As noted in Part 1 of this article, the U.S. interstate system was officially named the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in 1990 and signed into law one day before the centennial celebration of Eisenhower’s birth.
Since then, historians have written that President Eisenhower’s reasons to support an interstate highway system were due to three key events. These were: his assignment as a military observer on the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy; his experiences in World War II and afterward, when he saw the German system of highways (the autobahns); and the 1953 detonation of a hydrogen bomb by the Soviet Union, which caused fears among legislators that roadways would be be gridlocked, not allowing Americans to escape a nuclear attack.
Transcontinental Motor Convoy
World War ended in November 1918; Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s tank battalion had not yet shipped to Europe before the war ended. During the summer of 1919 he was assigned as an observer to the military’s First Transcontinental Motor Convoy. The purpose of the convoy was to test military vehicles on the country’s existing roads and to “identify the challenges in moving troops from coast-to-coast.” The convoy traveled 3,200 miles – from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. Nearly 80 vehicles of all sizes and nearly 300 military personnel were involved in the project.
As he traveled in the convoy, Eisenhower took notes for his report; including observations of the patchwork of narrow and winding paved and unpaved roads the convoy traveled on, old bridges it crossed (some of which predated automobiles) and other obstacles to travel. Service in the convoy helped him better understand the need for a network of connected roads and bridges.
Specifics in his report included roads so narrow that oncoming traffic was forced off the road and bridge infrastructure too low for trucks to utilize. He was most critical of midwestern roads, but noted that the roads traveled by the convoy in the eastern U.S. were more practical for truck use. The majority of the U.S. population lived in the East, which meant that the road network was better (for the most part). Also trucks of that time were much smaller than trucks today.
Eisenhower also praised the paved roads in California. A key observation was that the convoy was negatively impacted by the different grades of roads that traversed the hills encountered.
World War II and post-war
As the supreme Allied commander for the invasion of Europe, Gen. Eisenhower oversaw the defeat of Nazi Germany. After the breakout from the Normandy beaches and hedgerows, Allied armies raced across France and into Germany chasing the retreating German Wehrmacht (army). As outlined in a recent FreightWaves Classics four-part series on the Red Ball Express, the American armies outran their supply lines and the Red Ball Express helped re-supply them for almost three months.
That contrasted with the extensive highway system built by the Germans prior to the war. In his presidential memoirs, Eisenhower wrote “During World War II, I had seen the superlative system of German autobahn – [the] national highways crossing that country.”
World War II in Europe ended in early May 1945. Eisenhower served as the commander of the American zone of occupation in Germany until November of that year. During that time his troops used the autobahns (and began repairing stretches of it destroyed during the war). He saw first-hand how useful the road system was for moving troops, equipment and supplies.
Gen. Lucius Clay/the Clay Committee
Lt. Gen. Lucius Clay was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a trained engineer. He helped lead the Allies’ logistical effort following the D-Day landings. He was also a key aide to Eisenhower during the war and during Eisenhower’s presidency.
Eisenhower appointed Clay to head the President’s Advisory Committee on the National Highway System in 1954. The Clay Committee drew up a plan for a system of national highways, and it delivered its plan and report to Congress on the National Highway Program.
The heart of the plan was to spend $50 billion (about $488 billion today) over 10 years to construct a “vast system of interconnected highways.” The committee’s proposal to Congress was based on four key points.
Safety was the report’s first priority. It pointed to the 36,000 annual traffic fatalities in the U.S. and their impact on the national economy. Secondly, the report cited existing roads’ physical conditions and their impact on the overall cost of vehicle ownership. Poorly maintained roads negatively impacted the economy through increased transportation costs. National security was the report’s third key finding. The potential of a nuclear attack on the United States called for emergency evacuations of large cities, as well as the ability to rapidly move troops and equipment over the nation’s roads. Finally, there was the overall health of the U.S. economy. Road and transportation improvements were necessary to accommodate the increasing population, as well as being “essential to the economy and an efficient use of taxpayer money.”
The Cold War
The Interstate Highway System is the largest U.S. public works project in history. (It also spans more than 65 years and continues at this time). It began when the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was a major national budget priority and was constantly in the news.
The Cold War also was a key reason for the construction of the Interstate Highway System (IHS). Eisenhower was elected president in November 1952 and took office on January 20, 1953. Shortly after, long-term Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died. This led to a leadership struggle in the USSR that was ultimately “won” by Nikita Khrushchev, who was named general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In August 1953, the first Soviet hydrogen bomb was tested; this ended the United States lead in nuclear superiority. U.S. and Western leaders were very worried about the USSR’s new nuclear weapons. Moreover, the situation scared the general public. At that time, civil defense drills were commonplace; bomb shelters were built and many (in and out of government) believed nuclear war was on the horizon. In fact, polls showed that 79% of the U.S. thought a nuclear conflict was imminent. If war occurred, more than 70 million urban residents would be required to evacuate by road.
On this topic the Clay Committee report stated, “The rapid improvement of the complete 40,000-mile interstate system, including the necessary urban connections thereto, is therefore vital as a civil-defense measure.”
In June 1955, a large-scale urban evacuation drill was held. It did not go well (mass confusion as well as crowded evacuation routes) and underscored the need for the IHS. The Eisenhower administration continued to make the case for a uniform system of roads for national defense; the Department of Defense (DoD) was ordered to become involved in the effort.
In central Illinois a testing area was built to “evaluate pavement, road standards, and construction techniques, among other things.” Equipment and personnel for the tests was contributed by DoD. From their experience in both world wars, senior military leaders understood that an effective road system was a key to national defense. For example, during World War I, military truck traffic severely damaged some of the rudimentary roads that had been used to move troops to training camps and then to East Coast ports. During World War II, the nation’s defense plants were supplied by both rail and truck. However, poor road conditions and a lack of uniform road standards had a negative impact on that supply effort at times.
Over a period of two years, U.S. Army trucks drove more than 17 million miles on the Illinois test roads. These tests helped engineers develop highway building and maintenance standards.
Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, appropriating federal funds for interstate highway construction.
The Missouri Highway Commission awarded the first contract to begin building the interstate along the famous Route 66 in rural Laclede County, 160 miles southwest of St. Louis. However, construction on the first section of interstate actually began in St. Charles County, Missouri, on August 13, 1956. Kansas and Pennsylvania have also made competing claims that their states were the first to build working sections of interstate.
No matter which state was the first to build a portion of the IHS, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for a uniform system of roads, bridges and tunnels when construction began in 1956. IHS construction proceeded rapidly throughout the country, and by the early 1990s, nearly 45,000 miles of interstate highway were complete.
The author is indebted to the archives of the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army for information used in this article.