During World War II, Henry J. Kaiser was a major producer of America's “arsenal of democracy.” The Kaiser Richmond shipyards launched 747 ships; the yards in the Portland, Ore., area produced 743. Kaiser built cargo ships, tankers, fighting ships, and airplanes. Biographer Mark S. Foster dubbed him a “patriot in pinstripes.”
But Kaiser was no hawk. His eye was always on the human impact of the war, and his vision was focused on postwar reconstruction. He expressed these themes in a speech he gave in December, 1943:
Ironical as it must appear, the war has taught us to employ our vast resources and to multiply them a million-fold by power and the machine. The war has taught us how to train men and women quickly for new trades so that the labor, which is displaced by the machine can be quickly adapted to new techniques. In the dread circumstances of war, we have brought employment to the peak, and efficiency to an all-time high...[but] If we rebuild a world of monopoly and special privilege, we will taste a defeat as bitter as a victory for the Axis powers.
His employment record of 190,000 home front workers was unequalled, embracing the most diverse workforce to date in American history. While it’s true that as the war progressed, Kaiser had no choice but to hire workers beyond the standard industrial pool, he also did so without hesitation. He’d managed a diverse workforce in his construction business (such as while roadbuilding in Cuba in the 1920s) and learned how to adjust the work process to fit those who were doing it. His personal philosophy was to encourage the full development of all people.
He pushed back as much as he could against the unions that resisted change (most notoriously, the shipyard Boilermakers Union initially refused to hire women and blacks as equals to white workers), and went to great lengths to “accommodate” the needs of the new workforce — child care centers, special medical education programs, ability-based job placement, affordable health care — all things that he believed were of value to the postwar society as well.
He was the patron sponsor of the integrated service organization for merchant mariners, who operated his ships and suffered terribly during the war.
As Allied victory began to appear certain, he redoubled his plans for the next phase of history. His October 17, 1944, speech “Jobs for All” in New York eloquently described his views:
On this one fact, there is unanimous agreement: every man in the American Forces has the right to come home not only to a job, but to peace. Anything less would be a denial of the true American way of life. Peace means so much more than a cessation of hostilities! Peace is a state of mind. It is based on the sense of security…Often I am classified as a dreamer, particularly when I talk about health insurance. To live abundantly and take part in a productive economy, our people must have health.
Let us be inspired by Henry Kaiser and honor our veterans, honor our home front workers, honor peace.