Historical Markers
Harold L. Ickes [World War II] Historical Marker
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Harold L. Ickes [World War II]

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
6th Avenue at 15th Street, Altoona

Dedication Date:
September 26, 1994

Behind the Marker

Harold L. Ickes, seen here at his desk in his office.
Harold L. Ickes soon before his appointment as Secretary of the Interior, February...
Never let it be said that Harold LeClaire Ickes was one to avoid a fight. As a reform-minded lawyer and progressive Republican, the self-styled "Old Curmudgeon" had already waged some epic battles in Chicago against machine politicians, corrupt utilities, and the local press before President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked him to become his Interior Secretary in 1933.

Born and raised on a farm outside of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Ickes had left a broken home when he was sixteen to stay with relatives in Chicago. There, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a law degree in 1907. An active Republican, Ickes' stormy career included work as a campaign manager for Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes before he bolted and became a major spokesman for the liberal Republicans who supported Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential bid in 1932. As a reward for his hard work, Ickes became FDR's Secretary of the Interior, a post he held until he resigned in a huff during Harry Truman's presidency.

As head of massive Public Works Administration (PWA), Ickes oversaw construction projects nationwide, including the Boulder Dam, Key West Highway, and Lincoln Tunnel. Personally honest, Ickes rooted out corruption and ran a clean PWA without any hint of scandal. He also championed more rights for Native Americans and African Americans, and during World War II, opposed the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

Ickes' honesty and forthrightness often created friction with those around him. As Europe became embroiled in war, he took delight in castigating those responsible. "The raids of the nightshirt nations," he stated in a late 1937 speech, "constitute the greatest threat to civilization since the democratic principle became established." A few months later, he told an audience in Chicago that "[i]t happens that in practically all of the nations in Europe that have gone fascist the Jews constitute the racial minority against which bitter hate is fanned into a searing flame. It seems that the false god of racism must have its devil upon which it can pour out its objurgations, wreak its bloody vengeance."

In August 1940, while FDR wrestled with the problem of how to help England without going to war, Ickes commented that "we Americans are like the householder who refuses to lend or sell his fire extinguishers to help put out the fire in the house that is right next door even though that house is all ablaze and the wind is blowing from that direction." Taking some of Ickes' words, FDR crafted his Lend-Lease press conference and thus solved the way America could help its ally.

Destryers docked at the Naval Yard.
Mothballed American destroyers at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, September...
During his tenure as Interior Secretary, Ickes managed the nation's energy reserves. He and FDR came into conflict at times, once because of Ickes' bold statements against selling oil to potential enemies.

In mid-June 1941, more than five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ickes had been told by a Philadelphia manufacturer that, even while his own company, which had a government contract to produce defense materials, was short of oil, a Japanese oil tanker was loading oil in Philadelphia. When Ickes had the shipment held until he could ascertain more facts, FDR and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were furious. Fearing that the Japanese might react militarily before America was ready to wage war, the president informed Ickes not to interfere with oil shipments to Japan.

As America geared up to assist Great Britain in her war with Germany and Italy, and prepare its own armed forces for possible involvement with the growing world war, Ickes played a key role in several government agencies that FDR created to manage the nation's defenses. As coordinator of the country's energy supply, Ickes attempted to ensure that any private companies receiving government contracts would not take advantage of the situation by creating monopolies or raising prices. This created friction between Ickes and a host of government officials, but, in the end, Ickes stayed the course and protected America's supplies.

Pipeliners laying the "Big Inch" oil line at Brandywine Creek near Glen Moore, PA, winter, 1943.
Pipeliners laying the "Big Inch" oil line at Brandywine Creek near Glen Moore,...
Despite inter-agency feuds and divided controls, Ickes contributed mightily to the maintenance of America's oil reserves. He ensured that the East Coast factories received a steady supply of oil by initiating two oil pipelines that began in Texas, wound their way north to Illinois, and eventually eastward to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Dubbed the "Big Inch" and "Little Big Inch," these pipelines helped make up the loss of oil that went to the bottom of the Atlantic in torpedoed oil tankers.

Ickes also suggested voluntary gas rationing in mid-1941, then approved stricter controls when voluntary cooperation failed to produce results. To help offset the future depletion of America's oil reserves, Ickes fostered interest in Middle Eastern oil reserves so that the country would have a future supply of oil if needed.

During the war, Ickes also played a key role in disputes between United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis and FDR. Ickes helped resolve the bitter coal strike of 1943 that threatened to disrupt the war effort, and effectively ended major coal strikes for the rest of the war. In spite of his at times abrasive self-confidence, and his feuds with FDR and other government officials, Harold Ickes played a key role in America's victory in World War II by ensuring that the armed forces and national defense plants had the energy they needed to fuel the war effort at home and abroad.
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