Ickes, Harold

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Harold Ickes

Born March 15, 1874

Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania

Died February 3, 1952

Olney, Maryland

Public administrator

In May 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345; see entry) designated his trusted adviser, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, to be the national coordinator for ensuring the military and home front had adequate gasoline and oil in the event the United States entered the war in Europe. The United States did indeed enter the war less than seven months later. Ickes carried out this important responsibility throughout the war years.

Ickes, known for his crusty and combative personality, promoted the orderly development of the nation's rich natural resources throughout his career, including his time as wartime petroleum administrator during World War II (193945). Ickes served as secretary of the interior for thirteen years, from 1933 to 1946, longer than anyone else in U.S. history.

A strict household

The second of seven children, Harold LeClair Ickes was born on March 15, 1874, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. He grew up in the town of Altoona, located in the rolling Pennsylvania forested farmland, home of a largely Scotch-Irish population. He acquired a love of nature and the outdoors early in life. The Ickes family had lived in the region since before the American Revolution (177583). At one time the family had been large landowners and Harold's grandfather served in the state legislature. However, by the time Harold was born, family fortunes had declined and the family struggled to make ends meet. His father, Jesse Boone Williams Ickes, operated a tobacco store, and his mother, Matilda "Mattie" McClune Ickes, was a homemaker.

A devout Presbyterian, Mattie was a strict disciplinarian. She would allow only religious hymns sung and religious books read on Sundays. She did not allow her children to play or whistle or even walk in the sunshine on the Sabbath. Mattie paid particular attention to young Harold, who showed an unusually strong work ethic and a strong drive to succeed. In response, throughout his life Harold would both admire her in his memories and resent her for the strict religious codes she enforced.

In 1890 when Harold was only sixteen years old, Mattie died of pneumonia. It was a devastating loss to the teen. Harold and a sister went to live in the Chicago suburb of Englewood with an aunt and a very demanding uncle. With little support from his father, Harold worked long hours in his uncle's drugstore while attending high school. On a typical day, Harold would open the store at 6:30 a.m., go to school for the day, and return in the afternoon to work until 10:00 p.m. Despite these long hours, Harold excelled in schoolwork. He was able to combine his junior and senior years and graduated with honors in 1892. In addition, he was president of his senior class.

A Chicago lawyer

Following completion of high school, Harold Ickes moved into Chicago, where he remained for the next forty years. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1897, Ickes was hired as a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Record. Through his news gathering, Ickes became interested in the progressive reform movement. The political movement believed in using governmental powers to solve national social and economic problems. Through his political activities, he met businessman and city planner Frederic Delano, uncle of young Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After graduating from the University of Chicago's law school in 1907, Ickes established a private practice in the city. During the 1920s he fought the power of big business in defending the rights of the common people, such as representing the legal interests of women industrial workers. He was also director of the Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), promoting greater economic opportunity for black Americans.

New Dealer

After Ickes campaigned vigorously for Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential elections, the newly elected president rewarded him with the position of secretary of the interior. In his new position, Ickes was committed to the orderly development of the nation's natural resources through careful governmental planning. He identified conservation projects for the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and directed the Public Works Administration (PWA), both New Deal agencies. The New Deal referred to a collection of programs created by President Roosevelt to bring relief and recovery to citizens suffering under the worst U.S. economic crisis in history, the Great Depression (192941). Through the PWA, Ickes personally guided the allocation of six billion dollars of federal funds to public works projects including construction of large dams, tunnels, hospitals, schools, highways, post offices, and other public structures. The PWA completed nineteen thousand projects, including the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, and many other large water and power projects. The projects provided desperately needed jobs. Through the CCC, which provided jobs for unemployed young men, Ickes pursued natural resources conservation programs such as soil conservation projects and reforestation of millions of acres of forestland that had been burned or cut. Despite his hard work, Ickes did not attract a strong public following due to his harsh personality shaped by his strict, disciplined childhood.

William JeffersRubber Coordinator

Like the oil resources that Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was appointed to coordinate production and use of during World War II (193945), rubber was another critical raw material needed for the war. However, 90 percent of the U.S. sources for rubber were disrupted by Japanese military expansion in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific by the early 1940s. The dire need to coordinate the replacement of those sources fell to railroad executive William M. Jeffers (18761953).

Jeffers was one of nine children born to William and Elizabeth Gannon Jeffers in North Platte, Nebraska, in January 1876. His father, an Irish immigrant, was a laborer for Union Pacific Railroad. Young William began working for Union Pacific at fourteen years of age. Through the next forty-seven years, Jeffers rose through the ranks to become president of Union Pacific in 1937. Under his leadership, Union Pacific became one of the most financially successful railroads in the United States. Known for his hard-driving, no-nonsense management style, Jeffers was asked by the Roosevelt administration in September 1942 to be the national rubber director. He was given the responsibility to bring order to the rubber industry and guarantee a reliable supply for the war effort. Jeffers immediately demanded gas rationing to conserve the existing rubber supply and then promoted the use of rayon for the development of synthetic rubber. The government spent seventy million dollars to construct fifty-one plants for lease to rubber companies. By 1944 more than eight hundred thousand tons of synthetic rubber was being produced a year. Synthetic rubber production amounted to 87 percent of the rubber used for the war. The development of the synthetic rubber capacities is considered one of the biggest home front achievements in World War II. Jeffers died in Pasadena, California, in March 1953.

Ickes was quick to speak out, and act, on controversial social issues. For example, in the interest of promoting civil rights causes, Ickes ended racial segregation in his department, ensured that blacks received a fair share of construction jobs in the projects funded by the Interior Department, and promoted the appointment of the first black federal judge, William Hastie (19041976), on March 26, 1937. Ickes also personally arranged for the internationally famous black singer Marian Anderson (18971993) to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939 in front of thousands in an open-air concert when she was denied use of a private concert hall in Washington, D.C.

In the late 1930s, Ickes was the first in the Roosevelt administration to publicly speak out against the popular aviator Charles Lindbergh's (19021974) isolationist (opposition to war and formal international relations) views. He also aggressively spoke out against military dictatorships growing in Germany and Italy. He would also later speak out against Roosevelt's internment (imprisonment) of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese in 1941.

Importance of oil in war

Nothing is more important in supporting military machinery in a war than having sufficient gasoline and oil, particularly when mechanized warfare had come of age by the early twentieth century. To build and maintain adequate armed services, the home front also needed a reliable supply of petroleum, particularly the war industries.

Ickes had always been a trusted adviser of the president. With war becoming increasingly imminent, Roosevelt was very concerned about the nation's petroleum fuel reserves. Prior to 1941 the federal government had little regulation over the petroleum industry, limited only to some aspects of the interstate trade of petroleum. This limited control had existed only since 1933, as part of Roosevelt's New Deal programs to rescue the nation from the economic problems of the Great Depression. During the late 1930s, several federal agencies tackled the issues of oil conservation and the discovery of new sources. Among these were the Bureau of Mines, Petroleum Conservation Division, and the U.S. Geological Survey, all overseen by Secretary of the Interior Ickes. In addition to these federal agencies, the various oilproducing states also had public agencies overseeing oil production within their own states.

By early 1941, it was clear that the haphazard system of production, transportation, and use of oil had to be improved. In March the National Resources Planning Board recommended to the president that a single federal authority be designated to coordinate the oil industry on the home front.

Within the next couple of months, fuel crises began developing. A shortage of oil tankers created by using fifty tankers to transport needed war supplies to Great Britain threatened the supply of oil to the growing U.S. war industries. By early May, Ickes and others urged Roosevelt to establish federal regulation of oil supplies. In response, on May 27 Roosevelt declared an unlimited national emergency. On the following day, he designated Ickes the Petroleum Coordinator for National Defense.

Petroleum coordinator

As petroleum coordinator, Ickes was charged with gathering information on how much petroleum would be needed for the war effort by the military and on the home front, and the supply available. Ickes was also to determine what it would take to increase oil production efficiency.

Through 1941 Ickes guided inventories of the home front capacity for production, transportation, refining, and distribution of oil, and what equipment the oil industry needed to sustain the supply. Based on these inventories, Ickes began developing plans for expanding oil production capabilities to produce high-octane gasoline and for supplying Great Britain and the Soviet Union with petroleum. Of concern was the development of additional crude oil and natural gas reserves, the development of adequate transportation and storage facilities, and an increase in the efficiency of delivering oil to its destinations. Armed with this information, Ickes advised federal and state agencies and the oil industry on what was needed to maintain a steady, adequate supply of petroleum. Ickes was also to advise the Office of Production Management (OPM) concerning possible home front rationing needs to ensure the war industries were receiving adequate petroleum supplies. However, the gas rationing that did occur was designed more for conserving rubber in car tires than conserving gasoline. Ickes also had to coordinate supplies with the various foreign nations relying on U.S. supplies.

Upon the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt changed Ickes's title to Petroleum Coordinator for War. As the war progressed and intensified through 1942, Roosevelt determined that Ickes needed stronger authority than simply advising the various agencies and industry. Therefore on December 2, 1942, the president established the Petroleum Administration for War with Ickes as its head. Under Ickes's leadership the nation saw no major disruption of oil supplies after some limited shortages in 1942 in the eastern United States.

An active retirement

Following the end of the war and the death of Roosevelt, Ickes resigned as secretary of the interior on February 13, 1946. He was one of the last key players of Roosevelt's administration to leave office. Ickes retired to his farm in Olney, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. He maintained an office in Georgetown, adjacent to Washington, D.C., where he wrote various books and magazine articles. Included was the completion of a detailed diary he had kept through his term as secretary of the interior from 1933 to 1946. It was published in three volumes in the early 1950s after his death. Titled The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, the set provided a unique insider's view of the New Deal and the World War II home front. He also wrote columns on political issues for the New York Post and New Republic magazine, and a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post. Not surprisingly, his pointed articles tackled controversial issues such as the anticommunist crusade of U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (19081957) in the early 1950s. Ickes also maintained an active speaking schedule. He died at age seventy-eight near his home at Olney, Maryland, on February 3, 1952.

For More Information


Clarke, Jeanne N. Roosevelt's Warriors: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Ickes, Harold L. The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The First Thousand Days, 19331936; The Inside Struggle, 19361939; The Lowering Clouds, 19391941. 3 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 195254.

Watkins, T. H. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 18741952. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.

White, Graham J. Harold Ickes of the New Deal: His Private Life and Public Career. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.