• ITVI.USA
    15,523.360
    80.780
    0.5%
  • OTLT.USA
    2.879
    -0.012
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  • OTRI.USA
    20.890
    0.040
    0.2%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,485.300
    73.880
    0.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.820
    -0.100
    -3.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.580
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  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.260
    -0.030
    -2.3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.650
    0.030
    0.8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.330
    -0.090
    -3.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    4.020
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    -3.6%
  • WAIT.USA
    127.000
    -1.000
    -0.8%
  • ITVI.USA
    15,523.360
    80.780
    0.5%
  • OTLT.USA
    2.879
    -0.012
    -0.4%
  • OTRI.USA
    20.890
    0.040
    0.2%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,485.300
    73.880
    0.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.820
    -0.100
    -3.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.580
    -0.100
    -2.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.260
    -0.030
    -2.3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.650
    0.030
    0.8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.330
    -0.090
    -3.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    4.020
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  • WAIT.USA
    127.000
    -1.000
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FreightWaves ClassicsInfrastructureInsightsNewsSupply ChainsTrucking

FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Ike led the US in war and peace – and launched the interstates

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.

General Eisenhower speaks with men of the 101st Airborne Division, who jumped into France on the night before D-Day. 
(Photo: United States European Command)
General Eisenhower speaks with soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, who jumped into France on the night before D-Day.
(Photo: United States European Command)

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). 

President Eisenhower signs the Federal Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of the Interstate Highway System.
(Photo: Federal Highway Administration)
President Eisenhower signs the Federal Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of the Interstate Highway System.
(Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

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.)

President Eisenhower cuts the ribbon, opening a section of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. 
(Photo: U.S. Army)
President Eisenhower cuts the ribbon, opening a section of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.
(Photo: U.S. Army)

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.” 

Dealing with mud was just one of the convoy’s issues along its route. (Photo: Detroit Library Digital Collection)
Dealing with mud was just one of the convoy’s issues along its route. (Photo: Detroit Library Digital Collection)

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.  

Then-Lt. Col. Eisenhower (far right) and others in Iowa. (Photo: Iowa DOT virtual museum)
Then-Lt. Col. Eisenhower (far right) and others in Iowa. (Photo: Iowa DOT virtual museum)

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.”

A photo of the Berlin to Munich Autobahn, taken in June 1939. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A photo of the Berlin to Munich Autobahn, taken in June 1939. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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.” 

The logo of the Seaway System. (Image: Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System)

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.

President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth at the Saint Lawrence Seaway dedication in 1959. (Photo: m.timegoggles.com)
President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth at the St. Lawrence Seaway dedication in 1959.
(Photo: m.timegoggles.com)

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. 

Honoring Eisenhower

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.

Signs show the number of the interstate, the 50th anniversary of the IHS and the abbreviated name of the IHS.
(Photo: reddirtchronicles.com)

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.

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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