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UC Davis Centennial
100 years of service, solutions, impact
Photo: 1910 Model T Ford

This 1910 Model T Ford, taken as a commercial photo for an advertisement that year, is quite similar to the original 1908 Model T that Henry Ford debuted when UC Davis got its start. (Shipler Commercial Photographers, Harry Shipler/1910 photo)

Looking Back

What was it like in 1908?

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 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.

Bluejackets fired the guns and military bands played the national anthem while hundreds of thousands of spectators lined the waterfronts, cheering. On July 7, the fleet sailed west, bound for Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia, and in October it arrived in Yokohama Harbor, where thousands of Japanese school-children assembled to sing the U.S. national anthem.

Loved the spectacle

Californians loved the spectacle, and also loved Roosevelt, its principal producer. The president said he would not run for reelection, 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 over William Jennings Bryan in the fall).

California politicians backed Roosevelt’s plan to get more battleships a 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.

Anxious about Japan

Photo: in 1907 a portion of the Atlantic fleet sail on a world tour.

“The Great White Fleet” sails in 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt sent a portion of the Atlantic fleet on a world tour to test naval readiness, establish global presence and generate international goodwill. (U.S. Navy photo)

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.

Roosevelt defused the tensions by negotiating a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with the Japanese government that took effect in 1908, even as some Californians were still lobbying for 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.

Model T produced in 1908

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, and Californians faster than the nation as a whole.

In the summer of 1908, Roosevelt established a Country Life Commission to find ways of improving the quality of farm life, which he said “has not kept pace with that of the country as a whole.”

Even life in the cities was markedly more wobbly than Americans liked: the panic of 1907 led to the National Monetary Commission in 1908, whose work paved the way for the creation of the Federal Reserve System, chartered to stabilize America’s economic growth.

In sum, the year illustrated America's grand ambitions, and its inability quite to fulfill them.

Military machinery needed human resources

As it happens 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 which led Congressman Justin Morrill to seek federal funding for universities in the 19th century.

Morrill said, “Our nation has been the first to test the value of iron-clad ships, but we lag immeasurably behind in improving the resources to support such ships.”

He asked that Congress support studies to get more from the earth and distribute it more effectively, 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 refinements, to keep America competitive; the creation of a new campus out of the state farm at Davis was one more step in that progression.

Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at UC Davis, specializing in early 20th century America. His latest books are Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America, 2006, and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America, 2003.

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