April 13, 2010

Henry J. Kaiser: America’s No. 1 civilian hero

Henry J. Kaiser was featured as "Shipbuilder No. 1" in a 1943 Real Heroes comic book.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Sixty-five years ago this year Henry J. Kaiser emerged on the American scene as the single most popular civilian hero of World War II, which came to an end in 1945.

Comic book panel featuring Henry J. Kaiser as 'Shipbuilder No. 1' in a 1943 Real Heroes comic book.

It was a Roper Poll that spring that reported that—in the words of Stephen B. Adams, author of “Mr. Kaiser goes to Washington”—the American public “believed Kaiser had done more to help the president win the war than any other civilian.”

A Gallup Poll a few months later found Kaiser at the top of the list of people Americans thought should be president—with Kaiser trailing only Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. It is no surprise, then, that Kaiser was on President Roosevelt’s short list for vice president when he chose Harry Truman in the election of 1944.

Why not Kaiser? One answer comes from Michael Dobrin, guest curator of a special exhibit on Kaiser’s life at the Oakland Museum of California in 2004, who concluded Kaiser was too progressive for Democratic Party leaders.

“…Conservative party insiders—probably sensing coming postwar struggles over civil rights—balked at his overt advocacy of voter education, voters’ rights and support for unions,” Dobrin wrote in The Museum of California Magazine. “His name was dropped from the list.”

The public’s admiration for Henry Kaiser—whose most enduring legacy is co-founding with surgeon Sidney R. Garfield the medical care program that bears his name—lasted up to and beyond the end of his life in 1967. Indeed, he was so beloved that when he died in 1967 mourners flooded his memorial service with more than 20,000 white and red roses—said to be the entire supply of all florists in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was in addition to thousands of orchids and other flora from people in the Hawaiian Islands.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in condolences sent to Kaiser’s family, “Henry J. Kaiser embodied in his own career all that has been best in our country’s tradition. His own energy, imagination and determination gave him greatness—and he used that greatness to give unflaggingly for the betterment of his country and his fellow man.”

Today, of course, his efforts—and the legendary labor of almost a quarter million men and women of all races who worked for him in his West Coast ship building operations—are honored by the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif., which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Interested in learning more about Henry J. Kaiser? Here are three good books, any one of which you might find in a local library (or for sale online):

“Henry J. Kaiser: Builder in the Modern American West,” Mark S. Foster, University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, 1991.

“Henry J. Kaiser: Western Colossus,” Albert P. Heiner, Halo Books, San Francisco, Calif., 1991.

“Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington, The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur,” Stephen B. Adams, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1997.