In 1919, Dwight Eisenhower was part of a U.S. Army caravan of motor vehicles traveling across the country as a publicity stunt. The convoy encountered woeful and inadequate roads in terrible condition. The journey took two months by the time it was completed.
When Eisenhower was in Germany after the end of World War II, he was deeply impressed by the Autobahn because of its civilian and military applications. The experiences were formative in shaping Eisenhower’s thinking about developing a national highway system in the United States. He later said, “We must build new roads,” and asked Congress for “forward looking action.”
As president, Eisenhower generally held to the postwar belief called “Modern Republicanism.” This meant that while he did not support a massive increase in spending on the federal New Deal welfare state, he would also not roll it back. He was a fiscal conservative who supported decreased federal spending and balanced budgets, but he advocated a national highway system as a massive public infrastructure project to facilitate private markets and economic growth.
The postwar consumer culture was dominated by the automobile. Americans loved their large cars replete with large tail fins and abundant amounts of chrome. By 1960, 80 percent of American families owned a car. American cars symbolized their geographical mobility, consumer desires, and global industrial predominance. They needed a modern highway system to get around the sprawling country. By 1954, President Eisenhower was ready to pitch the idea of a national highway system to Congress and the states. He called it, “The biggest peacetime construction project of any description every undertaken by the United States or any other country.”
In July, Eisenhower dispatched his vice-president, Richard Nixon, to the meeting of Governors’ Conference to win support. The principle of federalism was raised with many states in opposition to federal control and taxes.
That same month, the president asked his friend, General Lucius Clay, who was an engineer by training and supervised the occupation of postwar Germany, to manage the planning of the project and present it to Congress. He organized the President’s Advisory on a National Highway Program.
The panel held hearings and spoke to a variety of experts and interests including engineers, financiers, construction and trucking companies, and labor unions. Based upon the information it amassed, the panel put together a plan by January 1955.
The plan proposed 41,000 miles of highway construction at an estimated cost of $101 billion over ten years. It recommended the creation of a federal highway corporation that would use 30-year bonds to finance construction. There would be a gas tax but no tolls or federal taxes. A bill was written based upon the terms of the plan.
The administration sent the bill to Congress the following month, but a variety of interests expressed opposition to the bill. Southern members of Congress, for example, were particularly concerned about federal control because it might set a precedent for challenging segregation. Eisenhower and his allies pushed hard for the bill and used the Cold War to sell the bill as a means of facilitating evacuation from cities in case of a nuclear attack. The bill passed the Senate but then stalled in the House where it died during the congressional session.
The administration reworked the bill and sent it to Congress again. The revised proposal created a Highway Trust Fund that would be funded and replenished with taxes primarily on gasoline, diesel oil, and tires. No federal appropriations would be used for interstate highways.
The bill passed both houses of Congress in May and June 1956, and the president triumphantly signed the bill into the law creating the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways on June 29.
The interstate highway system transformed the landscape of the United States in the postwar period. It linked the national economy, markets, and large cities together. It contributed to the growth of suburban America as commuters could now drive their cars to work in cities or consumers could drive to shopping malls. Tourists could travel expeditiously to vacations at distant beaches, national parks, and amusement parks like Disneyland. Cheap gas, despite the taxes to fund the highways, was critical to travel along the interstates.
The interstate highway system later became entwined in national debates over energy policy in the 1970s when OPEC embargoed oil to the United States. Critics said gas-guzzling cars should be replaced by more efficient cars or public transportation, that American love of cars contributed significantly to the degradation of the environment, and that America had reached an age of limits.
The creation of the interstate highway system was a marvel of American postwar prosperity and contributed to its unrivaled affluence. It also symbolized some of the challenges Americans faced. Both the success of completing the grand public project and the ability to confront and solve new challenges represented the American spirit.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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