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Celebrating the 55th Anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System

JUNE 29, 1956
A DAY IN HISTORY

by
Richard F. Weingroff
Federal Highway Administration

June 29, 1956, was just another Friday, filled with the usual mix of national, international, feature, sports, and cultural activities as reported in newspapers across the country.

Fifty five years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, that event has assumed more importance than it seemed at the time.  The event did make page one of The New York Times, above the fold, on June 30, but wasn’t the day’s big story.  Reading right to left along the top of page one, the big stories were:

POLISH RIOT LASTS INTO SECOND DAY; 38 DEAD, 270 HURT

4.5 BILLION IN FOREIGN AID VOTED BY SENATE, 54 TO 25

WILSON DECLARES BUDGET IS SECOND TO MILITARY MIGHT

STEEL STRIKE DUE TO START TONIGHT; TALKS AGAIN FAIL

The Wilson headline referred to the fact that Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson had testified before a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on the Air Force regarding whether the United States or the Soviet Union had the lead in the nuclear air power race.  He denied that the President had subordinated national defense to political budget cutting in a presidential election year.  (The United States was doing okay in the nuclear arms race.)

Below a picture of the steel negotiators, the Times reported:

Eisenhower Signs Road Bill; Weeks Allocates 1.1 Billion

The article by John D. Morris began:

President Eisenhower set into motion a record $33,480,000,000 road-building program today by signing the bipartisan authorization bill that Congress sent him Tuesday.  Sinclair Weeks, Secretary of Commerce, immediately announced the allocation of $1,125,000,000 among the states for the first year of what he called “the greatest public-works program in the history of the world.”

Morris reported that:

The main feature of the program is a 41,000-mile network of limited-access roads linking 90 percent of all cities with populations of more than 50,000.  The Federal Government will distribute $25,000,000,000 among the states over the next thirteen years to meet 90 percent of the cost.

The words “interstate system” did not appear until the final two paragraphs of the 13-paragraph article.

The signing of the new law was not accompanied by the usual ceremony featuring the President handing pens to smiling Members of Congress.  He was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center preparing for his release on Saturday, June 30.  He had entered the center on June 7 after suffering severe stomach pains.  He had experienced stomach problems for years, but this time, doctors determined that the cause was ileitis (an inflammation of the ileum, part of the small intestine) and that surgery was needed immediately. 

As a result of the hospitalization, history reveals the unique medical characteristics of the President as he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.  The medical bulletin issued at 8:10 a.m. indicated that:

The President had another good restful night.  He slept almost continuously for nine hours.  His temperature is 98.2; pulse, 72; blood pressure, 120 over 70, and respiration, 18, all of which are normal.  He held his gain in weight [163 pounds].

To prepare for his departure on June 30, the President walked down a flight of nine steps to the next lower floor and then back up again.  For the first time since the surgery, the President had three working sessions.  To preserve his strength, the 27 bills he had to sign were divided into two batches—13 in the morning, 14 in the afternoon.  In the third working session, he met with Vice President Richard M. Nixon for 15 minutes to discuss the Vice President’s upcoming trip to the Philippines and South Vietnam.

And so history was made.  But at the time, much else had happened around the country, as reflected in this survey of The New York Times for June 30, 1956.

Most of the news of Friday, June 29, 1956, has been forgotten.  But judged strictly by the number of books and articles, as well as current interest, perhaps the biggest story of the day occurred in White Plains, New York, where Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller.  The Times explained, helpfully, that the 30-year Monroe was a “film actress,” but that perhaps does not do justice to the reigning sex symbol of the 1950s.  The 40-year old Miller was a “Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist.”  The ceremony took place at 7:21 p.m. and lasted less than 5 minutes.  “Mr. and Mrs. Miller then got into their sports car and disappeared into traffic.”

In Roxbury, Connecticut, Miss Mara Sherbatoff, chief of the New York bureau of Paris-Match, the French magazine, was killed in a crash on the way to a press conference called by Monroe and Miller.  Miss Sherbatoff’s driver lost control on a sharp turn and his car smashed into a tree, hurling Miss Sherbatoff out of the vehicle.

President Eisenhower was involved in several other events on that Friday in June.  At the suggestion of the National Security Council, he approved a gradual increase in exchanges of information and people through the Iron Curtain separating the United States and eastern Europe’s Soviet bloc countries.  The goal, according to the White House announcement, was “better understanding of the peoples of the world that must be the foundation of peace.”

The President also accepted “with deepest regret” the resignation of Dr. Leonard A. Scheele as Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service.  Dr. Scheele, who headed the Salk polio vaccine program, said he was leaving to provide “more properly for the future security of my family” than was possible on his salary of $17,000 a year.  He reportedly had accepted a position as president of the Warner-Chilcott Laboratories, a division of the Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Company.

Elsewhere in Washington, the Times reported that Secretary Wilson had criticized the publication of secret testimony that “an all-out atomic attack on the Soviet Union would cause hundreds of millions of deaths on both sides of the Iron Curtain.”  Calling the information “somewhat exaggerated,” Wilson said the release would cause Secretary of State John Foster Dulles “unnecessary trouble.”   

In view of the concern about the Soviet nuclear threat, an important event occurred in Kingston, New York.  Equipment began to roll off a production line for the new SAGE program.  The Times explained that SAGE, which stood for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, “is to be a vast system of air defense using the latest electronic equipment.  It will direct aerial intercepting weapons intended to locate and destroy attacking enemy bombers or missiles with a minimum of time and effort.”  Thirty-two electronic direction centers were to be built.  This deployment would be superior to the present system, which used human calculating teams, because of its “virtual inability to be suddenly overwhelmed by a mass enemy attack.”

The joint Atomic Energy Committee approved, 14 to 0, plans to build large-scale atomic power plants.  The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) would be authorized to spend $400 million to speed peacetime use of atomic energy.  The AEC, which favored development by private industry, opposed the bill on behalf of the Eisenhower Administration.  Senator Al Gore, Sr. (D-Tenn.), author of the bill and one of the chief authors of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, told reporters that reactors would be limited to AEC installations even though the reactors would produce “only a drop in the bucket” for agency needs.  Summarizing Gore’s comments, the article explained that this limit was needed “to head off a fight between public power and private power advocates in the Senate, where the bill was expected to run into heavy opposition.”

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the House Rules Committee voted to kill a housing proposal that exceeded the Administration’s recommendations.  The bill called for 180,000 public housing units over 3 years, compared with the Administration’s request for 35,000 annually.

Because 1956 was an election year, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President was promoting his candidacy.  Former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the President’s opponent in 1952 and (as it turned out) in 1956, concluded two days of conferences on political strategy, especially on how he could win New York in November.  Although Stevenson “kept himself virtually isolated” on June 29, he did speak by telephone with two New York supporters, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mayor Robert F. Wagner of New York City.  (In Atlanta, Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia endorsed Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas as the “best hope” for the Democratic Party in 1956.  Senator Johnson, Russell said while in Atlanta for a $50-a-plate party dinner, was “more in sympathy with states’ rights than other possible nominees.”)

Representatives of the Republican and Democratic Parties were in San Francisco to address the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  On behalf of the Republicans, Representative Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania told delegates that a vote for Democrats was a vote for the southern Democrats who controlled Congress, including the House Rules Committee “where civil rights bills get the suffocation treatment.”  He was particularly tough on Stevenson, who “counts on you to lie down and take it while he gets in bed with those who would deny you the full rights of free citizenship.” 

Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois, representing the Democrats before the NAACP, accused the Republicans of doing nothing about civil rights until the election year.  In contrast to “the fighting leadership” of Democratic President Harry S. Truman, President Eisenhower had waited three years before offering “a limited program of civil rights legislation.”  He criticized the President for not helping implement the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that separate-but-equal facilities were unconstitutional. 

As these and dozens of other important events were occurring on Friday, June 29, the American people had many distractions that may have prevented them from keeping up with the news. 

Baseball was the major sports story, with all 16 Major League teams active on Friday, June 29.  The Times was most interested in the New York teams.  The league leading New York Yankees defeated the Washington Senators, 3 to 1, at Yankee Stadium.  “Manager Casey Stengel was in no mood to celebrate” because his most reliable starter in recent weeks, Bob Grim, had strained an elbow tendon and would probably miss his next start.  The Brooklyn Dodgers also won, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies, 6 to 5, in “a whirlwind finish that saw three successive homers vanish from sight on four pitches” in the ninth inning.  Duke Snider, Randy Jackson, and Gil Hodges hit the homers in that order.  The New York Giants lost 6-3 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh.

Elsewhere in the Major Leagues, the Boston Red Sox beat the Baltimore Orioles (7-6), the Detroit Tigers blanked the Kansas City Athletics (5-0), the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox split a day-night double header, while the Chicago Cubs defeated the National League leading Milwaukee Braves.

Viewers settling down at home for television that night would have chosen from such programs as:

Late night, Steve Allen’s guests on the “Tonight” show were pianist Byron Janis and producer Mervyn Le Roy.  Chances are, however, viewers that weekend were more interested in Allen’s Sunday night show, “The Steve Allen Show.”  The newspaper carried several advertisements for an appearance on the 8 pm show by “the new Elvis Presley.”  Presley’s June 5 performance on “The Milton Berle Show,” featuring a pelvic-swiveling version of “Hound Dog,” had created a scandal, so Allen would present the “new” Elvis in a tuxedo singing the song to a basset hound.  Elvis also appeared in a comedy sketch with Allen and guests Imogene Coca and Andy Griffith.

If television didn’t interest Americans the night of June 29, they had a wide selection of movies to see.  “The King and I” starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr had just opened.  “Oklahoma” was in its 9th month of showings.  Other movies playing that night included:

President Eisenhower, of course, was confined to his hospital room.  That night, the President dined with his wife Mamie and their son John and his wife Barbara.  On Saturday, June 30, the President and his wife were driven to their home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on Sunday.

 


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