Friday, March 15, 2024

This Day in Environmental History (Birth of Harold L. Ickes, Combative New Deal Interior Secretary)

Mar. 15, 1874— Harold L. Ickes, a pugnacious former Republican Progressive for Theodore Roosevelt who became a stalwart Democratic New Dealer as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, was born in rural Hollidaysburg, Penn.

Assuming control of a department rife with corruption in the past, Ickes kept it remarkably free of graft and mismanagement even as he expanded its reach and influence through countless bureaucratic battles. Under his direction, the Interior Department:

* oversaw the construction of quite nearly 20,000 projects in a six-year period, including hospitals, bridges, the Key West Highway, the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, and Hoover Dam in in the newly formed Public Work Administration;

*supervised the creation of the innovative Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned electric utility corporation that provided low-cost electricity in seven southeastern states, as well as flood control, navigation, and land management;

*expanded the number and size of units in the National Park Service;

* was one of four department heads involved with the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Glorying in his reputation for abrasiveness, Ickes even titled his 1943 memoir The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon

When he wasn’t expressing irritation to subordinates, fellow Cabinet members, and even FDR (who regularly refused his periodic offers of resignation), he unleashed biting public comments about administration opponents. 

When GOP Presidential nominee Wendell Willkie, for instance, spoke of his rise from poverty to success, Ickes mocked him as a “simple, barefoot Wall Street lawyer."

Though he belittled Willkie’s Horatio Alger tale, his own was similar. A miserable childhood (grinding poverty, a philandering, alcoholic father, and a strict Presbyterian mother) spurred his ambition to escape—which finally came to pass when he became a journalist, then a lawyer with a thriving practice.

An advantageous marriage to the wealthy Anna Wilmarth lifted his status further, but at the price of deep unhappiness. He felt little compunction, then, even when he joined the Roosevelt administration, about spending countless hours at the office and pursuing extramarital affairs with younger women that could have caused scandal if exposed.

A 1916 tour of Glacier National Park on horseback intensified Ickes’ love of nature. Subsequently he found one of the few balms for his suspicious, self-righteous nature and chronic insomnia in the gardens of his Winnetka, Ill., home.

It surprised me to learn that it wasn’t Ickes’ passion for conservation but his advocacy for Native American rights that led him to seek a job with FDR in 1933. 

Lamenting that several others had an inside track with the new administration for the post of commissioner of Indian affairs, Ickes was alerted by a longtime Progressive Republican ally, Senator Hiram Johnson, that an even bigger prize was available: Secretary of the Interior.

A few potential candidates had already turned down FDR’s offer of the post. The incoming President had never even met Ickes before their interview.

But Roosevelt could sound a bipartisan note by selecting this onetime Bull Mooser, and someone with knowledge of the West appealed to him. 

Moreover, if FDR had any private reservations about Ickes’ bluntness, they were soothed over by the notion that, after all, this was a relatively minor Cabinet post compared with Justice, State, War, or the Treasury departments.

The new appointee was determined to make his department anything but minor. Given the interest that drew him to government service in the first place, it was natural that he would reverse the policies of prior administrations by employing more Native Americans in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and encouraging tribal religion and culture.

But he also set about on the accomplishments I listed at the start of this post—and, more controversially, clashing with other Cabinet members about their prerogatives, including, most prominently:

*Henry Wallace, another former Republican termed Democratic liberal, who successfully fought off Ickes’ attempt to move the Forestry Service from the Department of Agriculture to Interior;

*Harry Hopkins, a Roosevelt intimate who tangled repeatedly with Ickes over federal allocations for his own programs (the Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration) in the Commerce Department versus Ickes’ PWA; and

*Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose longtime friendship with and easy access to FDR provoked a sexist private observation of Ickes (“There is something to the old adage, ‘a woman, a dog, a walnut tree, the more you beat them, the better they’ll be'”).

No fair judgment of Ickes’ career and character can be made without noting his commitment to civil rights and liberties for all. 

Heading the Chicago branch of the NAACP in the 1920s, he would, a decade later, offer Marian Anderson the use of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the acclaimed African-American contralto from singing in their auditorium.

Then, during WWII, when the Work Relocation Authority (WRA) was transferred to the Interior Department, Ickes, a staunch opponent of Japanese-American internment, endured hate mail and threats when he moved to roll back the agency’s discriminatory policy.

Along with Perkins, Ickes was the only Cabinet member to serve throughout FDR’s 12 years in office. But he did not survive long under Harry Truman. 

After disagreeing with Roosevelt’s successor over an appointment in the Navy Department, Ickes submitted another of his letters of resignation—except that this time, his boss accepted it.

Each day, Ickes dictated first drafts of diary entries based on hastily scrawled notes in meetings. Within two years of his death in 1952, his second wife and widow, Jane Dahlman, had published three volumes she had edited up to the start of FDR’s third term in 1941.

The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes represents an as-it-happened insider’s account of policymaking through the first two terms of a President who delighted in keeping advisers guessing about his intentions. This dyspeptic American Pepys who recorded his impressions gave future biographers a chronicle that, these days, seems ever less likely to be repeated.

(The Whitewater scandal left Clinton administration officials, for instance, hesitant about putting to paper their impressions, particularly after the young Treasury Department aide Josh Steiner gulped and disavowed in congressional testimony diary entries on pressure from the White House. 

Investigations making use of contemporaneous notes also briefly involved—are you ready for this?—Ickes’ son, Harold McEwen Ickes, a close adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, whose handwritten memo on large donors led him to testify on Capitol Hill on financing for the 1996 Presidential campaign, according to this July 1997 article for the (Mass.) Standard-Times.)

Like another New Dealer, William O. Douglas (elevated from chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission to Associate Justice of the Supreme Court), Ickes presents historians with a conundrum: how to assess a public official’s accomplishments and idealism with prickly personalities that may limited their effectiveness and fulfillment of their highest ambitions. 

(Both men, at different times, seethed over failing to be selected as FDR’s Vice-Presidential running mate.)

Moreover, historians also must keep these same private failings as they assess these New Deal chroniclers for their biases and even basic reliability.

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