Harold L. Ickes

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Harold L. Ickes

Harold LeClair Ickes(March 15, 1874 - February 3, 1952) was a leading New Dealer as Secretary of the Interior from 1933 to 1946 and a top liberal advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Starting off in Chicago Republican politics Ickes campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive party in 1912 and for the presidential campaigns of Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes (1916) and presidential hopeful Hiram Johnson in 1920.

He was an important figure in the New Deal, as Secretary of the Interior (1933–46) and administrator of the Public Works Administration (1933–39).

Early life

He was born on March 15, 1874, in Frankstown Township, Pennsylvania.[1] He was the son of Matilda and Jesse Boone Williams Ickes. In 1897, he graduated from the University of Chicago. After a short stint as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, he earned a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. His career in law was short lived, but one notable case was the death of Lazarus Averbuch.[2][3][4] He moved into public service shortly after.


The PWA allotted $3.3 billion to be spent on the construction of public works as a means of providing employment, stabilizing purchasing power, improving public welfare, and contributing to a revival of American industry. Most of the spending came in two waves in 1933–35, and again in 1938. It was closed down in 1939.

Failure of "competitive administration"

Roosevelt used a "competitive administration" strategy to maximize presidential power at the cost of confusion, delay and inefficiency. He made sure in each policy area that several people had overlapping jurisdictions. They would feud and have to bring the problem to FDR, who wanted to make every final decision. In the case of the PWA, the competition over the size of expenditure, the selection of the administrator, and the appointment of staff at the state level, led to delays and to the ultimate failure of PWA as a recovery instrument. As director of the budget, Lewis Douglas overrode the views of leading senators in reducing appropriations to $3,500,000,000 and in transferring much of that money to other agencies in lieu of their own specific appropriations. The cautious and penurious Ickes won out over the more imaginative Hugh S. Johnson as chief of public works administration. Political competition between rival Democratic state organizations and between Democrats and Progressive Republicans led to delays in implementing PWA efforts on the local level.[5]


Ickes was a conservationist who controlled the National Park Service as well as vast stretches of federal land in the west. who favored building efficient dams to stop floods and generate electricity, instead of wasting water power.

Ickes was cantankerous, and engaged in a long feud with Henry C. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, over control of the Forest Service, which also controlled vast stretches of land in the west. Meanwhile, Wallace tried to move the Grazing Service from Interior to Agriculture. It was another example of Roosevelt's "competitive administration" strategy.

Civil Rights

Ickes strongly supported civil rights and equal opportunities for African Americans. Ickes instituted minimum quotas –on average, 10%--for hiring skilled and unskilled blacks in construction financed through the PWA. Otherwise few blacks would have been hired. Resistance from employers and unions was partially overcome by negotiations and implied sanctions. Although results were ambiguous, the plan helped provide blacks with employment, especially among unskilled workers.[6]


The New Deal attempt at resettling very poor farmers climaxed at the Arthurdale experiment in West Virginia. Eleanor Roosevelt was in charge of the project from the beginning, seeing it as a way to combat the poverty of the unemployed miners and as a way to forestall the spread of communism. She had no end of troubles with Congress over money and with administrators such as Harold Ickes and Rexford Tugwell. The project was attacked from the Right as a threat to free enterprise and from the Left as a mechanism to decentralize poverty. The population of Arthurdale remained on relief throughout the 1930s until the war, when a defense plant was located there. In 1946 Arthurdale and the other resettlement communities were sold by the government.[7]


In 1938, Roosevelt instructed the Federal Power Commission and the War Department to survey the Nation's wartime power capacity. They found an acute potential shortage and recommended partnership between government and private power in overcoming the shortage through construction of a high transmission network. This was to be implemented by a National Defense Power Committee under Louis Johnson. However, Ickes feared Johnson would sell out the public power interest and thought the government might develop the resources alone. He got Johnson elbowed aside, had himself put in charge of another committee to supervise the project, and feuded with George W. Norris, David E. Lilienthal, and others. Discouraged, FDR used the FPC to bypass Ickes with a proposal to have the Reconstruction Finance Corporation finance plant expansion. War needs took priority over advancement of public power, but the United States entered war with a deficient power system.[8]


During World War II, Ickes was in charge of national oil policy. His goal was to ensure an adequate petroleum reserve for national security. He believed it a mistake to rely only upon private companies, since their interests were not always those of the nation. Nevertheless, he involved representatives of major firms in planning and the management of the Petroleum Administration for War (PAW). He also strongly supported the establishment and aims of the short-lived Petroleum Reserves Corporation for whose demise, however, he must bear some responsibility.[9]

John L. Lewis called for the organization of illegal coal strikes in 1943 to raise wages; he made a fool out of Ickes and FDR and showed the weakness of the government; editorial cartoon by Carlisle in the Monrovia News-Post

His son is Harold M. Ickes, who was deputy chief of staff for President Clinton.


  • New Democracy, (1934)
  • Back to Work: The Story of PWA, (1935)
  • General Information Regarding Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, (1937)
  • The Third Term Bugaboo. A Cheerful Anthology, (1940)
  • Freedom of the Press Today: A Clinical Examination By 28 Specialists, (1941)
  • Minerals Yearbook 1941, (1943)
  • Fightin' Oil, (1943)
  • The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon, (1943)
  • The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes:
    • Volume I: The First Thousand Days 1933–1936, (1953)
    • Volume II: The Inside Struggle 1936–1939, (1954)
    • Volume III: The Lowering Clouds 1939–1941, (1954)


  • Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber. Roosevelt's Warrior: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal. (1996). 414 pp.
  • Reeves, William D. "PWA and Competitive Administration in the New Deal." Journal of American History 1973 60(2): 357–372. in JSTOR
  • Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (2006)
  • Watkins, T. H. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952. (1990). 1010 pp.
  • White, Graham, and John Maze. Harold Ickes of the New Deal: His Private Life and Public Career (1985); Authors rely too much reliance on pop psychology; for example they suggest Ickes may have unconsciously patterned himself after his mother in his fanatic pride in office, his meticulous honesty, and his childlike devotion to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Primary sources

  • Ickes, Harold L. Back to Work: The Story of PWA (1935)
  • Ickes, Harold L. The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The First Thousand Days 1933-1936 (1953); The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The Inside Struggle 1936-1939 (1954); The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: Volume III The Lowering Clouds 1939-1941 (1954); highly valuable diary
  • PWA, America Builds. The Record of PWA. 1939 online edition


  1. [1], Past Secretaries, U.S. Department of the Interior
  2. The Public: A Journal of Democracy, Volume 10
  3. Pluralism and Progressives: Hull House and the New Immigrants, 1890-1919
  4. Chicago: A Biography
  5. William D. Reeves, "PWA and Competitive Administration in the New Deal," (1973)
  6. Marie W. Kruman, "Quotas for Blacks: The Public Works Administration and the Black Construction Worker," Labor History 1975 16(1): 37-51.
  7. Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (1971).
  8. Philip J. Funigiello, "Kilowatts for Defense: The New Deal and the Coming of the Second World War," Journal of American History 1969 56(3): 604-620. [ http://www.jstor.org/stable/1904209 in JSTOR]
  9. Stephen J. Randall, "Harold Ickes and United States Foreign Petroleum Policy Planning, 1939-1945," Business History Review 1983 57(3): 367-387.