The USS Pearl Harbor in San Diego Bay / Image via Shutterstock

Eighty years ago this week, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to San Diego to dedicate a grand new government building on the waterfront. He patted himself on the back and made quite a claim about his role in turning the city into a premier Navy town.

“[I]n a sense, I feel like the godfather of San Diego,” he declared, recalling his days as assistant secretary of the Navy, according to The San Diego Union. “I was sent out here — sent out from Washington to look over this harbor, and I think it was at least in part the result of my report on San Diego that we undertook to make this one of our major Navy bases. And we have never regretted it since.”

Image via Union-Tribune archives

Did FDR tell a fib? Well, he definitely didn’t tell the whole truth about the transformation of little San Diego into a major Navy base that now serves as the home of the Pacific Fleet.

Roosevelt made the claim during a West Coast jaunt in 1938, more than three years before the U.S. entered World War II. He was in town to dedicate the art deco landmark on the waterfront known as the city/county Civic Center. (It’s now the County Administration Building.)

From the rear seat of a car parked in front of the building, Roosevelt praised San Diegans to a crowd of 25,000 and noted the county’s motto (“The noblest motive is the public good”) and recalled his previous visits to town.

A Little Town With Big Dreams, and a Navy on the Move

Roosevelt had indeed been to San Diego more than 20 years earlier in 1914 and 1915, and raved about it. That was back when he was a cocky, 30-something assistant secretary of the Navy with big ambitions. He wasn’t yet a household name, and he wasn’t yet paralyzed by polio.

San Diego was on the road to the big-time too. We were home to just 40,000 people in 1910, making us much smaller than burgs like Bayonne, New Jersey, and Duluth, Minnesota. Even in California, we were only the fifth-largest city and would have been the sixth if Berkeley had a few hundred more residents.

But we had something that the Navy liked: A nice bay — even if it wasn’t quite as deep as officials would have preferred — and a prime location on the West Coast as the opening of the Panama Canal loomed.

‘Million-Dollar Congressmen’ Got Ball (and Dollars) Rolling

It’s clear that Roosevelt’s visits to San Diego in 1914 and 1915 were influential in raising San Diego’s profile as a possible home for a Navy base. But city officials and an elected representative known as the “Million Dollar Congressman” played major roles too, and they got started on wooing the Navy before Roosevelt dropped by.

The congressman, who gained his name because he was really good at bringing home the bacon to his constituents, was a former insurance man named William Kettner. (Yes, the street that goes through downtown is named after him. It used to be called Arctic Street for some reason but was renamed after Kettner died.)

Kettner, who’d arrived in town in 1907, was enthralled by a visit from 16,000 sailors and 16 battleships of the nation’s Atlantic Fleet (aka the Great White Fleet) to San Diego in 1908. “Literally everything you see in town having anything to do with the Navy comes from that visit,” naval historian Bruce Linder told the Union-Tribune in 2008.

Kettner landed in Congress a few years later, a rare Democrat who got support from the local GOP establishment. While he represented a whopping seven California counties that ranged all the way up to the Eastern Sierras, he went to work building the Navy presence in San Diego, buttonholing many of the 107 members of Congress (and FDR himself) who came to town for the Panama-California Exposition, which gave us Balboa Park.

Kettner got federal money to dredge the San Diego Bay so it was deep enough for battleships, to build a Naval Fuel Station and Naval Radio Station and to expand facilities like the Naval Air Station.

Sorry ‘Bout It, Los Angeles and San Francisco

Kettner also “played key roles in securing for San Diego the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Naval Training Center and Naval Hospital,” says the San Diego History Center in a brief biography. “In each case, there was big competition from other cities on the Pacific Coast; shrewd, aggressive politics by Kettner and many other civic leaders was necessary to win these contests. Kettner garnered support from Southern congressmen and thwarted the ambitions of San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

It also helped that Kettner made a powerful friend during his eight years in Congress: FDR, who sent Navy grants this way.

Sailors aren’t the only components of the military in San Diego. The Marine Corps’ presence here — both in the city of San Diego and up the coast at Camp Pendleton — is largely due to the efforts of Kettner and a colonel named Joseph Pendleton.

But Roosevelt played a role, too: He inspected San Diego during his 1914 visit, and recommended it as a fine location for a Marine advance base post.

So was FDR the “godfather” of San Diego’s Navy base? Kettner is the real father of the Navy presence here. Roosevelt was definitely a major player, but others — including city leaders — could share the title of “godfather.”

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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