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Road to Everywhere: The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System

Jeffrey Syken

"See a need, fill a need"

So goes an old adage. At the end of WWII, there were about 30 million cars on American roads. By the early 1950s, there were over 50 million. Though automobile ownership was growing exponentially in the post-war years, the quality and quantity of good roads was not. Delayed first by the depression, then the war years, America’s need for roads – especially in urban areas, was acute and needed filling. Perhaps then it was fortuitous that in the spring of 1919, Lt. Colonel D.D. Eisenhower of the U.S. Army Tank Corps volunteered as an observer in an experimental trans-continental convoy of Army trucks. For 29 yo Ike, “The Old Convoy” was an enlightening experience, to say the least, for the future five-star general and POTUS. A generation later, as supreme allied commander, General Eisenhower took note of the speed by which the advance into Germany progressed thanks to the Autobahn. It was clear to him that an interconnected network of high quality roads held significant strategic advantages for a nation - both in war and peace.

Another young Army officer and future POTUS saw the advantages of good highways. So impressed was Captain of Artillery Harry S. Truman by the excellent French roads he traveled over during the war (as compared to the rutted dirt roads back home in Missouri), that he held a life-long interest in road building and, as POTUS, tried to get the Interstate Highway System - first conceived during the Roosevelt Administration (for its “make work” attributes, aside from the need for the roads themselves), built. Alas, shortages of materials, equipment, trained engineers, political turf wars and the Korean War would get in the way. However, by the time Ike assumed office, the stage was set for a 40K mile network that would truly make the United States “United.” It would be the most ambitious construction project ever conceived by man; dwarfing the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam in sheer scope, cost and duration. There was no longer a debate as to whether or not the Interstate System was necessary – anyone who owned a car knew that, especially those millions of Americans who had abandoned the central cities for the “good life” in suburbia.

During the first two decades of the 20th Century, the automobile was on the rise, but still a novelty. The Mexican Incursion of 1916 would be the first large scale use of motorized vehicles by the military, though the poor roads took their toll on them. With America’s entry into WWI, trucks rather than horses would bear the brunt of moving men and materials, but it proved an ordeal just to get the trucks to ports of embarkation. Henry Ford’s Model T of 1908 put America on wheels, but without good roads there was nowhere to go. After WWI, it was clear the Federal Government needed to get involved both from a fiscal and leadership point-of-view. Thus was formed the Bureau of Public Roads and many years of legislation and debate which ultimately led to the “Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956.” It was to be built at a time when America itself was in transition and it would not be without its share of critics, conflict and corruption, but no one could doubt the transformation the IHS brought about – then and now.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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