As U.S. secretary of the interior for 13 years, Harold LeClaire Ickes (1874-1952) played a key role in developing New Deal policies.
Harold L. Ickes was born March 15, 1874, on a farm near Holidaysburg, Pa. He grew up in nearby Altoona, where his father ran a store and dabbled in local politics. At the age of 16, after his mother's death, he went to Chicago to live with his aunt and uncle. Following his graduation from high school, Ickes attended the University of Chicago part time, graduating in 1897. Ten years later he also received his law degree from the university, although he never maintained a regular practice. In 1907 he married Anna Wilmarth Thompson, a wealthy widow, with whom he had a son.
Ickes was a prominent local and regional political adviser and campaign organizer for reform-minded Republican office seekers in Illinois. However, his political irregularity was notorious in party circles. In 1912 he fervently backed Theodore Roosevelt's presidential candidacy on the Progressive party ticket. In 1920, after he failed in his attempt to get the Republican presidential nomination for California Progressive Hiram Johnson, Ickes voted for the Democratic candidate. In 1924 and 1928 he again voted for Democratic presidential candidates.
Ickes worked hard in Franklin Roosevelt's presidential campaign in 1932. After Roosevelt's overwhelming victory Ickes actively sought appointment as Indian commissioner in the Interior Department. He first met Roosevelt in February 1933, after which the president-elect named him secretary of the interior.
Besides his duties as Interior secretary in a greatly stepped-up Federal conservation program, Ickes served as administrator of the National Recovery Administration's code for the petroleum industry and as head of the Public Works Administration. He economically administered the letting of billions of dollars in Federal contracts for a great variety of undertakings, including much new naval construction. Despite Ickes's disputes with fellow New Dealers and his generally cantankerous disposition, Roosevelt appreciated his abilities. During World War II as petroleum administrator for war, Ickes coordinated the conservation, acquisition, and allocation of the nation's oil resources.
Roosevelt's death in April 1945 was a deep personal loss to Ickes. He never really got along with Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman. In 1946, when President Truman tried to appoint an oil company executive as undersecretary of the Navy, Ickes attacked the administration for lack of interest in oil conservation and angrily announced his resignation. His tenure as secretary of the interior had been the longest in the department's history.
Ickes's wife had died in 1935. Three years later Ickes had married Jane Dahlman, a recent college graduate; they had two children. Now, leaving government service, Ickes lived in semiretirement with his family on his farm near Olney, Md. He wrote a syndicated newspaper column and contributed regularly to the liberal weekly New Republic. On Feb. 3, 1952, he died in a Washington hospital.
Ickes's rambling, sardonic personal recollections appeared in 1943 under the title The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon. Of much greater value for understanding his life is The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes (3 vols., 1953-1954), which covers the period 1933-1941 week by week. Ickes's role in the early years of the New Deal is treated in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt (3 vols., 1957-1960).
Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber, Roosevelt's warrior: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Ickes, Harold L. (Harold LeClair), The autobiography of a curmudgeon, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985, 1943.
Lear, Linda J., Harold L. Ickes: the aggressive progressive, 1874-1933, New York: Garland Pub., 1981.
Watkins, T. H. (Tom H.), Righteous pilgrim: the life and times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952, New York: H. Holt, 1990.
White, Graham J., Harold Ickes of the New Deal: his private life and public career, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. □