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Harold Ickes and United States Foreign Petroleum Policy Planning, 1939–1945*

  • Stephen J. Randall (a1)


As Secretary of the Interior and Petroleum Administrator for War, Harold Ickes played a significant, albeit hitherto largely overlooked, role in the formulation of United States foreign petroleum policy planning during World War II. As Petroleum Administrator for War, Ickes worked closely with oil company personnel who shared his commitment to planning and government-industry cooperation. In addition, as a firm believer in the need for a coherent national petroleum policy, Ickes played a major role in broadening the mandate of the ill-fated Petroleum Reserves Corporation. While business groups generally opposed this broadened mandate, business opposition was by no means monolithic and was, in fact, reinforced by considerable opposition from within the government itself.



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1 Ickes has been almost inexplicably neglected by historians until recently. See Harmon, M. Judd, “Some Contributions of Harold Ickes,” Western Political Quarterly, VII (June 1954), 238–52; Graham, Otis, An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (New York, 1967), 105, 127–28; Thelan, David, Robert M. LaFollette (Boston, 1976), 184; Lear, Linda, Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive, 1874–1933 (New York, 1980).

2 Ickes to FDR, December 1, 1941, Box 2826, File 1–188 Petroleum Administration; Ickes to Hull, September 15, 1942, Box 2827, File 1–188 Petroleum Administration; FDR to Ickes, February 28, 1942, Box 2826, File 1–188 Petroleum Administration; lckes to Hull, October 11, 1941, Box 2825, File 1–188 Petroleum Administration, RG 48 (Department of the Interior), NA.

3 Petroleum Administration for War Memorandum (1943), Box 2828, File 1–188 Petroleum Administration, RG 48. Ickes' appointment as Petroleum Administrator received praise from Business Week (December 5, 1942), 7–8. Ickes to Jennings Randolph, House of Representatives, November 15, 1943. Ickes to Freda Kirchway, January 18, 1944, Box 2829, File 1–188 Petroleum Administration, RG 48. Undersecretary of the Interior Abe Fortas later resigned as vice-president of the Petroleum Reserves Corporation because of his belief that he was being bypassed by Ralph Davies. Ickes to Fortas, April 25, 1944, PRC File, Ralph Davies Papers, Truman Library.

4 Cox to Hopkins, April 24, 1941, Box 328, Stockpiling Oil Folder, Harry Hopkins Papers, Roosevelt Library (hereafter referred to as FDRL).

5 Ickes to Randolph, supra, note 3. See as well Wall, Bennett and Gibb, George, Teagle of Jersey Standard (New Orleans, 1974), 202.

6 Frey, John and Ide, Chandler, A History of the Petroleum Administration For War, 1941–45 (Washington, 1946), 253; Ickes, Harold, Fightin' Oil (New York, 1943), 144, 77–79.

7 Petroleum Administration for War. Petroleum in War and Peace, Papers presented by the Petroleum Administration for War before the Special Committee to investigate Petroleum Resources (Washington. 1945). 40–41. Petroleum Industry War Council, Report of the Committee on Cost and Price Adjustment on the Study of the Crude Oil Price Structure (Washington, 1943). The PIWC subcommittee on production indicated in a September 1942 Report: “It would be quite erroneous to assume that we have plenty of oil; that we can afford for some time to draw heavily on our existing reserves ….” Box 220. Interior File, Ickes Papers. LC.

8 Addresses Before the 24th Annual Meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, Chicago, November 10, 11, 1943 (Washington, 1943), 6–14.

9 On the establishment of the Petroleum Reserves Corporation see Nash, Gerald, United States Oil Policy, 1890–1964: Business and Government in Twentieth Century America (Pittsburgh, 1968); and Krasner, Stephen D., Defending the National Interest: Raw Materials Investments and U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton, 1978). The most recent and thorough study of the Anglo-American oil agreement is Stoff, Oil, War, and American Security. See as well Feis, Herbert, Petroleum and American Foreign Policy (Stanford, 1944), and “The Anglo-American Oil Agreement,” Yale Law Journal (August, 1946), 1174–87.

10 Davies to Ickes, October 15, 1941; Ickes to FDR, October 18, 1941; FDR to Ickes, December 3, 1941; Ickes to FDR, December 8, 1941, Oil Folder, Box 221, Ickes Papers, LC.

11 U.S. Congress, Senate, Report on Multinational Petroleum Corporations (1975), 2. Feis, , Three International Episodes (New York, 1947), 152.

12 C. M. Richardson Dougall, Division of Research and Publications, War Records File, “The Petroleum Division,” October 1944, Box 48, Harley Notter Lot File, RG 59, NA; Dean Acheson to Adolf Berle, February 26, 1943, Box 19, Committee on International Petroleum Policy Folder, Petroleum Divison Lot Files (hereafter referred to as PD), RG 59, NA. Feis Memorandum, January 11, 1943, DS 800.6363/1091. Minutes of the meeting of February 1943, Foreign Petroleum Policy Committee, Foreign Petroleum Policy Committee Folder, Box 19, PD. Minutes of the Committee on International Petroleum Policy, March 5, 1943, PRC Folder #1, Box 1, PD. Box 85, Petroleum Folder, Cordell Hull Papers, LC.

13 Committee on International Petroleum Policy, Report to the Secretary of State, March 22, 1943. PRC Folder #1, Box 1, PD.

14 Stimson, Diaries, entries for June 4, 8, 1943, vol. 43, pp. 94–95, Yale University. See also the entries for June 9 and 11, 1943, 104, 107–108. Minutes of the meeting of the JCS, June 8, 1943, CCS, 463. 7, 5–31–43, RG 218, NA.

15 Ickes to FDR, June 10, 1943, PRC File, Box 21, Davies Papers, Truman Library. Feis suggested that Roosevelt did not realize he had an option between a stock purchase in Aramco and a contractual agreement to purchase Saudi Arabian oil.

16 Hull Memorandum, June 14, 1943, PRC Folder #1, Box 1, Petroleum Division Lot File. Department of State Memorandum, “The Position of the Department on the Petroleum Reserves Corporation,” June 6, 1944, DS 800.6363/2–644. The State Department experienced a further loss in 1943 with the departure from the department of petroleum advisor Max Thornburg in July and Feis’ resignation in October. See Feis, Three International Episodes, 110–12.

17 Wallace Murray Memorandum, November 3, 1943, DS 800.6363/11–343. PRC, History, 41. Ickes to Alvin Wirtz, November 5, 1943, PRC File, Box 21, Davies Papers, Truman Library. Ickes, Diaries, 8422 (all references to the Ickes Diaries are to the unpublished microfilm copy). Murray to Edward Stettinius, November 4, 1943, DS 800.6363/11–343.

18 James C. Sappington, Office of the Petroleum Adviser, Department of State, to Murray, November 30, 1943, PRC Folder, Box 1, PD. Loftus to Steinbower, December 8, 1943, PRC Folder, Box 1, PD. Hull to Leahy, December 15, 1943; Hull to Ickes, November 13, 1943, PRC Folder, Box 1, PD.

19 Ickes, Diaries, 8570.

20 Foreign Operations Committee, “A Foreign Oil Policy for the United States,” November 1943, Box 159, Ickes Papers, LC. The companies also agreed to maintain a crude oil reserve for the United States government of one billion barrels or 20 percent of total crude reserves.

21 Petroleum Administration for War, Press Release, February 6, 1944, Box 221, Ickes Papers, LC. Negotiations leading to the agreement are discussed in Ickes, Diaries, 8578–94, and in the minutes of the meeting of the PRC directors, January 27, 1944, Folder 2845, File 1–188, RG 48, NA.

22 Ickes, , “We're Running Out of Oil,” American Magazine (January 1944); Ickes, Diaries, 8626, 8630; see also the entry for February 20, 1944, 8664–65.

23 Washington Post (February 7, 1944); New York Times (February 6, 1944); Time (February 14, 1944), 79; The New York Herald Tribune expressed reservations in a March 14 editorial “The Basis for an Oil Policy. “The press response was more complex than some analysts have suggested. See, for instance, Stoff, Oil, War, and American Security, 140.

24 Ickes, Diaries, 8594–95, 8605.

25 Charles Rayner to Secretary of State, February 5, 1944, DS 800. 6363/2–544.

26 Research and Analysis Branch, “Problems of Legal, Political, and Administrative Nature concerning the Arabian oil agreement,” February 12, 1944, R&A Report No. 1897, RG 59, NA.

27 Research and Analysis Branch, OSS, “Comments on ‘A Foreign Petroleum Policy of the United States’,” February 24, 1944, R&A Report No. 2014, NA.

28 Coe to Leo Crowley, director FEA, February 16, 1944; Pike to Lauchlin Currie, February 28, 1944, Folder: Saudi Arabia, Box 819 E-129, RG 169, NA.

29 H. D. Collier report to stockholders, Standard Oil of California, PRC File, Davies Papers, Truman Library. A copy of the March resolution in OF 4436-b, Roosevelt Papers, FDRL. See as well PIWC, United States Foreign Oil Policy and Petroleum Reserves Corporation: An Analysis of the Effect of the Proposed Saudi Arabian Pipeline (Washington, 1944); U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations, Documentary History of the Petroleum Reserves Corporation, 1943–1944 (Washington, 1974). Published since the completion of this paper is the perceptive study by Anderson, Irving, Aramco, The United States and Saudi Arabia (Princeton, 1983).

30 Abe Fortas to Ickes, February 22, 1944, Interior File, Box 221, Ickes Papers, LC. Fortas to Lindley Beckworth, House of Representatives, February 24, 1944, Box 1, Series 225, RG 234 (Reconstruction Finance Corporation), NA. Ickes, Diaries, entry for March 11, 1944, p. 8703. Oil and Gas Journal, February 10, 1944.

31 Zook to Ickes, March 3, 1944, File 1–188, Folder 2845, RG 48; Zook, “The Proposed Arabian Pipe Line: A Threat to Our National Security,” April 28, 1944, in PIWC, United States Foreign Oil Policy (Washington, 1944); Independent Petroleum Association of America, “An Analysis of the Effect of the Proposed Saudi Arabian Pipeline,” in Documentary History of the PRC, 88–119.

32 Documentary History of the PRC, 72–79. Miller, George A., “U.S. Foreign Policy For Oil,” Mining and Metallurgy (March 1944). Miller's article was based on an interview with Lovejoy.

33 Brown to Stimson, March 15, 1944, ABC 679 (5–2–43), Section 2, RG 319, NA.

34 FDR to Ickes, May30, 1944; the letter is in Ickes, Diaries, entry for May 28, 1944, 8941–55. FDR to Ickes, June 12, 1944; FDR to Senator Francis Maloney, June 12, 1944, PRC File, Rox 21, Davies Papers. Andrew Carter to Secretary of the Navy, June 17, 1944, File 36–1–30, Box 69, RG 80, NA. Charles Rayner to Undersecretary of State Stettinius, May 5, 1944, DS 800.6363/1656. James Forrestal, Acting Secretary of the Navy, memorandum of a conversation with Stettinius, May 5, 1944, PRC Folder #3, Box 1, PD. Forrestal indicated that little would be lost as far as the present war was concerned by postponing the Saudi pipeline, “but the main thing is to keep our feet on the ground in concessions in that area.” See as well the memorandum “Justification of Trans-Arabian Pipeline,” June 8, 1944, PRC File, Box 1, Davies Papers (no author).

35 U.S. Congress, Senate, Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program. Subcommittee Concerning Investigations Overseas. Report, Section 1-Petroleum Matters. S, Report 10, Part 15, 78th Congress, 2nd Session, 1944. See Riddle, D. H., The Truman Committee: A Study in Congressional Responsibility (New Brunswick, N.J., 1964). U.S. Congress, Senate, Special Committee Investigating Petroleum Resources, American Petroleum Interests in Foreign Countries, Hearings, 79th Congress, 1st Session, 1945; Hearings, Petroleum Requirements—Postwar, 79th Congress, 1st Session, 1946.

36 Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program, S. Report 10, Part 15, 1944, 550.

37 Ibid., pp. 514–16. Leo Crowley to Hugh Fulton, Chief Counsel, Truman Committee, February 10, 1944, DS 800.6363/1632; Charles Rayner to Hull, February 9, 1944, DS 800.6363/2–944.

38 The other members of the committee were: Tom Connally, Texas (Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee); Joseph O'Mahoney, Wyoming; Edwin Johnson, Colorado; Scott Lucas, Illinois; Burret Maybanks, South Carolina; Arthur Vandenburg, Michigan; E. H. Moore, Oklahoma; Owen Brewster, Maine; Chan Gurney, South Dakota; Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., Wisconsin. U.S. Congress, Senate, Investigation of Petroleum Resources in Relation to the National Welfare, Final Report of the Special Committee Investigating Petroleum Resources, 80th Congress, 1st Session, 1947, p. 3. Maloney to Ickes, June 14, 1944, PRC File, Box 21, Davies Papers, Truman Library.

39 The quotation is from the Hearings of the subcommittee on multinational corporations, Harold Ickes, An Oil Policy: An Open Letter to the Members of the Congress of the United States (May 30, 1947), 3.

40 Lindblom, Charles, Politics and Markets. The World's Political-Economic Systems (New York, 1977), 171–79. The best examination of the bureaucratic politics model is Allison, Graham, Essence of Decision (Boston, 1971); see as well his article “Bureaucratic Politics: A Paradigm and Some Policy Implications,” World Politics, XXIV (Spring, 1972, Supplement), 40–79.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented to a session of the Organization of American Historians, April 1981. The author would like to express his appreciation for the comments offered at that time by Joan Hoff Wilson, Bennett Wall, and Michael Hogan.

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