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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 26 · Number 1 · Fall 2008

After Thoughts

A Look at 1908

It was a year of military might, Wright flight and American unease.

In 1908 the U.S. stood on the verge of becoming the world’s mightiest military and economic nation. It could send armed forces around the world, and its factories could send affordable automobiles around the country. But Americans were also anxious about what these developments would do to their country. The newspaper headlines of that year reflected both pride and worry about America’s new strengths.

Evidence of American might sailed up the Pacific Coast early in 1908, in the form of a white-painted fleet of U.S. Navy battleships and their accompanying escorts. President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the fleet from Virginia in December 1907; in February 1908 the ships sailed through the Straits of Magellan, near the southern tip of South America, and on May 8, 44 warships stood in San Francisco Bay in four orderly columns. On July 7 the fleet sailed West, and in Oct-ober it arrived in Yokohama harbor, greeted by thousands of Japanese schoolchildren singing the U.S. national anthem.

Californians loved the spectacle and also loved Roosevelt, its principal producer. The president said he would not run for re-election, but early returns in the Republican primary showed Californians giving him more votes than his designated successor, William Howard Taft (the final count gave Taft the primary, and he handily won election in the fall). California politicians backed Roosevelt’s plan to get more battleships per year from Congress—Westerners always worried about an attack from the sea.

Although popular, the white fleet and the new battleships did not represent the real future of the U.S. military. More important were two other actions abetted by Roosevelt that came to fruition in 1908. Congress approved money for new submarines, and the Wright brothers, under military contract, took an aircraft a record-breaking time aloft. As one newspaper predicted, the airplanes would send battleships to the “junk heap.” Even the fleet’s first feat was being undermined by diggers in the Isthmus of Panama who were removing more than 2 million cubic yards of earth each month to make sure that American ships would never again need to brave Tierra del Fuego to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But the fleet had tremendous symbolic value, especially to Californians anxious about Japan. The rising empire across the Pacific defeated Russia in 1905, in a war whose conclusion Roosevelt brokered. Thousands of Japanese came to the U.S. each year. The San Francisco school board precipitated an international crisis between the two countries by implementing segregation of Japanese American children (and the California Legislature would go on to consider bills to make the school segregation statewide). Roosevelt defused the tensions by negotiating a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with the Japanese government—Japan agreed to restrict emigration while the U.S. agreed not to discriminate against the Japanese who were here. It took effect in 1908, even as some Californians were still lobbying Congress for statutory immigration restriction.

The white fleet’s sail across the Pacific would, many Californians hoped, awe the Japanese with the power of the U.S. Navy. But the voyage taught Roosevelt the opposite lesson. American outposts could not adequately service the ships, which had to borrow British coal as they crossed the ocean. American strategists believed that the U.S. could not defend its colony in the Philippines against an attack from Japan, and in 1908 the Roosevelt administration rejected plans to push back the Japanese in Manchuria and instead signed the Root-Takahira Agreement, which effectively conceded Japan’s freedom to act on the Pacific’s western shore, buying time for America’s further military and industrial development.

As evidence of that industrial development, in 1908 Ford first produced the Model T, which transformed country life, eliciting calls for better roads and links to the cities, along which Americans moved easily and sometimes permanently. Americans were quickly becoming an urban people. In the summer of 1908, Roosevelt established a Country Life Commission to find ways of improving the quality of farm life.

In sum, the year illustrated America’s grand ambitions—and its inability to quite fulfill them. It was precisely the worry that the U.S. might develop extraordinary military machinery and a few highly developed cities while remaining an underdeveloped country through much of its territory that led Congressman Justin Morrill to seek federal funding for universities in the 19th century. He wanted to ensure that America could continue to enjoy “cheap bread” and export its produce to the world. Morrill’s 1862 law creating the land-grant universities, of which the University of California was among the first, began to implement his vision.

And as Morrill himself found over the ensuing decades, it took constant refinements to ensure that the universities and the nation stayed competitive with the world’s rising powers. He sponsored further laws, and the universities introduced further improvements, to keep America strong; the creation of a new campus, the University Farm at Davis, was one more step in that progression.

Eric Rauchway photo

(Paul Estabrook)

Eric Rauchway is professor of history at UC Davis and the author of, most recently, The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction and Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America.