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As a showman, Henry J. Kaiser could have put P. T. Barnum to shame. He employed publicists who never seemed to sleep, relentlessly promoting the story of the self-made American who could make roads, dams, bridges, cement factories, and steel mills materialize practically overnight. Kaiser himself was a virtuoso of the telephone, playing the instrument like the Mighty Wurlitzer as he stroked and cajoled government officials in Washington and the high and mighty everywhere, at all hours.

A member of a British government delegation that called on him to negotiate a shipbuilding deal recalled the “pure theater” of their reception: “It was broad daylight outside but when we were ushered into the great man’s office, it was pitch-dark in there except for a small spot light illuminating the white blotter on his desk. He didn’t have an eye complaint. It was all done for effect.” Kaiser liked to have himself photographed against heroic industrial backdrops, riding the hoist on a derrick with some huge construction project in the background. In truth he preferred to stay indoors, gratifying his considerable appetite for fine food, expensive scotch, and good cigars, growing ever more rotund as the years went on.

Kaiser didn’t know anything about building ships; but then he hadn’t known anything about photography when he went into that business as a teenager, or about road paving when he’d gone into that, or about building dams when he’d submitted the winning bid to the federal government in 1931 to build the Boulder Dam. In late 1940, just before the British commission seeking an American builder for sixty cargo ships was due to arrive, Kaiser sent one of his aides to the New York Public Library to check out some books about ships so he and his staff could use the right terminology.

But the fact was that for all the theater, public relations soft soap, adroit lobbying, and Horatio Alger mythmaking, Henry J. Kaiser really did deliver. If he wasn’t the master engineer or financial genius his PR men made him out to be, he had learned how to organize a work force and he had embraced the simple idea of prefabrication as no one ever had for projects of the magnitude he took on. Within six months of securing the British contract—“give me the backing and I’ll build you 200 ships during 1942,” Kaiser had boasted—he had dredged dry docks out of mud flats on San Francisco Bay, brought in huge cranes and thousands of workers, and laid the keel for the first of what would be an unbelievable 1,490 freighters, escort carriers, tankers, and other ships to emerge from his West Coast shipyards during the war.

Because riveting was a skilled trade and its practitioners were in short supply, Kaiser’s men decided their cargo vessels would be prefabricated and welded together. In Embattled Dreams, the historian Kevin Starr relates a Kaiser anecdote that perfectly captures his blend of PR hype and reality: When one of these Liberty ships set a record by sailing out of San Francisco Bay fully laden with war materiel for the Pacific a mere fourteen days after its keel had been laid, Kaiser’s critics dismissed it as a stunt. Large portions of the ship, they said, had been pre assembled ahead of time. Kaiser retorted that that was the whole point.

When Kaiser needed twenty thousand more workers in 1942, he sent representatives across the country to find them. “If they know one end of a monkey wrench from another, we’ll take them as helpers,” a company spokesman said.“If they don’t, we’ll label each end.” It was a hokey line, almost a caricature of American can-do spirit; at the same time it was real. Kaiser’s workers, most of them unskilled, poured in from New York, Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas, and ships continued to pour out. Without making a fuss about it, Kaiser also made clear he was going to ignore race when it came to hiring, despite some union shop rules that barred blacks at the time.

After the war, Kaiser’s critics charged that he’d enriched himself at public expense; that rather than being an industrial genius he was just an adept political string-puller. But no less an authority than Winston Churchill begged to differ. “Without the supply columns of Liberty ships that endlessly plowed the seas between America and England,” Churchill said, “the war would have been lost.” Without Henry J. Kaiser’s gift for showmanship, those ships would never have been built.


Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here