President Ike and the Interstate Highway System

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Ike – the WWI tank officer

POTUS Ike: The Early Advocate

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Lt. Colonel in the US Army in 1917, when US participation in The Great War began. He was deeply disappointed that he was not assigned to active military service abroad; instead he was posted to the transportation sector, particularly its newest technology: tanks.

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A typical road circa 1920.

Realizing that military needs and public safety were intricately tied to our increasingly mobile society, the Army undertook a cross-country transportation maneuver from Washington DC to California.

It took 62 days involving 81vehicles of various description, a task-force of 24 officers and 258 enlisted men, and an average speed of 6 miles per hour, or just under 60 miles a day. It was a huge and grueling undertaking. Ike went along, and was charged with writing one of the reports. He indicated that while the infrastructure in most of the Eastern states was satisfactory, as was California, in between lay more than 2500 miles of incomplete roads, poorly structured roads, no roads at all, and poorly designed/constructed bridges. Few of them were connected.

In case of emergency, military or otherwise, how could people and materiel be transported across the country?

Ike became a believer of the importance of sound infrastructure. But the Depression and WWII prevented real progress. There was no money.

POTUS Ike: Convinced Advocate

Fast forward some 25 years. General Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the Second World War. After massive forces landed in Normandy, the race began to reach Berlin. Ike (and others) were seriously impressed by Germany’s excellent roads and highways. They were well paved and maintained, and wide enough to support large military vehicles, like the newly improved tanks. Bridges and overpasses were structurally sound. Once the Allies reached German borders, the march was  smooth. 

Five-Star General Ike

For several years after the war, Ike assiduously ducked the political opportunities that were thrown into his lap. He insisted he was apolitical, a loyal soldier, and even a growing statesman. But not a candidate.

That changed in 1952. A finally-acknowledged Republican, Ike was swept into the Presidency by a large majority. By that time, the Cold War and “The Bomb” was a serious threat to the country.

Meanwhile The Cold War

Tensions between the US and Russia began as soon as World War II had ended. The US had become a superpower, thanks to the hydrogen bomb. Russia wanted to get into the game.

With the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, Russia wasted no time in detonating its own hydrogen bomb. By 1955, 79% of the US citizenry believed that a nuclear attack was not only possible, but entirely probable. And maybe a lot sooner than we thought. Families built bomb shelters, stockpiled canned goods, and re-revved up their Civil Defense networks.

In 1954, Ike had appointed General Lucius Clay to chair a committee to make recommendations for building/connecting a highway system to service the nation’s growing needs.

In 1955, a large-scale urban emergency evacuation drill was undertaken, and surprising nobody, resulted in massive confusion and congestion. And an estimated 70 million people might require evacuation if a real emergency occurred!

POTUS Ike: Timing Being Everything

The need for major improvement to US infrastructure had been obvious to everyone for years. But massive projects take an enormous amount of planning and preparation before even an announcement is made. Thus, it was not until June, 1956, that the formal announcement of the U.S. Interstate Highway System was created.

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And here is where it gets interesting – apart from the fact that it was cohesive, well-planned and generally popular!

There were several reasons why connecting sea-to-shining-sea was proposed and begun.  

Safety. More than 36,000 traffic fatalities had been reported in 1954 alone, taking a multi-billion dollar toll on the country’s economy. Better roads meant safer roads.

Vehicular Life. Poorly existing roads were taking a heavy toll on vehicles, vehicle ownership and the cost of transportation, which was being passed along to the consumer. Better roads meant longer vehicular life.

National Security. Threat of a nuclear attack was not far-fetched in the 1950s. This demanded a civil/military force that could evacuate the populace quickly. Better roads assure the quickest response to emergencies.

The Economy. The health of the US economy demanded well-conceived planning for the future, which included a healthy transportation system particularly to move goods from farm to table. And building/maintaining better roads would create thousands of jobs.

Bottom line: Creating/fixing/maintaining a 40,000+ mile system of highways was essential to the health of the USA – on many fronts.

The Ike Contribution

President Dwight D. Eisenhower lent his name, reputation and leadership to The Interstate Highway System, the biggest infrastructure project ever undertaken by the US – and that includes the numerous construction projects of the New Deal.

The connecting highways include all the contiguous US states, including the then-territories of Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They all had governors, senators and congressmen, well-known captains of industry and related disciplines with egos to match. Then there were the citizens themselves, some of whom strongly resisted the upheaval of their towns and communities.

You see these all over the country.

One of Ike’s best qualities was his ability to work with all types of people on all types of projects and harness a cohesive team that could work together toward a common goal for the common good. It was that quality that earned his success as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in WWII, as well as his later appointment to NATO. His influence must never be underestimated.

The Interstate Highway System was expected to take 12 years to complete, at a cost of around $25 billion (in 1950s money). Not surprisingly, it took 35 years, and ran more $500 billion in today’s dollars. It was formally named the Eisenhower Interstate System, and uses as its logo, Ike’s Five Stars.

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And, being a nation of drivers, just about everyone in the entire country has been on a part of it at some point.


D’Este, Carlo – Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life – Henry Holt, 2002

Perret, Geoffrey – Eisenhower – Random House, 1999

This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Dwight D. Eisenhower and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to President Ike and the Interstate Highway System

  1. FTB1(SS) says:

    Reblogged this on Dave Loves History and commented:
    my grandfather (of blessed memory, born 1916) used to explain 9at great length) to me that the entire Interstate system was built so as to quickly “move the Army to wherever the communists were landing.”

  2. Pingback: Scattershot Friday | nebraskaenergyobserver

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