November 24, 2014

Henry J. Kaiser through the eyes of critics

Henry J. Kaiser, circa 1955

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Henry J. Kaiser’s impact on the American industrial landscape of the 1930s through the 1950s was huge, and it’s not surprising that critics from the left and the right scrutinized his operations to draw their own provocative conclusions.

Jean-Paul Sartre, circa 1953.
Jean-Paul Sartre, circa 1953

In 1945, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) visited the United States with a delegation of other writers and filed more than 30 stories for Combat, a major independent left newspaper. His June 6 article “American Workers Are Not Yet Proletarians” looked at the then-evolving Permanente Health Plan:[i]

In America, there is no generalized system of socialized medicine. Everything depends on the states and private initiative. …At the beginning of the war, when Kaiser established his enormous shipyards, which employed more than 100,000 workers, he was confronted with a very practical problem: in order to obtain the highest productivity from this enormous crowd of workers, he had to take care of their health. Therefore he created, with Dr. Garfield's help, the famous Kaiser hospital, whose reputation has spread throughout the United States.

Sartre then drilled down into the difference in class consciousness between American and European workers, pointing out that even though it was worker’s fees that paid for the health plan and hospitals they felt no sense of entitlement to ownership.

An unnamed Permanente physician, sympathetic to Sartre’s critique, still defended the institution:

Look at the tremendous advantages it provides to our workers: last week a woman came in for a consultation; there was blood in her urine. A private doctor would have charged her $10 for this examination. Diagnosis: tuberculosis in her right kidney. It will require a $500 operation: here everything is free. Don't forget also that when a worker is hired, there never is a medical examination. Therefore it often happens that we look after workers whose diseases were contracted well before they were hired by Kaiser. And on top of that, it represents a terrible blow to private medicine. As you know, in America health is "big business;" doctors are very expensive, and we have encountered terrible resistance from the American Medical Association.
Ayn Rand, circa 1953
Ayn Rand, circa 1953

Russian-born author Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was the iconic American promoter of laissez-faire capitalism and the philosophy of “Objectivism.” In 1957 she published Atlas Shrugged, her most famous work. Part of that novel is set at the fictional “Rearden Steel,” which was largely based on her visit to the Kaiser Fontana Steel Plant ten years earlier. In 1948 she reflected on some of those impressions in a letter to a friend, using the opportunity to criticize Kaiser for having too cozy a relationship with a populist president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) of whom she did not approve:

In Chicago, I had a marvelous time on my visit to the Inland Steel plant. That was a real steel mill, not at all like Mr. Kaiser’s WPA [Works Progress Administration 1935-1943; Rand errs here, the facility was built at the beginning of WWII with a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation at the direction of the War Production Board] project in Fontana. It’s funny that I knew that the Fontana plant was a phony, even though I had never seen a real steel plant before.

The General Manager of Inland Steel arranged a luncheon, at which I met all the top executives of the plant. These were… the real working executives of the mills…They were all conservatives and in quite an intelligent way. The stories they told me about their problems with regulations and regimentations are simply hair-raising. Here is a sample:

The Interstate Commerce Commission now controls the distribution of freight cars. They have threatened an embargo on freight cars for deliveries to steel plants, which, if put into effect, would stop the entire steel production of the country. The excuse given is that the steel companies do not empty freight cars fast enough. The real reason — the bureaucrats want freight cars for coal, to ship the coal to Europe.

So there you have it: Henry J. Kaiser was too socialist for Rand and too capitalist for Sartre. Yet Kaiser, and his legacy health care program now known as Kaiser Permanente, continued on and thrived — and remain the targets of social critics.


[i]  "On the American Working Class," Dissent, January 1, 2001