Today marks the 121st anniversary of the birth of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was known to millions simply as “Ike.” He was born in Denison, Texas on October 14, 1890.
For those who were not alive during World War II or the 1950s, Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, overseeing the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy before supervising the invasions of France and Germany. After the war, he served as Army Chief of Staff (1945-48), president of Columbia University (1948-1953) and the first Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO (1951-52). Eisenhower took a leave of absence from Columbia in December 1950 to help organize and start NATO.
Eisenhower retired from military service in 1952 (but not from the Columbia presidency), to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He won the nomination and the general election (beating Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson II). Eisenhower served as the 34th U.S. president between 1953 and 1961 (beating Stevenson again in 1956).
Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956
There were a number of major pieces of legislation promoted during the two Eisenhower administrations. Among them was legislation that still impacts the nation (and most of its drivers) today. That was the landmark Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which Eisenhower actively sought, promoted and signed into law when it was passed by Congress. The bill made the United States’ Interstate Highway System (IHS) a reality after it had been planned, reviewed and discussed for more than 20 years. (A two-part FreightWaves article about the origins of the IHS can be found here and here.)
Provisions in this law included increasing the number of miles in the plans for the IHS from 40,000 (as mandated in the 1944 Federal-Aid Highway Act) to 41,000 miles. The legislation also authorized the expenditure of $25 billion between 1957 and 1969 as the federal share (90%) to build interstate highways. The law also established the Highway Trust Fund “as a dedicated source for funding the IHS and stipulated that the new highway network operate on a pay-as-you-go basis.” Creating a program to finance and build the IHS was a key priority for Eisenhower; he and his administration lobbied Congress to establish it. Since that legislation passed, the Interstate Highway System has been the nation’s largest public works project, with construction occurring continuously since 1957.
Reasons for Eisenhower’s steadfast commitment to the IHS
According to historians, there were three major influences that led Eisenhower to be a strong proponent of the concept of interstate highways.
Although he was born in Texas, Eisenhower’s family moved to Kansas in 1892. In 1959 he told members of the National Rural Letter Carrier Association, “So far as I can recall, I never saw a paved road in my youth.”
An experience just after World War I that made an even bigger impression on Eisenhower occurred in 1919. A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at that time, Eisenhower participated in its transcontinental motor transport convoy from Washington, D.C. to California. During the coast-to-coast trip on the “Lincoln Highway,” the convoy dealt with poor roads, ruts, dust and mud. (You can read previous FreightWaves Classics articles about the convoy here, here and here.
Immediately after the end of World War II in Europe, General Eisenhower saw and traveled on Germany’s state-of-the-art highways, which were (and are) known collectively as the Autobahn. “The old convoy [in 1919] had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways,” Eisenhower later wrote. “but Germany had me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”
Other transportation milestones during the Eisenhower presidency
In addition to his leadership role in making the IHS a reality, President Eisenhower “also achieved other notable transportation-oriented milestones during his years as president.”
He signed into law the Wiley-Dondero Seaway Act in 1954, which authorized the United States to work with Canada to build the St. Lawrence Seaway. As noted in an earlier FreightWaves Classics article, the Seaway was constructed to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. The project took five years, and in 1959, President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II of England officially inaugurated the bi-national waterway.
In 1957, Eisenhower was the first president to ride in a nuclear submarine. Aboard the USS Seawolf, he participated in the submarine’s short voyage off the coast of Rhode Island. Also in 1957, Eisenhower was the first president to fly in a helicopter while in office. Aboard a Bell UH-13-J helicopter, the president flew from the White House to Camp David.
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower died in 1969 at the age of 78. Since then, he has been honored in many ways. In regard to his transportation accomplishments, the IHS was formally renamed “The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways” the day after the centennial of his birth in 1990. Just over a year ago (September 17, 2020), the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which is located just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was officially dedicated.
Ike led the United States in war and peace, and while he was far from perfect, many historians recognize his many accomplishments and credit him for them.