Last updated: September 22, 2020
Harold Ickes was born in Franklin Township, Pennsylvania, on March 15, 1874. He attended the University of Chicago, from which he received both a B.A. (1897) and an LL.D. (1907). After finishing law school, Ickes practiced in Chicago, where he also served as a Republican committeeman. A liberal, Ickes campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive party in 1912 and for the presidential campaigns of progressive Republicans Charles Evans Hughes (1916) and Hiram Johnson (1920). By 1932, Ickes no longer supported Herbert Hoover and headed a committee of liberal Republicans who supported FDR. FDR rewarded his work by appointing him Secretary of the Interior in 1933.
As interior secretary, Ickes moved quickly to address concerns of American Indians and the National Park System. His greatest contribution was his administration of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a massive New Deal construction program. Through the PWA, Ickes oversaw the construction of the Triborough Bridge (New York), Lincoln Tunnel (New York), the Grand Coulee Dam (Washington), the Key West Highway (Florida), as well as numerous sewer systems, schools, hospitals, and other public buildings. Ickes was also in charge of fuel resources in the U.S. during World War II. His fastidious management of the PWA budget and his crusade against corruption earned him the nickname "Honest Harold." A stalwart supporter of civil rights and civil liberties, Ickes (a former president of the Chicago NAACP) lent his strong support to the African American contralto Marian Anderson when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform in its Constitution Hall, and was a vocal critic of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.
He resigned his cabinet position in 1946 when Truman appointed an oil magnate undersecretary of the navy. He wrote a column for the New Republic from 1946 until his death in 1952 in which he spoke out forcefully against Senator Joseph McCarthy, political corruption, and the timid leadership of political parties. He also published five books: New Democracy (1934), The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon (1943), and his three-volume Secret Diary (1953-54).
Article courtesy of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University.