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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 653

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This is the grave of Harold Ickes.

Born in 1874 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Ickes moved to Chicago for high school and then went on to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1897. He took a job as a newspaper reporter for a few of the city’s newspapers, including the Tribune. In 1907, he completed a law degree from the University of Chicago, but never went fully into practice.

Ickes was a Progressive. Like a lot of Progressives, he came out of the Republican Party but found the bloated, corrupt Gilded Age version of the party to be disappointing. Thus, he was a big Theodore Roosevelt supporter in the 1912 Bull Moose movement. He returned to the Republican fold when that did not work out, but continued to rise within the Chicago political establishment and push for Progressives to win the presidential nomination, including Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. But in 1920 and 1924, his support for Hiram Johnson was not shared with the Republican establishment and the awful Harding and Coolidge were nominated instead. There increasingly really wasn’t a place for Ickes within the Republican Party.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. FDR wanted a Republican in the Cabinet. He first approached Hiram Johnson, who turned him down. But Johnson instead recommended Ickes. Roosevelt gave Ickes the Department of Interior. Ickes was a Chicago guy, not exactly someone with a long background in the West, where Interior is really a very powerful department. But at Ickes heart was two things. First, to be a bureaucratic master. Second, to use the nation’s resources for all, not just corporations. FDR put his skills to use in both of these areas.

Ickes was a major bureaucratic knife-fighter. He wanted power and would go to significant lengths to gain it. He tried to get the U.S. Forest Service moved from the Department of Agriculture to Interior. This was a major battle of real insider bruising. In the end, it probably would have been better. Or at least it could hardly have been worse than how Agriculture ended up managing the national forests like a wheat farm, a total ecological disaster. Henry Wallace was a lot more concerned with corn than forests so there was an opportunity. Ickes failed, but the battle was real. One major area of that battle was in what would become Olympic National Park. The Forest Service was outraged that this prime timber land would be made into a national park. Ickes wanted an expansive national park, in part so his agency could control and preserve the land. Locals in Washington hated Ickes for this; the Hoquiam Chamber of Commerce requested an investigation of Ickes from Martin Dies’ House Un-American Activities Committee, accusing administration officials of tying up the peninsula’s resources to serve America’s enemies. Ickes also was a great public speaker and had a sharp, brutal wit. Claire Boothe Luce once said he had”the mind of a commissar and the soul of a meataxe.”

Ickes was an effective Secretary of the Interior but that wasn’t all. Roosevelt named him to run the Public Works Administration. The PWA was a gigantic part of the New Deal employment program which spent billions of dollars to build up American infrastructure. That the Works Progress Administration did the same thing leads to a lot of confusion because of their similar acronyms but they were different agencies. Ickes was an excellent choice to run the PWA, not only because of bureaucratic skills, but because as an old Progressive, he was absolutely 100% opposed to corruption of all kinds and he ran a tight ship at an agency that could easily have been exploited for massive levels of graft. “Honest Harold” also ran the Oil Administration under the National Industrial Recovery Administration. His support of public power made him enemies in the private power world. TVA was the major agency of public power in the New Deal and Ickes had nothing to do with it, but as Interior Secretary, he was in charge of water in the West and he did what he could to ensure that private companies could not profit off western water. Ickes was the key behind the creation of Kings Canyon National Park, employing Ansel Adams to take pictures of it to stir up sympathy for the park creation.

Ickes was also strongly, vociferously opposed to the Nazis and fascism generally at a time when too many Americans did not take it seriously. For instance, after the Hindenburg disaster, the Germans wanted to buy helium from the U.S. to run the zeppelins. Roosevelt and most of the Cabinet was fine with this. Ickes threw a fit over it and as his agency had control over helium supplies, he was able to stop the deal because he was worried the German military would use American helium in its militarization plans. Ickes was a major player behind the Lend-Lease Act, urging Roosevelt to amend American neutrality law to aid the British in 1939. He was a staunch opponent of Japanese militarism and pushed Roosevelt on the oil embargo against Japan. Ickes also suggested that Alaska be used as a place where Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis could settle, but this did not get traction in the administration. He thought it would both help settle Alaska and give a home to the world’s Jews. The Jewish community in America didn’t really get behind the idea either.

Ickes was also on the left in the Roosevelt administration on civil rights, often pushing a recalcitrant and disinterested Roosevelt. He actually had been president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP. He ended segregation in the Interior Department immediately after his 1933 confirmation and because he was in charge of the National Parks, ended segregation at those facilities as well. Ickes created the “Black Kitchen Cabinet” to bring Black issues into the Roosevelt administration. He even opposed Japanese incarceration, though he wasn’t going to risk his career over it. He perhaps does deserve some criticism more broadly on the issue of capital spent on it. He routinely assured southern congressmen that his only interest was on federal level segregation and that it was up to the states to do what they wanted. So maybe he wasn’t a hero on this, but one can see why he would shy away from it in the end.

In 1944, Thomas Dewey was running for president against Roosevelt. Dewey hated Ickes and publicly announced that he would fire Ickes if he was elected. Ickes responded,

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.

Did I mention that Ickes was not someone to trifle with?

In 1946, Ickes did resign as Secretary of Interior because Truman was a whole lot less interested in stopping corruption than he was. Truman nominated Edwin Pauley as Secretary of the Navy. Pauley had tried to buy off Ickes in the past, offering $300,000 for Democratic campaign funds if Ickes would stop trying to take over offshore areas that had oil so they would be conserved. Ickes refused Pauley at the time and testified about this during Pauley’s confirmation hearing. This made Ickes’ position under Truman untenable and he resigned. But he did kill Pauley’s nomination by doing so.

In retirement, on a farm he bought in Maryland, Ickes remained a major political insider and became a syndicated columnist as well. He was heavily involved in the early United Nations and pushed the colonialist nations to give eventual independence to their colonies. He was involved in the early anti-Truman movement among the left wing of the New Dealers, but eventually left that when some wanted to split off to support Henry Wallace’s quixotic 1948 presidential run that was rife with communists.

Ickes died in 1952 in Washington at the age of 77. Having remarried later in life, he had a young son, Harold Ickes, Jr., who became a major advisor in the Clinton administration four decades later.

Harold Ickes is buried in Sandy Spring Friends House Cemetery, Sandy Spring, Maryland.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Many thanks! If would you like this series to visit other Roosevelt Cabinet officials, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frances Perkins is in Newcastle, Maine and Claude Wickard is in Flora, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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