Abstract: Henry J. Kaiser and the Semantics of Business Success

Tim Schanetzky


During the depression years of the 1930s, West Coast builder Henry J. Kaiser launched a magnificent career. Building Hoover Dam and contributing to major New Deal projects, Kaiser's business grew rapidly. By 1942, Kaiser was an industrialist and employed 250,000. His shipyards churned out 1,490 vessels during the war and made him a celebrity of home front propaganda. Kaiser makes for an excellent example of the manifold business opportunities launched by big government. Therefore Stephen B. Adams tellingly called Kaiser a "government entrepreneur." Instead of taking Kaiser's political lobbying under scrutiny, I will argue that the proverbial Kaiser pace—in completing major construction contracts as well as in shipbuilding or as a private citizen—was essential for his business strategy during the 1930s and 1940s. In a first step I take a closer look at government contracts and the incentives set up by procurement agencies. By his contractor's experience Kaiser was well prepared for war work. Secondly, I shall stress how Kaiser established a narrative of his person. It would be misleading if the topoi of the Kaiser success story were understood as mere public relations. Rather, the Kaiser organization embraced the narrative and acted accordingly.