Harold L. Ickes

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Harold L. Ickes
32nd United States Secretary of the Interior
In office
March 4, 1933 – February 15, 1946
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman
Deputy Oscar L. Chapman (Acting)
Preceded by Ray Lyman Wilbur
Succeeded by Julius A. Krug
Personal details
Born Harold LeClair Ickes
March 15, 1874
near Altoona, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died February 3, 1952(1952-02-03) (aged 77)
Washington D.C., U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Anna Wilmarth Thompson (1911 - 1935, dec.)
Jane Dahlman (m. 1938)
Children Raymond Ickes
Harold M. Ickes (b. 1939)
Elizabeth Jane Ickes
Education University of Chicago

Harold LeClair Ickes (/ˈɪkəs/ IK-əss; March 15, 1874 – February 3, 1952) was a United States administrator and politician. He served as United States Secretary of the Interior for 13 years, from 1933 to 1946, the longest tenure of anyone to hold the office, and the second longest serving Cabinet member in U.S. history next to James Wilson. Ickes was responsible for implementing much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" and is the father of Harold M. Ickes. He and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet who remained in office for his entire presidency.

Early years[edit]

Born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Ickes moved to Chicago at the age of 16 upon his mother's death and attended Englewood High School there. He was the class president while at Englewood High School. After graduating, he worked his way through the University of Chicago, finishing with a B.A. in 1897. At Chicago, Ickes was a charter member re-establishing the Illinois Beta Chapter of Phi Delta Theta.[2]

He first worked as a newspaper reporter for The Chicago Record and later for the Chicago Tribune. He obtained a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1907 but rarely practiced. Instead, he became active in reform politics.


Ickes's Secretary of the Interior Nomination

Initially a Republican in Chicago, Ickes was never part of the establishment. He was unsatisfied with Republican policies and joined Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose movement in 1912. After returning to the Republican fold, he campaigned for progressive Republicans Charles Evans Hughes (1916) and Hiram Johnson (1920 and 1924).

He fought lengthy and legendary battles first with Chicago figures Samuel Insull, the utilities magnate, William Hale Thompson, the mayor, and Robert R. McCormick, the owner of The Chicago Tribune. Later he had an ongoing battle with Thomas E. Dewey, the presidential candidate.

Although locally active in Chicago politics, he was unknown nationally until 1933. As part of this involvement, Ickes was involved in Chicago's social and political affairs; among his many activities include his work for the City Club of Chicago. After Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he began putting together his cabinet. His advisers thought the Democratic president needed a progressive Republican to attract middle-of-the-road voters. He sought out Hiram Johnson, a Republican Senator at the time who had supported Roosevelt in the campaign, but Johnson was uninterested. Johnson did, however, recommend an old ally, Ickes.

Ickes was a strong supporter of both civil rights and civil liberties. He had been the president of the Chicago NAACP, and supported African American contralto Marian Anderson when the Daughters of the American Revolution prohibited her from performing in DAR Constitution Hall. He was an outspoken critic of the Japanese American internment during World War II. Also, as an official delegate to the founding United Nations conference in San Francisco, Ickes advocated for stronger language promoting self-rule and eventual independence for the world's colonies.[3]

Secretary of the Interior[edit]

Secretary Ickes addresses the crowd gathered at the dedication of Hoover Dam (then Boulder Dam)

Ickes served simultaneously in several major roles for Roosevelt. Although he was the Secretary of the Interior, he was better known to the public for his simultaneous work as the director of the Public Works Administration. Here he directed billions of dollars of projects designed to lure private investment and provide employment during the depths of the Great Depression. His management of the PWA budget and his opposition to corruption earned him the name "Honest Harold". He regularly presented projects to Roosevelt for the President's personal approval.

Ickes' support of PWA power plants put increased financial pressure on private power companies during the Great Depression, which had both positive and negative effects. He tried to enforce the Raker Act against the city of San Francisco, an act of Congress which specified that because the dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was on public land, no private profit could be derived from the development. The city continues selling the power to PG&E, which is then resold at a profit.

He was instrumental in establishing the Kings Canyon National Park, commissioning Ansel Adams as a 'photographic muralist' in a visionary public relations project Ickes had himself conceived to document and communicate - viscerally - the outstanding beauty of the parks for the Washington public to see, and indirectly but effectively persuading the Congress to support the bill to President Roosevelt in 1940.[4]

After the Hindenburg disaster, the German Zeppelin Company sought to obtain inert helium to replace the flammable hydrogen for use in their future airships. Ickes opposed the sale, although practically every other member of the Cabinet supported it, along with the President himself. Ickes would not back down, fearing military use of the dirigibles. The Zeppelin company could not obtain the helium from other sources. Hence, Ickes effectively ended Zeppelin passenger air service himself.

The Saudi Aramco oil corporation, through Secretary of the Interior Ickes, got Roosevelt to agree to Lend-Lease aid to Saudi Arabia, which would involve the US government in protecting American interests there and create a shield for ARAMCO.

Between June and October 1941, during a projected oil shortage, Ickes was successful in issuing orders to close gasoline stations in the Eastern United States between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.[5]

Ickes was a terrific orator and the only man in the Roosevelt administration who could rebut John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, who often delivered radio addresses critical of the Roosevelt Administration.

In the 1930s Ickes ordered the desegregation of national parks, including those in the South.

Jewish refugees in Alaska[edit]

Main article: Slattery Report

In a news conference on the eve of Thanksgiving 1938, Ickes proposed offering Alaska as a "haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions." This proposal was designed to bypass normal immigration quotas, because Alaska was not a state. Ickes had toured Alaska that summer, meeting with local officials to discuss how to attract greater development, both for economic reasons and to bolster security in an area so close to Japan and Russia and to develop a plan to attract international professionals, including European Jews. In his press conference, he pointed out that 200 families had been relocated from the Dust Bowl to Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The Department of the Interior prepared a report detailing the advantages of the plan, which was introduced as a bill by Utah's Senator William H. King and California's Democratic Representative Franck R. Havenner. The plan met with little support from American Jews, however, with the exception of the Labor Zionists of America; most Jews agreed with Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise of the American Jewish Congress that the plan, if implemented, would deliver "a wrong and hurtful impression ... that Jews are taking over some part of the country for settlement". The final blow was dealt when Roosevelt suggested a limit of only 10,000 immigrants a year for five years, with a maximum of 10 percent Jews. He later reduced even that number and never publicly mentioned the plan.[6][7]

Although he stayed on in President Harry S. Truman's cabinet after Roosevelt died in April 1945, he resigned from office within a year. In February 1946, Truman nominated Edwin W. Pauley to be Secretary of the Navy. Pauley was the former Democratic Party national treasurer. He once suggested to Ickes that $300,000 in campaign funds could be raised if Ickes would drop his fight for title to oil-rich offshore lands. Ickes testified to this during Pauley's Senate confirmation hearing. This led to a confrontation with Truman who had suggested that Ickes's memory might have been mistaken. Ickes wrote a 2,000-word resignation letter, reading in part: "I don't care to stay in an Administration where I am expected to commit perjury for the sake of the party.... I do not have a reputation for dealing recklessly with the truth." Truman accepted the resignation and gave Ickes three days to leave. Soon after, Pauley declined the nomination.[8][9][10]

After government[edit]

Ickes had bought a working farm, Headwaters Farm, near Olney, Maryland, in 1937. His wife Jane managed the farm and Ickes grew flowers as a hobby. President Roosevelt spent occasional weekends there before the establishment of "Shangri-La", the presidential retreat now known as Camp David.[11] After he resigned from the Cabinet in 1946, Ickes retired to his farm but remained active on the political scene, working as a syndicated columnist.[12]

In December 1945, Ickes accepted the position of executive chairman of the newly founded Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, a group that criticized Truman's lack of fidelity to FDR's principles. A thousand people attended the hotel banquet that celebrated his appointment.[13] He resigned on February 13, 1946, unhappy with the organization's failure to pay him the agreed-upon salary and unwilling to support the organization of a new political party to support Henry Wallace's presidential race.[14]

Critiques and battles[edit]

Ickes was known for his acerbic wit and took joy in verbal battles. He often took verbal abuse too. For instance, Roosevelt selected Ickes to deliver a response following the nomination of Wendell Willkie. In response to Ickes' comments, Senator Styles Bridges called Ickes "a common scold puffed up by high office." Republican Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce once famously remarked that Ickes had "the mind of a commissar and the soul of a meataxe."

In September 1944, Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee for president, promised to fire Ickes if elected. Ickes penned a letter of resignation to Dewey and it was widely printed in the press. Ickes wrote, in part:

Hence, I hereby resign as Secretary of the Interior effective, if, as and when the incredible comes to pass and you become the President of the United States. However, as a candidate for that office you should have known the primary school fact that the Cabinet of an outgoing President automatically retires with its chief.[15]


Ickes married divorcee Anna Wilmarth Thompson in 1911. He had one son, Raymond, with Anna and a stepson, Wilmarth, from her first marriage. The couple also adopted daughter Frances and son Robert. She died in an automobile accident on August 31, 1935. At the age of 64, he married 25-year-old Jane Dahlman (1913–1972),[16] on May 24, 1938. Children resulting from this marriage were daughter Elizabeth Jane and son Harold McEwen Ickes, who became Deputy Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton.

His sister Mary Ickes was the first wife of psychologist John B. Watson.

Pronunciation and spelling of name[edit]

Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest "I think you come as close as anybody when you suggest that it rhymes with sickness with the n omitted. The e is halfway between a short e and short u": hence, /ˈɪkəs/ IK-əss.[17] His son Harold M. Ickes, however, pronounces the name /ˈɪkz/ IK-eez.

The correct spelling of Ickes' middle name is undetermined. It is sometimes spelled Le Clair, Le Claire or LeClare.[6]

In fiction[edit]

  • In the musical play Annie, Roosevelt demands that Ickes sing "Tomorrow" in the Oval Office, and orders him to get louder. Ickes was largely a comic figure in the play, despite acting rude, vulgar, and arrogant. Annie helps him to sing, and he gets somewhat carried away. He ends the song on his knees, much to the dismay of the Cabinet and the President.
  • In the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney (as George M. Cohan) sings a satirical song about the Roosevelt administration, which includes a reference to "Mr. Ickes". In that rendering, he pronounces it the way the son does: IK-eez.


By Ickes[edit]

  • New Democracy (1934). W. W. Norton
  • Back to Work: The Story of PWA (1935).
  • with Arno B. Cammerer (coauthor), Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) (1937). U.S. Government Printing Office
  • The Third Term Bugaboo. A Cheerful Anthology (1940)
  • (editor). Freedom of the Press Today: A Clinical Examination By 28 Specialists (1941). Vanguard Press
  • Minerals Yearbook 1941 (1943). U.S. Government Printing Office
  • Fightin' Oil (1943). Alfred A. Knopf
  • The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon (1943). Greenwood Press 1985 reprint: ISBN 0-313-24988-1
  • The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes. Simon and Schuster
    • 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)

About Ickes[edit]

  • Jeanne Nienaber Clarke. Roosevelt's Warrior: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal (1996). The Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-5094-0
  • Linda J. Lear. Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive, 1874-1933 (1982). Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0-8240-4860-1
  • T. H. Watkins. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 (1990). Henry Holt & Co., ISBN 0-8050-0917-5; 1992 reprint: ISBN 0-8050-2112-4
  • Graham White and John Maze. Harold Ickes of the New Deal: His Private Life and Public Career (1985). Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-37285-9

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harold Ickes
  2. ^ "Death Takes Phis Patterson, Ickes," The Scroll of Phi Delta Theta, March 1952, page 261.
  3. ^ Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Policy, 146
  4. ^ http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/history/ep5/5/
  5. ^ Current Biography 1941, 426
  6. ^ a b Books: Old Veteran Time, April 26, 1943
  7. ^ "A Thanksgiving plan to save Europe’s Jews", Raphael Medoff, The Jewish Standard, November 16, 2007
  8. ^ 1946, February 13. Resignation speech. United States National Archives and Records Administration, The Crucial Decade: Voices of the Postwar Era, 1945-1954, Select Audiovisual Records
  9. ^ Ickes Resigns Post, Berating Truman in Acid Farewell; Mr. Ickes says Good-by, The New York Times, February 14, 1946, Thomas J. Hamilton
  10. ^ Text of Secretary Ickes' Letter of Resignation to the President Ending 13 Years in Office, The New York Times, February 14, 1946
  11. ^ http://www.hvca.net/Default.htm accessed 5-28-10
  12. ^ http://www.nps.gov/elro/glossary/ickes-harold.htm accessed 5-28-10
  13. ^ Robert P. Newman, The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 94-5, 97
  14. ^ Newman, Cold War Romance, 105
  15. ^ "Ickes Sends 'Resignation' to Dewey, Effective if the 'Incredible' Happens". New York Times (page 16, column 2). 29 September 1944. 
  16. ^ Jane Dahlman was the younger sister of Wilmarth Ickes' wife, Betty.
  17. ^ Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Ray Lyman Wilbur
U.S. Secretary of the Interior
Served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman

Succeeded by
Julius "Cap" Krug