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Ickes, Harold LeClairfree

(15 March 1874–03 February 1952)
  • T. H. Watkins

Harold L. Ickes.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93717).

Ickes, Harold LeClair (15 March 1874–03 February 1952), secretary of the interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt and (briefly) Harry S. Truman, secretary of the interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt and (briefly) Harry S. Truman, was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the son of Jesse Boone Williams Ickes, a notions salesman and accountant, and Matilda “Mattie” McCune. Shortly after Harold’s birth the family settled in nearby Altoona. When his mother died of pneumonia in 1890, Ickes and a sister were sent to live with an aunt and uncle in the Chicago suburb of Englewood.

It was a difficult, even dismal time for the young man. His father, footloose and alcoholic, gave him virtually no support. His uncle was demanding and parsimonious, offering little more than room and board, in exchange for which Ickes worked long hours in the family drugstore while attending high school. In spite of this, Ickes graduated as senior class president and valedictorian in 1892, demonstrating early on the furious determination to succeed and the nearly pathological dedication to work that would characterize his later public service.

Ickes worked his way through the University of Chicago, intermittently teaching English to immigrants at night in Chicago schools and taking any other job he could find. He graduated with a respectable record in 1896. Uncertain as to profession, he took a job as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, where he became exposed to the corrupt but exciting world of urban politics. More important, he was exposed to a reform movement led by Raymond Robins, head of the Northwestern University Settlement House; Robins’s wife, Margaret Dreier Robins, a cofounder of the National Womens’ Trade Union League; Charles E. Merriam, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago; Jane Addams, the famous mistress of Hull House; and other stalwarts whose liberal principles and dedication to good government informed the rest of Ickes’s political life.

In 1903 John Harlan hired Ickes to manage his campaign for the Republican nomination for mayor. Harlan lost, though not for want of prodigious labor on Ickes’s part. In 1904 Ickes returned to the University of Chicago for a law degree, received it in 1907, passed the Illinois bar, hung out a shingle, and after several years on his own joined the firm of Donald Richberg, another young lawyer.

By then, the Chicago reformers had become part of the Progressive wing of the national Republican party. Ickes soon found himself in the company of such figures as former president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919); Roosevelt’s chief forester (and later Pennsylvania governor), Gifford Pinchot; Herbert Croly, founding editor of the New Republic; William Allen White, editor and owner of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, the best-known small-town newspaper in the United States; and Hiram Johnson, governor of California.

In 1911 Ickes married Anna Wilmarth Thompson (Anna Wilmarth Thompson Ickes), a wealthy divorcée. It was a tempestuous and troubled marriage that produced one child. Ickes was unhappy much of the time and aggravated by chronic insomnia and bouts of pain from an old and badly healed mastoid operation—afflictions that haunted him all his life. Nevertheless, Ickes respected his wife’s intelligence and political drive—he directed her successful campaigns for the Illinois General Assembly in 1928, 1930, and 1932—and her wealth removed the need for him to grub for a living.

Ickes swiftly rose to prominence as a political reformer and campaign manager in the steamy cauldron of Chicago politics. During Theodore Roosevelt’s unsuccessful run at a third term in 1912 as the candidate of the Progressive (Bull Moose) party, Ickes was his Cook County campaign manager, delivering the city of Chicago and its environs to Roosevelt.

During World War I, Ickes served overseas with the YMCA. He returned to the political wars of Chicago undaunted by the apparent triumph of conservative Republicanism in the 1920s, both nationally and in Chicago, where crime and corruption reigned under Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson.

Early in 1932 Ickes was asked by Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign organizers to head a Western Independent Republican Committee for Roosevelt. He did so, but only after promising his wife, who had an abiding interest in the plight of the Indian, that he would ask to become commissioner of Indian affairs if Roosevelt won. After Roosevelt’s election in November, however, Ickes changed his mind: he decided to go after the job of secretary of the interior, on the theory, he explained in his Autobiography of a Curmudgeon (1943), that it “would be no more painful or fatal to be hung for a secretary than for a commissioner.” After considerable lobbying by Ickes and typically enigmatic behavior by Roosevelt, the appointment came to pass. “I liked the cut of his jib,” the president-elect told adviser Raymond Moley.

During the nearly thirteen years of his tenure as secretary of the interior, Ickes was assigned or appropriated more tasks, covered more bureaucratic territory, involved himself in more controversy, and arguably worked harder, longer, and better than any interior secretary in American history. What is certain is that he was one of the greatest public administrators of all time and a man whose dedication to liberal principles helped shape the character and quality of life in the depression and World War II years.

The inherited responsibilities of his agency included the supervision of more than 30,000 employees scattered over forty states and territories; the management of the National Park System, nearly 300 million acres of unappropriated public lands, and all the grass, timber, oil, natural gas, hydropower, coal, and other mineral resources they contained; the government of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other U.S. possessions (with the addition of the Philippines after 1934); and the administration of a plethora of agencies, institutions, and subbureaucracies, chief among them the Bureau of Reclamation, the Office of Education, the Geological Survey, and the corrupt and incompetent Bureau of Indian Affairs (a situation Ickes tried to reverse with the appointment of John Collier as commissioner of Indian affairs).

Quite enough to fill anyone’s plate, but the famous “Hundred Days” that embodied Roosevelt’s efforts to deal with the Great Depression gave Ickes even more to do. In March 1933, with Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and Secretary of War George Dern, Ickes established the structure of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). His department’s Office of Education supervised the education of the young men in the CCC camps, while the National Park Service employed thousands to make improvements in the national parks.

In June 1933 Ickes was appointed to direct the Public Works Administration (PWA), which he had helped to form. Over the six-year life of this program, he supervised the expenditure of nearly $6 billion for the construction of dams, hospitals, tunnels, bridges, schools, highways, irrigation works, post offices, and the like all over the country. There were 19,000 projects in all, including 583 municipal water systems, 622 sewerage systems, 263 hospitals, 522 schools, 368 street and highway projects, as well as such well known items as Boulder (later Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River and many of the facilities of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). What is more, it was all accomplished without any taint of corruption, a record that earned Ickes the nickname “Honest Harold.”

Ickes may have been “a builder to rival Cheops,” as one historian described him, but he was also a dedicated conservationist. Roosevelt was no mean conservationist himself, and as a result the national parks and public lands of the United States received more loving care than at any previous time. Creation of the Grazing Service in 1934, and the consequent protective withdrawal of 142 million acres, helped to bring erosion on public grazing lands under control. The Soil Erosion Service (later the Soil Conservation Service) was established to do the same for private farms. The Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah national parks, already established, were completed during Ickes’s reign, and such major new parks as Olympic National Park in Washington, Kings Canyon National Park in California, and Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming were created, most in spite of powerful political opposition. Furthermore, in 1939 Ickes drafted legislation that would have established inviolate wilderness areas in the National Park System. Although the legislation failed, it presaged the revolutionary Wilderness Act of 1964.

Left to his own devices, Ickes would have taken on even more conservation work—namely, the National Forest System, which throughout his tenure he repeatedly (and fruitlessly) tried to persuade Roosevelt to transfer from the Department of Agriculture to Interior. These efforts did not endear him to Henry Wallace, and the New Deal years were enlivened by a nearly constant bureaucratic squabble between the two men.

Ickes had a similar relationship with Harry Hopkins, head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), each man vying for dominance in the spending of public monies and for the favor of Roosevelt. These conflicts—together with Roosevelt’s notorious vagueness with regard to administrative matters—led to numerous hot-tempered resignations on the part of Ickes, all rejected by the president.

Ickes’s responsibilities continued to multiply in any case. In 1939 the Department of Interior took over the U.S. Biological Survey, which administered the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the Bureau of Fisheries, which controlled offshore fishing. In May 1941, as war drew near, Ickes was appointed the head of the Petroleum Administration for National Defense, an entity designed to assure the supply and distribution of oil and gasoline. After Pearl Harbor, the agency was renamed Petroleum Administration for War, and Ickes and his staff initiated the first gasoline rationing program (voluntary and largely unsuccessful) and constructed the famed “Big Inch” and “Little Inch” pipelines from Texas. He supervised the wartime distribution of oil, gasoline, and aviation fuel so brilliantly that the agency earned encomiums from General George C. Marshall, Jr. The agency attempted unsuccessfully to gain control over future oil supplies in Saudi Arabia, while Ickes also campaigned unsuccessfully for a coherent national oil policy.

The relationship between Ickes and Roosevelt was frequently troubled by arguments, most of them, it must be said, initiated by Ickes, who was as thin skinned as he was stubborn. Nevertheless, through it all Ickes remained the president’s staunchest and most useful political ally in the cabinet. A tireless, colorful, and effective stump speaker, he was a major force in the reelection campaigns of 1936, 1940, and 1944 and, in fact, was the first administration figure to speak out in favor of Roosevelt’s controversial third term of 1940. What is more, he was a prominent spokesman in a number of sensitive areas, constantly speechifying against fascism, the growing horror of the Nazi persecution of Jews, other right-wing movements, and isolationism. He also vigorously promoted the civil rights of African Americans. He had served as the Chicago director of the NAACP in 1923, and his reputation as a supporter of black causes led him to become, as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., put it, “an informal Secretary of Negro Relations.” His best-known accomplishments in this regard included the desegregation of the Interior Department, the appointment of William Hastie as the first African-American federal judge (in the U.S. Virgin Islands, an Interior responsibility), and helping Eleanor Roosevelt arrange Marian Anderson’s famous Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused Anderson the use of its Constitution Hall. Ickes himself introduced the singer at the concert.

After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Ickes lasted less than a year before a conflict with Harry Truman over the appointment of oilman Edwin Pauley as undersecretary of the navy spurred one more resignation, this one promptly accepted on 13 February 1946. Ickes spent the remaining six years of his life commuting between his farm in Olney, Maryland, and an office in Washington, where he continued to add to the voluminous diary he had started the first day of his tenure as secretary of the interior. He worked as a columnist for the New York Post and the New Republic; dictated articles, including an eight-part memoir for the Saturday Evening Post; worked on a book; and supported a bevy of liberal causes.

His wife, Anna, was killed in an automobile accident in 1935, and in 1938 Ickes married Jane Dahlman, who was nearly forty years his junior. This was a happy marriage that produced two children. After Ickes’s death in Washington, D.C., Jane Ickes edited the three volumes of his Secret Diary, one of the central documents of the age of Roosevelt.

For all his flaws and excesses, his curmudgeonly ways and sometimes irresponsible tongue, Ickes was driven by a strain of liberal optimism as old and as durable as the Republic. He believed that men and women could take hold of their government and shape it to great ends. It was a vision to which he held to the day of his death, and it remains his most enduring legacy.


The bulk of the Harold L. Ickes Papers, including personal and public letters and documents, reside in the Library of Congress. The papers contain more than 150,000 items, among them the 4.8 million words of his diary and four separate unpublished autobiographical works. Additional Ickes papers are in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.; the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley; the Harry Slattery Papers in the William R. Perkins Library at Duke University; and several of the records offices of the National Archives, including those in Kansas City and Washington, D.C. About 800,000 words of the Ickes diaries were published as The Secret Diaries of Harold L. Ickes: The First Thousand Days, 1933–1936 (1953); The Inside Struggle, 1936–1939 (1954); and The Lowering Clouds, 1939–1941 (1954). See also Linda Lear, Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive, 1874–1933 (1981), an excellent political study of his Chicago years; Graham White and John Maze, Harold Ickes of the New Deal: His Private Life and Public Career (1985), a “psychobiography” that in spite of its title does not cover his public career in much detail; T. H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874–1952 (1990), an attempt at a complete life; and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal (1958) and The Politics of Upheaval (1959).