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Raising America Back on Its Feet

A Review of Harold Ickes’ Back To Work: The Story of PWA

Harold L. Ickes received a B.A. and law degree from the University of Chicago. However, he focused on politics, becoming a well known political figure by 1933 and was selected for FDR’s cabinet as a Progressive Republican. Ickes is most famous for his contributions toward Roosevelt’s New Deal, holding the position of head of the PWA.


In the midst of America’s worst economic crisis in history, the government put together an administration to raise the nation out of the depression. Formed as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act in June of 1933, the Public Works Administration (PWA) was granted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt the unparalleled job of turning the country’s economy around by generating the production of public works by giving loans and reducing the amount of unemployment. Faced with “the greatest sum of money ever raised by a nation for a peace-time purpose” – $3.7 billion – the administration boasted an enormous amount of responsibility.1 Opposite a daunting and unprecedented task, the PWA, having been given the seemingly simple instructions to “give the maximum amount of employment at an adequate level of wages,” held the fate of the nation upon its shoulders.2 In his book Back to Work: The Story of PWA, Harold L. Ickes, the head of the administration himself, describes not only the planning and organization of the PWA but the long lasting effects and positive improvements it brought to America.

The first portion of the book is dedicated to an explanation of the internal structure of the PWA and how the administration came to be. Beginning with a history of the nation’s industrial arrangement, Ickes goes into detail of America’s pre-depression economic structure. Construction was the nation’s second leading industry behind agriculture. Even though many of the country’s structures have been created by the government with help from the public, the majority of building done was completed as part of private projects. With an incomparable amount of 12 billion dollars a year imparted toward construction from 1926 to 1929, the United States led the world. Plus, compared to other countries, America could proudly boast free labor and high wages for workers.3 Having constituted such a large part of the nation’s upbringing, the construction industry plummeted in the depression of 1929, bringing down the livelihood of millions of workers, raising the unemployment rate drastically. In response to this disaster, President Roosevelt, along with many other senators and government employees, worked towards convincing other senators of the necessity of a public works program system to improve the quality of the nation’s economy. Prepared and anticipating the act’s passage, organization of the administration began before the act was even approved. Once permitted, with Harold Ickes’s leadership, PWA had to “formulate policies for the allotment of the money and then to oversee its distribution.”4 With no committee given this duty before, the board members needed to decide on many important issues dealing with the distribution of the money. In the process, conflicts regarding the organization of the administration arose, including quarrels over the interest rate, speed of allocation, and location of distributions. Feeling as though given “a responsibility probably greater than had ever been given an officer of the government, other than the president, in time of peace, since the country was founded,” Ickes set out at once to appoint the most qualified men as members of the committee.5 After a lot of hard work, he collated a staff of over three thousand workers to help carry through the administration’s procession.

Once the overwhelming task of organizing the administration was carried out, the apportionment of money could be carried through. In the next sections of Back to Work¸ Ickes goes into detail of various categories that the government money was shared with, their significance to the rehabilitation of the country, and their benefits. Given “[a]pproximately one-eight of the entire sum appropriated by Congress for the first public works program,” the grant for the construction of roads held significance.6 Not only beneficial to rural areas of the country, large highways increased profits for farmers, further raising their standards of living and improving their families’ lives while also holding importance for the travel of tourists. Another huge advantage was that road construction provided a large number of jobs to men. With “more money [going into] direct labor…than any other kind of work,” road construction improved the status of employment. In the 20th century, though the locomotive dominated communication across and within the nation, gasoline powered vehicles reigned supreme, bringing benefits to both urban and rural dwellers, including an increase in the availability of schoolhouses and hospitals. Next, Ickes describes the work done by the PWA on the nation’s water supply. Increasing the number of reclamation projects, the PWA sought to “[give] fertile lands an opportunity to bear crops and life by making water available.”7 Reclamation became “the chief factor in averting the economic collapse of the West,” not only providing a large amount of jobs but also preventing disaster in times of drought and preventing floods by improving the potential of crop output by farmers.8 Another subject of PWA’s money was power production. This focused on the seizure and utilization of the potential power supply that the nation’s natural running water provides. Through the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally-owned government corporation created as part of the New Deal, cheap affordable electric power became increasingly available to Americans, boosting living status and providing the opportunity for them to use their saved money towards other goods and services.

Furthermore, Ickes carries on with descriptions of the services the PWA provided the nation. “[A]n important figure in the social and commercial life of a country” that Ickes regarded very highly, the traveler also was provided with aid.9 In addition to roads, the lives of travelers were improved with works done on railroads. The railroad industry immensely benefited workers who were previously unemployed. Not only were a large number of workers needed, but the industry itself also manifested a need of many indirect sources, further spreading positive influence on employment beyond direct locations. Also, the Navy and Coast Guard received aid, while help towards the construction of lighted airways took place as well. In fact, the PWA aided the Public Health Service (PHS) as it strove to improve the health of the nation, further increasing the quality of life of citizens and indirectly lowering unemployment rates by keeping the amount of healthy, able workers high. To assist the PHS, which often suffered due to lack of funds, the PWA allotted funds which summed up to more than eight million dollars towards construction and services, including disease control and drainage systems. Lastly, the PWA granted assistance to one final area: the improvement of living and replacement of slums with more decent housing. Although difficult to organize, the construction of low cost homes and the destruction of slums were carried out in the hopes of not only improving the quality of life of citizens, but of improving the quality of communities across the country. Also, the separation of subsistence homesteads was carried through, all with the goals of not only wellbeing and municipality improvement but also employment enhancement.

Moreover, Ickes discusses the benefits of work and the success of and criticism towards the PWA. Clearing up any confusion, he describes how “70 to 80 percent of practically every construction project allotment [went] for wages.”10 Plus, he goes into detail how not only skilled, but unskilled and semi-skilled workers have benefited as well. In order to become employed, potential workers had to have been “obtained from either the United States Employment Service of the Department of Labor or the local trade union headquarters.”11 Direct employment of workers led to more jobs, causing a need for outsides resources and leading to indirect employment. This shows how the work of the PWA was widespread and without boundaries. Reflecting the work of the PWA at the time he was writing Back to Work¸ Ickes also describes mistakes made by the administration and what lessons were learned by these as well as criticism towards the PWA. Countering arguments against its slow pace, he argued that the PWA primarily strived to provide jobs – not to implement tasks as quickly as possible. Other arguments against the administration included criticism against the way it allotted money. In response to this, Ickes writes how the “PWA sought to…get honest work at honest wages on honest projects,” noting how this was a great deal more difficult than just handing money out.12 In the final chapter of the book, Ickes describes the future goals of the PWA and how its benefits will be long lasting and far reaching.

From the beginning of the book to the very end, readers duly note Ickes’s message concerning the PWA. His thesis regards how beneficial the PWA was in the healing of the nation and is clearly recognizable in his clear language, apparent tone, and precise main points. In order to prove his main position, he successfully organizes his book comprehensibly with categorized chapters. Additionally, he includes a large number of examples to productively prove his views while contributing reliable data to establish credibility. He also includes primary responses praising the administration which further his opinions. He effectively brings his thesis across through his well-planned organization in addition to his conciseness in presenting opposing views and admitting to previous failures. Bringing up infrequent letdowns of the committee, he says that “we have always tried to keep our minds open and when our mistakes were brought home to us we let no pride of opinion stand in the way of correcting them,” indicating his understanding of growth and positive attitude.13 Also vital to the book is the author’s point of view. Ickes held the position of Secretary of the Interior even before being appointed the prestigious position as leader of the PWA. In writing this book he held the obvious viewpoints that came along with his occupations. As the head and sole leader, he presented his thoughts clearly and supported the administration’s national contributions as best as he could, promoting its successes. An understandable bit of prejudice comes with his holding this position, but he does well in providing his opinions and offering counterarguments to differing perspectives. Additionally, when analyzing the author’s point of view, readers must consider historiography. Written in the midst of the depression, Ickes presents his viewpoint of the PWA and its success from a straightforward angle. Having been written during the time the PWA’s work was being carried through, he cannot present any views in retrospect. Plus, he writes of the successes of the administration but his points may seem more positive than in reality because of destitution of the Great Depression. Minor successes could possibly be amplified when compared to the nation’s disastrous state of being. Had the book been written at a later time, say, after the PWA’s works had been carried out, the book would have been a different one; a reflection on the administration’s long term effects and contributions could be made instead.

Two responses to Ickes’s Back to Work in the form of reviews display other opinions of the book. In his 1935 review, Joel D. Hunter describes the author’s style, point of view, and perspective. He praises the way Ickes organizes his book in sections and includes detail of various industries. He also commends him for writing the book as a primary source to describe what happens. Hunter also mentions some of Ickes’s main points and arguments and adds that Ickes fails to include some details, including the legal obstacles faced by the administration. To conclude, Hunter states that Back to Work is “an excellent popular presentation of the PWA organization showing the scrupulous care with which projects have been selected and the philosophy which has led to the choice of certain projects.”14 Grayson L. Kirk of the University of Wisconsin also reviewed Ickes’s book in 1935. Mentioning, similarly to Hunter, the clear and easy to read style of Ickes, Kirk also speak well of Ickes’s work, claiming that “[i]f it has the wide audience which it deserves, this book will do much to dispel the fears and criticisms of those who for some reason or another have been hostile to this greatest of all ‘prime the pump’ projects.”15 Clearly a fan of the PWA’s work, Kirk goes on to praise Ickes’s personal characteristics and resolute, hard-working nature. He concludes that although some points were not made in excessive detail, Back to Work is a clear and adequate guide for the common man. All in all, a general statement made from these reviews is that Ickes’s Back to Work presents a satisfactory overview of the successes and works of the PWA for American citizens to indulge in.

While Ickes’s book is a little tedious at times, with the large amount of pure, unembellished data, it is essentially a satisfactory source, directly written by the PWA’s head administrator himself. Providing the public with a trustworthy inside look into the inner workings of the PWA, it clearly presents the establishment and upholding of the administration. A variety of outside sources, such as photos of actual projects completed by the PWA, helps readers to understand easily his details. Ickes presents the main point of the administration: “to correct the ills of unemployment and again to start the wheels of industry,” very clearly throughout the book. He never fails to tie his main points back to the topic of the improvement of employment, and frequently presents his arguments in regards to the whole country as a whole, trying in the effects of the work done by the administration.16 Always modest, he never boasts of his position as the head, but rather compliments his co- administrators for their dedication. He provides a variety of specific examples, citing the work of the PWA, and also includes direct quotes from municipals/government officials regarding the work the administration has done for them. On the other hand, the book lacks of mention of other agencies of the New Deal. To give sole credit to the PWA for the improvement of America’s economy and industries would be to ignore the other contributions made by the countless other administrations.

Marking a watershed in American history, the PWA altered previously held practices and ideas, creating lasting impressions on the development of America. In a time of great turmoil and desperation, administrators took up the challenge and personally put into their own hands to help raise the nation back to its feet. A governmental administration uniquely organized, it was an extremely difficult task that required great planning and collaboration to carry it through, especially since “there was no precedent for what [they] had to do, since never before had there been a construction program on such a scale.”17

When speaking of how the PWA brought change to previous thoughts, critics must mention the main concept of the administration. Using government money to revitalize the economy was a new idea at the time, and with the PWA as an example, it proved to be successful. Helping to bring the country out of its depression, the administration greatly affected the wellbeing of America, potentially preventing even worse disasters up the road and setting a model. Additionally, the PWA stood as a fabulous example of the positive effects of a well-organized, well-planned administration with Ickes’s determination to keep it free of politics, maintain the fairness in loan giving, and prevent corruption at all costs. Its purity set examples for administrations to come, having made one of its goals the overthrow of “the cynical belief that no governmental body could be trusted with a large sum of money.”18 In light of today’s economic position, the PWA stands strong as the epitome of achievement.

Given the unmatched task of revitalizing the nation, the administrators of the PWA did a fabulous job. As described in Ickes’s Back to Work, “the gathering together of a staff of expert and trained men and women to undertake this huge new task for the people of the United States” was “a notable achievement” and should not be looked down upon.19 With a clear thesis and an organized structure, Back to Work effectively presents a variety of successes of the PWA for Americans to understand how this administration truly brought change to the country in a time of need.



1: Ickes, Harold. Back to Work: The Story of PWA. New York: Da Capo Press, 1935. 1.
2: Ickes, Harold. 22.
3: Ickes, Harold. 3.
4: Ickes, Harold. 22.
5: Ickes, Harold. 54.
6: Ickes, Harold. 81.
7: Ickes, Harold. 108.
8: Ickes, Harold. 109, 119.
9: Ickes, Harold. 148.
10: Ickes, Harold. 198.
11: Ickes, Harold. 201.
12: Ickes, Harold. 216.
13: Ickes, Harold. 214.
14: Hunter, Joel D. The Social Service Review. The University of Chicago Press, 1935. 780 - 781.
15: Kirk, Grayson L. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. American Academy of political and Social Science, 1935. 193 - 194.
16: Ickes, Harold. vii.
17: Ickes, Harold. 2.
18: Ickes, Harold. 36.
19: Ickes, Harold. 61.

Student Bio

Katy Crestol is just an ordinary student eager to make it through high school. Involved in various music classes and the girls’ soccer program, she enjoys spending time outdoors and hopes to in the future attend college and ultimately pursue a career with animals.


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