It’s not every day a first lady visits a Kaiser facility, but it happened in the middle of World War II — and she visited 2.
Eleanor Roosevelt came to the Kaiser Company shipyard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington to personally launch the U.S.S. Casablanca, the first in a new class of small, versatile and inexpensive aircraft carriers.
The class was named for the Battle of Casablanca, fought November 8-12, 1942, where the U.S. Navy fought vessels under the control of Nazi-occupied France. The 50 ships the Kaiser yards produced comprised almost a third of the American carriers built during the war and were launched in less than 2 years.
The ship was known as the Alazon Bay while under construction and renamed the U.S.S. Casablanca 2 days before she slid down the ways on April 5, 1943. Five of the “baby flattops” were sunk in action during the war, and none survive today.
But Eleanor wasn’t just there for the latest in military technology. She was more interested in the social programs affiliated with the massive shipbuilding projects, including child care, prepared meals for double-duty women, and health care.
Henry J. Kaiser listened to her and responded by introducing two controversial (at the time) programs for shipyard workers – model child care facilities near two of the shipyards and pre-cooked meals for working moms.
As for health care, Mr. Kaiser needed no convincing. Mrs. Roosevelt was given a grand tour of the state-of-the-art Northern Permanente Foundation Hospital built in September, 1942 for the shipyard workers.
Eleanor wrote a regular newspaper column, “My Day.” Her April 7, 1943, entry included this reflection on the Portland visit:
A little after 9 o'clock Monday morning we were met in Portland, Oregon, by Mr. Henry J. Kaiser and his son Mr. Edgar Kaiser. A group of young Democrats presented me with a lovely bunch of red roses at the airport and then we were whisked off for a busy day.
Our first tour was in the Kaiser shipyard itself. It is certainly busy and businesslike. Everything seems to be in place and moving as quickly as possible along a regular line of production. I was particularly interested in the housing, so I was shown the dormitories and then the hospital, which is run on a species of health cooperative basis costing the employees seven cents a day. It looked to me very well-equipped and much used, but I was told there were few accidents in the shipyards owing to safety devices. The men come in for medical care and some surgery and their families are also cared for...
The ship went safely down the ways at the appointed time and was duly christened. It was interesting and impressive to see all the workers and their families gathered together for the occasion and I felt there was a spirit of good workmanship in this yard.
Mrs. Roosevelt was so intrigued with the new medical care program that she wrote Permanente’s founding physician, Dr. Sidney R. Garfield, who happened to be away at the time of her visit. “What is your plan for preventive care?” she asked.
Dr. Sidney Garfield replied in a letter May 25, 1943, in which he took the opportunity to explain how aligned the first lady’s vision was with that of the Permanente Health Plan:
I regret very much not to have been present during your recent visit to Vancouver, Washington, and not to have had the opportunity of showing you through our medical facilities and hospitals in the Oakland-Richmond, California area.
Your expression of interest in preventive medicine is rather closely allied with our thoughts for medical care. Mr.Kaiser and I believe that preventive medicine is more important than the curative side. Our medical programs have always been developed with this fact in mind...
Because of the economy of such a medical plan the cost of medical care to the people is lowered. For the small amount charged at Coulee Dam we were able to provide the best of medical care and pay for the hospital facilities provided in a period of four years. When the cost of the facilities is paid for the charge per week to the people can be reduced, or the money used to provide more facilities, added equipment, and for research. Mr. Kaiser and all of us who have had a part in these programs feel that this is the solution of medical care for the majority of people in this country. It is self-sustaining and unites the medical profession, the employer and employee all in one common objective — “to keep the people well and to prevent their illness."
Your interest in our organization is greatly appreciated. If we can be of further service in answering your questions please do not hesitate to call on us.
Sidney R. Garfield, M.D.
Kaiser Co., Inc., West Coast Shipyards
Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt’s light would shine on Kaiser Permanente again.
In 2007 Kaiser Permanente was one of three recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from American Rights at Work, an advocacy and public policy organization responsible for promoting and defending workers’ rights since 2003. Kaiser Permanente received the award for “creating a management-union partnership based on mutual trust and respect.”