League colleges. Young Roosevelt was a good student, popular with his fellow students as well as with his teachers.
From Groton Roosevelt went on to Harvard College. He entered in 1899, the year before his father died, and remained until 1904. He took his bachelor’s degree in 1903 but returned to Harvard in the fall to serve as editor of the student newspaper, The Crimson. He was an above-average student at Harvard, but he devoted a great deal of time to extracurricular activities, and his grades suffered as a consequence. He was particularly interested in history and political economy and took courses in those subjects with outstanding professors. Although he was a competent journalist, his editorials in The Crimson were chiefly concerned with school spirit in athletics and show no sign of growing social consciousness or political awareness. However, he joined a Republican club in 1900, out of boyish enthusiasm for the vice-presidential candidacy of his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904 he cast his first vote in a presidential election for his cousin, who had become president after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Afterward, however, Franklin joined his father’s political party, and he probably never again voted for a Republican.
Roosevelt then moved to New York City, where he entered the Columbia University Law School in 1904. Although he attended classes until 1907, he failed to stay on for his law degree after passing the state examinations allowing him to practice law. For the next three years he was a clerk in a prominent law firm in New York City, but the evidence is clear that he had little interest in law and little enthusiasm to be a lawyer.
Well before he finished his work at Columbia, young Franklin Roosevelt had married his distant cousin Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. They had been in love for some time and were determined to marry in spite of the opposition of Franklin’s mother. The bride’s uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, was present at the ceremony in New York City on March 17, 1905. Five of their six children grew to maturity: Anna, James, Elliott, Franklin, Jr., and John. The chief problem faced by the young couple during the early years of their marriage was Sara Roosevelt’s possessive attitude toward her son. Eleanor’s forbearance mitigated this situation, but the problem remained for many years.
Roosevelt formally entered politics in 1910, when he became a candidate for the New York State Senate in a district composed of three upstate farming counties. Democratic leaders had approached young Roosevelt because of his name and local prominence—and because he might be expected to pay his own election expenses. The 28-year-old Roosevelt campaigned hard, stressing his deep personal interest in conservation and other issues of concern in an agricultural area and also his strong support of honest and efficient government. In the first good year for Democrats since the early 1890s he was narrowly elected. He was only the second Democrat to represent his district after the emergence of the Republican Party in 1856.
In the state capitol at Albany, Roosevelt gained statewide publicity as the leader of a small group of upstate Democrats who refused to follow the leadership of Tammany Hall, also known as the Tammany Society, the Democratic Party organization of New York City. In particular, they refused to vote for the rich politician William F. “Blue-Eyed Bill” Sheehan for U.S. senator. Roosevelt’s group succeeded in blocking the election of Sheehan, which infuriated Tammany Hall. The dramatic struggle drew the attention of New York voters to the tall vigorous new state senator with the magic name of Roosevelt. He soon became a dedicated social and economic reformer, and a political independent. He was reelected in 1912, in spite of a case of typhoid fever that kept him from campaigning.
Roosevelt entrusted his campaign management to the journalist Louis McHenry Howe. Howe, a genius at politics, performed brilliantly. Henceforth, Roosevelt and Howe were to be almost inseparable, and Howe, a wizened and colorful little man, guided the political fortunes of the Hyde Park aristocrat.
Even before his reelection to the New York legislature, Roosevelt had entered the national political arena by taking part in the campaign of Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey for the Democratic nomination for president. Once again the young state senator was a member of a minority group among New York Democrats. When Wilson won at both the convention and the polls in 1912, his early supporters were rewarded, and Roosevelt became assistant secretary of the United States Navy. Roosevelt resigned his state senate seat and moved to Washington, D.C., to take over the position once occupied by his cousin Theodore Roosevelt.
Franklin Roosevelt’s years as assistant secretary, from 1913 to 1920, taught him both how to get things accomplished and, just as important for an executive, how to avoid unnecessary trouble. He had the devoted assistance of Louis Howe, who came along to the nation’s capital as Roosevelt’s assistant. Roosevelt’s superior was Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, a North Carolina editor. Daniels was a close friend and devoted follower of Nebraska editor and former Representative William Jennings Bryan, three times the Democratic candidate for president and Wilson’s secretary of state. Like Bryan, Daniels was concerned about agrarian issues and was a progressive reformer. He was also an isolationist (someone who believed that the United States should avoid alliances with other nations), who hated the idea of war. Young Roosevelt, an energetic supporter of a bigger navy and soon a warm friend of most of the leading admirals, inevitably had many disagreements with his chief, especially during Wilson’s first term. Daniels had the confidence both of the president and of the most influential Democrats in the Congress of the United States; Roosevelt had neither of these. However, in time the two men came to have genuine respect for one another’s different talents, and they remained good friends.
The Daniels-Roosevelt administration of the Navy Department was highly effective. American entry into World War I in 1917 found the navy in relatively good shape. Roosevelt, as the second in command, was particularly concerned with the civilian employees of the department. With the help of the energetic Howe, he made excellent contacts with labor leaders in the course of smoothing relations between the navy and its workers. Roosevelt was also involved in the enormous build-up of the naval forces and with the general administration of the department. Frequent public speeches brought him to the attention of the public, and he soon had a reputation as a young man of great promise. He turned down an opportunity to win the Democratic nomination for governor of New York in 1918 in order to go on a three-month tour of duty in Europe, during which he visited the western front in France. Although he wanted to go on active duty as a naval officer, both Wilson and Daniels insisted that he stay on as assistant secretary of the navy. He remained at that post until August 1920, when he resigned to campaign as the Democratic candidate for vice president.
The Democratic National Convention of 1920 nominated as its candidate for president the governor of Ohio, James M. Cox. It was natural for the convention to turn to Roosevelt for the second position on the ticket. He was a member of the Wilson administration, closely identified with the League of Nations, an international association of countries that would, according to Wilson, prevent future wars. Roosevelt was young, handsome, energetic, and had a reputation as a fine administrator. He also came from an important state. Nevertheless the Cox-Roosevelt campaign was hopeless, for the American people had had enough of Democratic leadership and quickly responded to the pledge of the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, for a return to “normalcy.” Roosevelt campaigned vigorously for a losing cause, making friends among Democratic leaders from coast to coast. After November 1920 he was a widely known public figure, even if he no longer held public office. Roosevelt, still under 40, could afford to wait.
Roosevelt resumed his law career on a part-time basis, and became vice president of the Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland. In this position he was in charge of the New York office of one of the most important companies handling bonds for public officials. Roosevelt’s wide contacts and administrative talents provided an excellent background for this situation. Roosevelt also dabbled in a series of speculative ventures, none of which turned out very well.
Personal tragedy struck Roosevelt in August 1921, when he contracted what was diagnosed, after an unfortunate delay, as poliomyelitis. He had been plagued by illness of various sorts during the previous decade, and he had overexerted himself swimming and hiking at Campobello. In great agony and completely unable to walk, Roosevelt seemed to have reached the end of his active public career. Indeed, his mother wanted him to return to Hyde Park for the peace and quiet of the life of a country gentleman. However, backed by the determination of his wife and Louis Howe, Roosevelt decided to return to his work as soon as possible. In spite of the efforts of numerous specialists and of his strenuous exercises, particularly swimming at his “second home” in Warm Springs, Georgia, he was never again able to walk unaided. He spent most of his working hours in a wheelchair, and he walked with leg braces and canes, usually with help. Through the worst years of his paralysis, Roosevelt was amazingly cheerful. Eleanor Roosevelt often acted as her husband’s eyes and ears, bringing him information and conferring with people he was no longer readily able to meet. Howe remained close by Roosevelt, assisting him in many ways and planning for his return to public life.
Roosevelt continued to busy himself with Democratic politics after his illness. In 1922 he aided Alfred E. Smith, who in that year made a successful political comeback and became governor of New York for the second time. In 1924 Roosevelt made a rousing nominating speech for Smith at the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, in New York City, calling the governor the “Happy Warrior.” Although Smith was unable to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924, he was reelected governor that year and again in 1926. In 1928 Roosevelt again nominated Smith for president at the national convention. This time, Smith was chosen, becoming the first Roman Catholic nominated by a major U.S. party as its candidate for president.
At Smith’s urging, and against the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt and Louis Howe, Roosevelt agreed to run for governor. Smith, well aware that his own religion, his identification with urban issues, and his opposition to the prohibition of liquor would hurt him in rural Protestant areas, needed the help of Roosevelt in New York state. Ironically, Roosevelt was elected governor by the narrow margin of 25,000 out of 4.5 million votes cast, while Smith lost New York, and the presidency, to Herbert Hoover. Smith felt that his defeat was solely the result of religious prejudice, but it is unlikely that any Democrat could have defeated the Republicans in 1928.
Roosevelt thus succeeded Smith as governor in January 1929. He soon made it clear that he was going to have his own administration by replacing key Smith associates, and before long there was coolness between the two former political allies. Like Smith, Roosevelt had to cope with a Republican legislature. Since Smith had been responsible for a series of important social and administrative reforms, Roosevelt faced a difficult task in working out a distinctive program of his own. His first successes were in the fields of conservation and tax relief for farmers, areas in which he shared a common interest with his Republican legislators. In time he developed a skill as a political manager and a superb style of speaking on the radio. He was also careful to develop support among different groups for his plans.
In October 1929 the economic prosperity that the United States had enjoyed for most of the 1920s came to an abrupt end. During this period many people had put their savings and earnings in risky investments, particularly the buying of stocks on margin. In these cases, the buyer put up as little as 3 percent of a stock’s price in cash and borrowed the remainder from the broker. The growing demand for stocks and the prosperous state of the nation as a whole caused stock prices to rise, which in turn encouraged more stock purchases.
Stock prices reached their height in the so-called “Hoover bull market” during the first six months of the Hoover administration. People invested billions of dollars in the stock market, obtaining money by borrowing from banks, mortgaging their homes, and selling lower-risk government securities, such as Liberty Bonds.
In August 1929 approximately 300 million shares of stock had been purchased on margin. During normal business periods a share of stock had been purchased mostly for the dividend it paid, but during the Hoover bull market stocks were purchased increasingly to sell at a higher price. Unfortunately, industry sales had begun to slow down, indicating that stock prices were likely to fall because industries would pay smaller dividends. In September 1929 some investors began selling stocks, believing prices had reached their highest level and would fall in the near future. Other investors began selling, too, and as they sold the price to buy those stocks began to fall more quickly. The decline in prices especially threatened those who had purchased on margin, because they owed their broker the amount of the original price of the stock—even if that stock was now worth only half as much.
As a result, by October 1929 the feverish buying had stopped and had given way to desperate selling. Prices dropped rapidly, and thousands of people lost all they had invested. Many were completely ruined financially. On October 29 the New York Stock Exchange, the largest in the world, had its worst day of panic selling. By the end of the day stock values had declined by $10 billion to $15 billion.
Following the stock market crash of October 1929 Roosevelt found himself a depression governor, with new problems to face. In 1930 he was reelected by the unprecedented number of 725,000 votes.
As an energetic governor and a leading progressive reformer who was also head of the nation’s most populous state, Roosevelt was automatically a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932.His inability to walk unaided had proved to be no political problem; indeed, many New Yorkers were unaware that their governor used a wheelchair. Roosevelt and Howe planned the campaign carefully. As the front-runner, Roosevelt was in some danger of becoming the man against whom the other candidates might combine. This could be fatal to his chances, since at that time it was necessary that a candidate secure two-thirds of the convention vote in order to win the nomination. Due to the growing unpopularity of the depression-ridden Hoover administration, 1932 looked like a Democratic year, and thus the Democratic nomination was pursued more aggressively than it had been for years.
New York Democratic chairman James Aloysius Farley traveled across the country in the summer of 1931 and made friends for Roosevelt and himself in each state he visited. He reported on his return that prospects were excellent for Roosevelt in all of these states except California, where newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst had great power and where the Democratic Party was a shambles. Hearst’s newspapers, bitter in their attacks on Hoover, gave their support to Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas, whose isolationist views were more congenial to Hearst than were the views of a man still identified with former President Wilson’s campaign for the League of Nations. Roosevelt, in an effort to ensure that Hearst would not lead a fight against him, announced that he no longer favored U.S. entry into the League of Nations. This position angered many supporters of Wilson, who felt that Roosevelt had turned his back on Wilson’s memory.
Fortunately for Roosevelt his opponents for the nomination, including the now-embittered Al Smith, were never able to organize against him and keep him from getting the necessary two-thirds vote. The strongest opposition to Roosevelt came from city leaders in the Northeast. His chief strength came from the South and West. He was nominated on the fourth ballot, after Garner agreed to accept the vice-presidential nomination. In part to demonstrate his physical capability and in part to show that he was ready to break with tradition, Roosevelt flew to Chicago, Illinois, to accept the nomination in person rather than wait weeks to reply to a formal notice of his nomination. In a dramatic speech to the convention, Roosevelt pledged a New Deal for the American people. The term New Deal came to describe Roosevelt’s domestic policies, under which the government became much more directly involved in national social and economic affairs than ever before.
Roosevelt had more difficulty in winning the Democratic nomination in 1932 than he had in defeating President Hoover. In spite of Hoover’s unprecedented efforts to use the power of the federal government to overcome the Great Depression, he was completely identified with the policies of former U.S. presidents Warren Harding (1921-1923) and of Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), since he had served as secretary of commerce in both administrations. Roosevelt’s task was essentially a simple one: to convince the American people that because the Republicans had claimed full credit for the prosperity of the 1920s, they should receive full blame for the depression. Roosevelt was spectacularly successful. He had an exuberance as a campaigner, a glowing confidence, and a warmth that was transmitted to his listeners. He toured widely by train, making brief appearances to cheering crowds and delivering carefully prepared speeches nearly every night. He promised to a despondent people a New Deal in manner and in spirit. Roosevelt won a resounding victory, losing only six states out of a total of 48. Of the six, four were in traditionally Republican New England.
When Roosevelt became president, on March 4, 1933, the Great Depression was at its worst. Sixteen million or more people were unemployed, and many had been out of work for a year or even longer. The American banking system had collapsed. Many states had declared so-called bank holidays, or enforced closings to prevent banks from being ruined when depositors withdrew all their money. Although the American depression had been touched off by the stock market crash in New York City in October 1929, it had since become part of a worldwide economic collapse. Whether Americans would be satisfied with the new leadership depended on Roosevelt’s success in bringing aid to those in distress and in achieving some measure of economic improvement.
Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, with its pledge to make war upon the depression and its ringing phrase, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” brought a new style to the U.S. presidency. Roosevelt was confident, both in himself as a leader and in the American people. His liking for people came through to them over the radio and in the press. Out of his general bewilderment with the failure of the U.S. economy came few specific promises, but Americans probably felt more comfortable under the leadership of a man pledged to experiment than they had under Hoover’s leadership, which had seemed inflexible. At least the prospect of change offered hope to the millions of people trapped in the depression.
At this time, Roosevelt was 51. He was vigorous and hard-working but capable of relaxation and in excellent health and spirits. His brief legislative experience and his public administrative careers had given him a wide acquaintance among political leaders. He was an irregular Democrat because he had asked for and obtained the support of progressive Republicans in his campaign and had rewarded several of them with high positions in his government. As president he sought to be “president of all the people.” He stressed that the conquest of the depression was “above politics,” one of Roosevelt’s favorite terms but one not popular with professional Democrats who wanted Roosevelt to give them government jobs. It is noteworthy that Roosevelt frequently turned for help to people not previously identified with Democratic Party politics, such as what was called the Brain Trust, which was made up of faculty members from Columbia University (Raymond Moley, Adolf Berle, and Rexford Tugwell) and from Harvard (Thomas Corcoran and Benjamin Cohen). Roosevelt liked to learn through listening to and questioning experts, thus becoming familiar with different points of view. He was not usually communicative in return, and preferred to make up his mind in private. Indeed, he was “a private person,” as Tugwell put it, in spite of his warm public personality. He had a genius for simple, clear speaking, and he projected a sense of dedication with a rousing style. He was at his best in press conferences, generally held twice a week. He knew how to handle questions easily, and had a quick sense of humor and an enormous fund of detailed information. The reporters usually liked him, and he received good press throughout his presidency, even when most newspaper publishers had turned against him and his policies.
However, much of the most important work went to men and women who had never engaged in any sort of politics. Louis Howe, now secretary to the president, continued to help his old chief but did not play an important role in creating policy. The Cabinet was generally undistinguished, but it did contain the first female Cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.
Roosevelt immediately called a special session of Congress to deal with the depression rather than wait for the regular session in December. The legislation passed by Congress and signed by Roosevelt in the spring of 1933 was remarkable, both in number of bills passed and in their scope. Contemporaries called it the Hundred Days, a term that historians continue to use. No session of Congress had ever produced so much important legislation. Not until 1965 did another president or Congress accomplish as much.
Roosevelt had called the special session to deal with the banking crisis, economy in government, and changes to the liquor law. Congress quickly responded to the first and third. The Emergency Banking Act, introduced, passed, and signed by the president during a single day, gave the federal government sweeping power to deal with the banking crisis. The Beer Act raised the percentage of alcohol considered nonintoxicating from .05 percent to 3.2 percent. This made it possible to sell three-two, or low alcohol, beer, which had been illegal under the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see Prohibition). The Economy Act, reducing government salaries and pensions to meet a Roosevelt campaign pledge, was bitterly opposed by many Democratic representatives and passed only because of intense pressure from Roosevelt and support by most Republicans in Congress.
While Congress was acting on these matters, Roosevelt aggressively pushed other legislation. Bills were frequently written by the executive branch, a procedure that made the legislative process faster and ensured that measures emerging from Congress would have the approval of the president. Congress worked quickly on most measures, but there was opposition from some members, especially those who felt that Roosevelt was not going far enough, fast enough. Roosevelt’s success in getting Congress to do so much of what he wanted was in part a result of a widespread desperation and in part a result of strong leadership.
The basic New Deal legislation was passed in slightly more than five years, from 1933 to 1938. Historians have frequently discussed these laws under the headings of the three Rs: relief, recovery, and reform.
The most pressing problem facing Roosevelt, once the banking crisis had passed, was that of providing relief for the unemployed and their families. Private charities had long since run out of money, and few states could still provide any assistance. Under President Hoover the Reconstruction Finance Corporation had made loans to states to finance relief payments, although Hoover had long tried to avoid this step. However, under Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the first of his major relief operations, large amounts of money were given to the states. Harry L. Hopkins, a tough-minded professional social worker who had administered state relief under Governor Roosevelt, was the head of FERA. He saw to it that available funds were spent quickly to provide help to as many as possible.
The president and Hopkins, like President Hoover before them, believed in work relief, or payment for work performed, rather than the dole, a simple payment without any work requirement. Although they felt that work relief would help to maintain the morale of the recipients, work projects took time to plan and were far more costly to administer than the simple dole. FERA did have a subdivision, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which provided work relief for a large number of men during the winter of 1933 and 1934. However, due to the necessity of making the available money go as far as possible, the FERA essentially dispensed money through the state governments.
Unemployment persisted in the early years of Roosevelt’s presidency, in spite of some economic recovery. At the end of 1934 about one-sixth of the entire country was still on relief. In 1935 a new semipermanent organization, the Works Progress Administration (WPA, later renamed the Work Projects Administration), was set up by executive order and placed under Hopkins, and the FERA was abolished. The WPA provided work relief only, and due to lack of money many people on relief had to depend on the hard-pressed states for a dole.
Roads and streets were built or improved. Schools, libraries, and other public buildings were constructed or repaired. Artists, musicians, and writers performed for the benefit of the public. Administrative costs were higher than those of the FERA, but the projects carried out were more complex and useful.
Two other relief operations were designed especially for young people. Both were of great interest to the president and his wife. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided work for unemployed and unmarried young men. They received food and shelter and were paid $30 per month, of which $25 had to be given to relatives or dependents. More than a quarter of a million men, many of them from city slums, worked in the corps, living together in camps under the management of army officers. They benefited from the healthy outdoor work, their families benefited from the money, and the country benefited from the many worthy projects they completed. The National Youth Administration (NYA) provided needy high school and college students with part-time jobs at their schools. The NYA also gave useful part-time employment to needy young people who were no longer in school. NYA workers normally earned from $5 to $15 per month. Although these sums were small, they proved valuable for the support of the recipients and their families during this period of great economic distress.
Recovery Legislation When he took office, Roosevelt must have felt that his basic problem was how to bring about economic recovery. His predecessor, in spite of his philosophy of rugged individualism, had reluctantly accepted some government responsibility for improving the economy. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), established under Hoover, provided loans to financial institutions, railways, and public agencies. Roosevelt reappointed the head of that organization, and with congressional approval, he made RFC loans easier to get and the RFC became a major recovery agency of the New Deal.
Another Hoover policy, direct spending on major public works, was taken over and greatly expanded by Roosevelt. He set up a Public Works Administration (PWA) and put it under the jurisdiction of Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, a Republican reformer from Chicago. Ickes proceeded slowly with PWA projects, for he had an obsessive and probably well-founded idea that if he did not watch closely, the PWA would provide politicians with opportunities for corruption. As a result of this slowness, Ickes’s PWA did not play a very important role in the early New Deal, and an increasingly larger share of money was given to the less tidy but more energetic relief operations of Ickes’s rival, Harry Hopkins. However, the PWA came into its own after the recession of 1937, when carefully prepared plans were ready to be implemented almost at once. Huge public buildings, great dams, and irrigation and flood-control projects are part of PWA’s legacy.
The most spectacular agency designed to promote general economic impro
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