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Highway History


Why President Dwight D. Eisenhower Understood We Needed the Interstate System

A cartoon of Ike with a thought bubble that contains a section of highway.

It’s not that other Presidents didn’t understand we need good roads.  All the way back to George Washington, our Presidents have understood.  In 1785, before he became our first President, George Washington said:

The credit, the saving, and convenience of this country all require that our great roads leading from one public place to another should be straightened and established by law . . . To me these things seem indispensably necessary.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as President longer than anyone (from 1933 to 1945), certainly understood.  He liked highways, had built roads when he was Governor of New York, and took a personal interest in the early studies of the Interstate System.  He signed the law in 1944 that called for selecting an Interstate System, and he wanted the program ready for construction after World War II so there would be lots of jobs for soldiers when they came home. 

Vice President Harry S. Truman became President after President Roosevelt died in April 1945, just before the war ended.  President Truman definitely understood why roads are important.  He loved driving his whole life and once headed a road organization called the National Old Trails Road Association that promoted a road across the country on famous roads of the past.  When he was an official in Jackson County, Missouri, he built a network of concrete roads and was a member of the American Road Builders Association.  After he became a United States Senator in 1935, he used to drive to and from Washington on the two-lane U.S. 40, which was part of the National Old Trails Road he had once promoted.

The problem was that after the war, President Truman couldn’t get to the Interstate System.  First, the country had to convert from building products for war to building products for peace.  That caused a lot of problems in the economy at first, but soon it started to boom, and so did families.  So many babies were born that this period is known as the start of the Baby Boom.  Chances are your parents or grandparents were born during the Baby Boom, which lasted until around 1964.  The new families needed someplace to live, so the government concentrated on promoting housing programs.  Construction companies that could have built roads were instead needed to build the new houses.  And then, in 1950, just as things were calming down and President Truman finally could have done something about the Interstate System, the United States joined the United Nations in a military action in Korea, and so the country had to shift again to wartime.

The Interstate System just couldn’t catch a break!

That’s where President Eisenhower came in.  He had some unique experiences that gave him a special understanding of how important roads are.

The first was in 1919, just after the end of World War I.  As an Army officer, he had volunteered to go to Europe to help fight the war, but he was turned down.  He was needed in the United States to train soldiers to operate a new weapon called a “tank” that the Army wasn’t sure would ever be any use.  In fact, he applied so many times to go fight in Europe that his commanding officer told him to cut it out if he knew what was good for him. 

When the war ended, he figured his Army career was over since he had missed out on the fighting and would never get any promotions.  He also missed his wife Mamie and their son Doud Dwight (nickname:  Icky, see https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/ichy.htm), who were not allowed to stay with him at Camp Meade in Maryland so they were home in Denver, Colorado.  He thought he might resign from the Army, find a job, and try to earn a living to support his family.

Before he quit, he heard about the U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train.  The plan was to send a convoy of 80 or so trucks and other military vehicles across the country.  The convoy would take the most famous road of the day, the Lincoln Highway, which ran between New York City and San Francisco, California.  The Army wanted to know if motor vehicles, which had been used in combat on since 1916, could stand the trip.  Also, the convoy would let the American people see the vehicles that had helped win World War I in a time before radio or television brought world events into everyone’s home.  It would be a perfect opportunity for the Army to try to convince young people to join the service.  Finally, the convoy included a speaker to talk about the importance of good roads at each stop.

When Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower (this was a temporary wartime grade—he was normally a Captain) heard about the plan, he and a buddy, Major Sereno Brett, thought it would be fun.  They agreed to go along to observe operation of the one tank that was going to transported across country.  Because the two friends decided to participate so late, they missed the opening ceremony that took place on July 9, 1919, on the Ellipse, which is a big patch of ground just south of the White House.  They joined the convoy in Frederick, Maryland, later that day in the campground where the convoy rested.

The convoy headed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where it met the Lincoln Highway and turned west for San Francisco.  Despite the fame of the Lincoln Highway, one of the most important people in the convoy was a scout who drove ahead each day to find the road and mark it so the military vehicles wouldn’t get lost. 

Staying on the Lincoln Highway was only one problem.  The major problems were:

  • The roads—Most of the roads weren’t paved, so they were dusty in dry weather and muddy when it rained.  Vehicles slipped off the roads into ditches, were blown off cliffs, and, at one spot in Nevada, got stuck in sand.  The soldiers on the convoy experienced every misery of early road travel and then some since they had to drag heavy trucks out of the mud and muck and sand.

  • The bridges—Many bridges were just barely able to carry cars.  The heavy military trucks crashed through them.  The Army had to strengthen many bridges or build new ones at some locations.  In some cases, the best choice was to “ford” rivers (drive through the water where it is low enough to do so).

  • The vehicles—On a trip of more than 3,000 miles, you might expect a few flats.  That was the least of the convoy’s troubles.  The bad roads were tough on tires, axles, motors, and any thing that could be shaken off as the vehicles rumbled over the bumps in the road.  Mechanics, who had been trained to repair horse-drawn wagons, were kept busy learning about a new type of vehicle.

  • The speeches—Every town the convoy reached wanted to welcome the soldiers with a ceremony.  Residents from miles around turned out to see the huge military convoy since nothing like it had ever been assembled in the United States.  (It was like the circus coming to town.)  And then the speeches began, with the Mayor welcoming the convoy, the commander of the convoy thanking the Mayor and citizens, and the convoy’s good roads speaker giving his presentation.  The soldiers quickly became real tired of speeches.

Sixty-two days after leaving Washington, the convoy reached San Francisco on September 5, crossed San Francisco Bay on two ferries, then paraded through that city to Lincoln Park.  Everyone received a medal—and listened to more speeches before being dismissed.  (Today, a cross-country trip on the Interstate System takes about 5 days.) 

Eisenhower remembered this experience his whole life.  In 1967, the former President wrote a book called At Ease:  Stories I Tell to Friends and one of those stories was about the 1919 convoy.  He called the trip “difficult, tiring, and fun.”

That was one reason he understood roads.

The second was his experience in Europe.  One of his assignments in the 1930s was to map the roads of France for military value.  That knowledge was helpful when he was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.  He was able to route traffic through France to help supply the soldiers moving toward Germany.  Germany had the advantage of the “autobahn” network of four-lane superhighways—probably the best roads in the world.  Just as these superhighways helped Germany in the early years of the war, they now helped General Eisenhower and the American, British, and French troops move into the country and win the European war.  After the war, General Eisenhower used the autobahn many times while helping to build a peace that would prevent Germany from returning to military adventures.

In At Ease, former President Eisenhower said:

The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.

He added:

This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it.

Because of his experiences, President Eisenhower fought hard to get Congress to pass the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.  For that reason, he is called “The Father of the Interstate System.”  To honor him for that “personal and absolute decision,” Congress passed a bill in 1990 that changed the legal name of the Interstate System.  It is now called The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.  President George H. W. Bush signed the bill into law on October 15, 1990.


If you would like more information about the life and career of Dwight D. Eisenhower, you can visit the White House Web site, which has a short biography:


You also may want to visit the Web site of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas:


For more details about the U.S. Army convoy in 1919, check part one of “The Man Who Changed America,” from the March/April 2003 issue of Public Roads:


Updated: 07/24/2017
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