History of Socialized Medicine in America

Part 10 of 11 in the series Notes on Socialism

The history of socialized medicine in America is an interesting read1 given President Barack Obama’s recent interview with C-Span on health care reform (see video below).

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Writing in the Medical Sentinel in 2002, Dr. Edward R. Annis, former president of the American Medical Association, traced the history of socialized medicine in the United States:

We are at war — an unconventional war. I am not referring to our nation’s war against the terrorists — no. I am referring to war as described by Webster as being in a state of forceful opposition. It has been carried on for a number of years, slowly, craftily and by surreptitious incrementalism with such success that most doctors fail to realize its true origins or the sources of its present strength.

In the 1920s, England had a group of primarily wealthy heirs, writers and self-styled intellectuals who founded the Fabian Society, its aim to transform Britain into a socialist society.

They were the authors of permeation which purpose was to infiltrate major political parties so that socialistic programs could be implemented no matter which party was in power.

Shortly thereafter the Fabians assisted the formation of a sister society in the United States called the Intercollegiate Socialistic Society. Because it failed to take hold, it wasn’t long before they changed the name to The League for Industrial Democracy.

The League continued its efforts through the twenties and thirties without obtaining any substantial support for widespread socialism. Around 1932 they tried to get President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to incorporate medical care along with social security for the elderly, but FDR then said no because “it would lead to socialized medicine,” which he opposed. I remember: I was in my pre-med at the University of Detroit and on the debate team.

It was in the late thirties that they revised their efforts toward incrementalism whereby they would first seek to socialize medicine for the elderly and then pursue their overall objective, one by one.

After changing their name again – this time to the Union for Democratic Action – “their influence began to gain strength and they played a major role in the introduction of the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill to provide medical care for the American people via Social Security.”

Dr. Annis went on to write:

Edward_R._Annis In 1947, for the third time, the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill was defeated and the Republicans took over the majorities in both House and Senate. This led admitted socialist, labor leader Walter Reuther to meet with Harvard socialist historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who with only a few leaders of the Union for Democratic Action organized to change the name to the Americans for Democratic Action.

In that same year, 1947, Schlesinger wrote in Partisan Review, “If socialism is to preserve democracy, it must be brought about step by step, in a way which will not disrupt the fabric of custom. The transition must be piecemeal — it must be parliamentary, it must respect civil liberties and the due process of law.” And from a later passage, “Socialism then appears quite practicable within this framework of reference as a long-term proposition.”

In 1949, two years later, for the fourth time, the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill was introduced, having obtained widespread media attention and increased political strength. This caused the AMA leadership to hire a public relations firm, Whitaker & Baxter, to conduct a national campaign to educate physicians and patients, assisting those who again defeated Wagner-Murray-Dingell.

Following this victory, doctors went back to practicing medicine, while labor leaders, headed by Walter Reuther, continued their efforts towards implementing socialized medicine.

Americans_for_Democratic_Action In 1957, resurrected by the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)2, the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill became the Forand Bill. It was introduced by Aime Forand of Rhode Island at the urging of socialist Nelson Cruikshank of the AFL-CIO and socialist Andrew Biemiller, congressman from Wisconsin. Aime Forand admitted he had never even read the Bill but introduced it following their requests.

Andrew Biemiller was defeated in 1950 at the same time that Claude Pepper, who had adopted Reuther’s philosophy for government, was defeated. It was also in 1950 Florida physicians organized the Florida Medical Committee for Better Government, which had been helpfuI in Pepper’s defeat. That committee later became FLAMPAC. President Harry Truman’s previously admitted support was not evidenced and the Forand Bill died in committee.

Reuther and his AFL-CIO people continued their efforts, and the King Anderson Bill was introduced by Representative Cecil King of California and Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico. The King Anderson Bill sought to socialize all citizens over age 65, rich and poor alike, to be financed by Social Security.

Meanwhile, with strong support from Democratic leadership, an alternative bill was introduced, the Kerr-Mills Bill. This Kerr-Mills Bill was designed to help the really needy people over 65 years of age. It did not require penury; it did not demand sales of home or property, and it was designed especially for those who were bereft of adequate income.

With strong support from the AMA and the leadership of the two most powerful Democrats, Kerr-Mills was pushed by Democratic leaders like Senator Smathers of Florida, Herlong of Florida, Watts of Kentucky, Long of Louisiana, Russell of Georgia and Curtis of Nebraska.

Sen. Ted Kennedy then introduced an amendment, pushed by Reuther, to cover everybody over 65 to be paid for with Social Security taxes, but it was defeated.

With tremendous bilateral support in the House, followed by a Senate vote of 89-2, Kerr-Mills was passed on August 23, 1960. A couple of weeks later it was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower and became law.

The Kerr-Mills Law was then sent to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) for implementation, but here Reuther’s minions took over. Charged with the responsibility to implement the law, they instead put forth every effort to prevent its operations. As I traveled and spoke around the country to urge implementation of Kerr-Mills, I repeatedly ran into HEW Undersecretary Ivan Nestigan, Assistant Secretary; admitted socialist Wilbur Cohen; plus Zumas and Quigly — other princlpals, who determined to sabotage Kerr-Mills, kept repeating that Kerr-Mills did not do enough and that we needed King Anderson, which Reuther and Kennedy were still espousing to take care of everybody over 65 – their first step toward their ultimate goal to fully socialize medicine.

Despite this strong opposition, Kerr-Mills continued to expand. Signed into law in September 1960, by August 1961 it was in the process of implementation in 33 states. By November 1964, 39 states and the District of Columbia had established programs providing medical assistance for the aged. All covered hospital services, 30 covered nursing home care, 34 covered doctors’ visits, and 25 covered prescription drugs.

Despite its favorable progress the power changed suddenly on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson became president. The continuing power of Walter Reuther was quickly demonstrated. I have in my office a copy of LBJ’s appointment schedule the morning after Kennedy’s assassination. It was obtained from the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, and heading the list — in spot number one — Walter Reuther.

It is significant to note that President Kennedy seemed to shrug off the entire array of welfare state programs promoted by the Americans for Democratic Action, and was quoted as saying, “I never joined the ADA, I never have felt comfortable with those people.”

Just three years before the assassination, the ADA had berated then Senator Lyndon Johnson for bottling up their bills in committee, but having been elected to the presidency by way of Walter Reuther and his labor millions, Johnson kept his promise to Reuther and King Anderson was again introduced, this time as House Bill #1 and Senate Bill #1.

Medicare During the week leading up to the debates, I still spoke to preserve Kerr-Mills. But with the ADA, backed by Reuther and reportedly hundreds of millions of AFL-CIO dollars, not only was Johnson elected but also 51 newly hand-picked members of Congress. I wish that I had kept copies of the brochure later distributed by the AFL-CIO. It showed a picture of the House and Senate assembly in the House Chambers with the caption: “51 did it — The Great Society with Medicare its crowning glory!”

During the last week before the final vote for the again King Anderson legislation, I was in Washington. When I arrived, as usual, I went first to the AMA Washington office.

I was then told that two congressmen had asked that, if I was in Washington, I come by their offices. Both related parallel stories. “Dr. Annis, I don’t always agree with the AMA but this time you guys are right — it is bad legislation; however, if I vote with you, you will still lose. I have been called to the White House, and if I vote with you, the people I represent will suffer so I have no choice.”

Another congressman told me that during an earlier visit by one of Reuther’s men to solicit his vote, “I pointed to a large box filled with letters and told him, ‘Look at all those letters, all against you,’ only to be told, ‘Mr. Congressman, we elected this Congress, not your letter writers.’ ”

Later that same day I visited four other offices only to be told, “I haven’t read the Bill, I don’t intend to read the Bill, but I have to vote for it.”

A visit to Wilbur Mills received a similar story. He said, “They have packed my committee, they have packed Senator Kerr’s committee, and there is nothing that we can do about it. Johnson controls this Congress.”

Thus, it was sheer political power and nothing else that introduced the seeds of government invasion into medicine and their growth to provide the mess we are in today.

Looking back on how successful the Fabians were in introducing socialized medicine in America, Dr. Annis reflected:

. . . the ADA laid claim to the accumulating billions of dollars in union war chests derived from steadily-flowing, withheld wages from millions of workers, whether or not they chose to belong to the Union. Few voters realize the socialistic origins of the Americans for Democratic Action as they are persuaded to vote for liberal legislators seeking ever greater government controls.

Though unsuccessful in their earlier years, true to Schlesinger’s promise by pursuing both permeation and incrementalism, the socialists have made great progress and today have willing disciples in both Houses of Congress and both political parties, though their greatest power and numbers still dominate in the Democratic Party.

What I have related is not an exaggerated fantasy. It is in fact true history and provides a realistic perspective as to how the Lilliputian-like bands have been steadily applied to harness our profession. In our society, things don’t happen — people make them happen!


  1. Annis, Edward R., M.D. “Towards Socialized Medicine: A Historic Chronology”. 23 May 2009.
  2. See Bacevich on Reinhold Niebuhr for a related post on this organization.
Series NavigationJ. Reuben Clark, Jr. on Health Care Reform

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  1. DavidH’s avatar

    We already have socialized police forces, socialized roads, socialized public libraries, socialized fire fighters, and socialized education (even the conservative voucher programs would still take from all taxpayers to pay the expense of educating all children, regardless of the income of the parents–should it not be the parents’ responsibility to come up with the money to educate their children?). I think our current socialization of medicine–providing for the aged and for the poor–is perfectly appropriate and benefits all of society, just as the socialization of education costs for the young also benefits society as a whole.

  2. John’s avatar

    The AMA has fought against any kind of health care reform for as long as I can remember. They are as responsible as anyone for the historic shift of doctors from management to labor — unprecedented in our society — and the subservience of doctors to insurance companies, which I would be hard-pressed not to view as a form of corporate socialism or fascism or some kind of ism. Had they been willing to work with government and insurers and business and industry to provide coverage for all Americans at any time along the way, we wouldn’t be discussing this issue today. Where we are heading is a necessary reform of the system that even business and industry are eager to see happen. It is only socialism to those right-wing reactionaries who see any kind of change or improvement as a bad thing. They’ve cried wolf for most of my lifetime. I simply don’t buy it any more.

  3. RickM’s avatar

    We already have a form of socialized medicine in practice in America. Those of you that have evr been to, or been treated at a VA hospital should know what to expect when looking forward to the type of healthcare the government will provide.

  4. FarLeftRx’s avatar

    Whoever that [edited] was who compared socialized medicine to the beneficent effects of socialized education hit the nail on the head. Our public education system is in complete shambles and tries to do little but indoctrinate its captive army of future voters into the horrors of capitalism and the goodness of public programs, while turning out graduates who can’t read or draw a logical conclusion (the hoped-for results, by the way). With a standard like that to aspire to, socialized medicine doesn’t have to do very much, nor is it intended to do much but create a society of voters fearful to do anything but vote for Demofiends.

  5. Greg’s avatar

    Thanks John. I guess it comes down to entitlements and who is in charge of redistributing these benefits to society. At least from a historical perspective, according to Dr. Annis, socialized medicine was introduced into this country by a group of loyal socialists in both political parties. While it would appear that some may now be labeled “reactionaries”, given this history, I wonder if the socialist movement in this country was in fact a reaction in consequence to the capitalist forces of society. Either way, capitalists and socialists seem to have many similarities. Look for a new post on this idea called dialectical materialism.

  6. Greg’s avatar

    Good point! See the Washington Post article “It is Just Not Walter Reed” in support of this point of view.

  7. Greg’s avatar

    Even though Dr. Annis pointed out that the Fabians infiltrated “major political parties so that socialistic programs could be implemented no matter which party was in power”, the Democratic party does seem to take the lead in social programs intended to benefit all. However, it seems that leaders from both political parties express a false solicitude for the unfortunate in order to gain political capital.

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