FreightWaves Classics: Origins of the Interstate Highway System (Part 2)


As noted in Part 1 of this article, the US interstate system was officially named the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate Highways and Defense in 1990 and was enacted a day before the celebration of the centenary of Eisenhower’s birth. .

Since then, historians have written that President Eisenhower’s reasons for supporting an interstate highway system were due to three key events. These are: his posting as a military observer on the first transcontinental motorized convoy; his experiences during World War II and after, when he saw the German system of autobahns (autobahns); and the 1953 detonation of a hydrogen bomb by the Soviet Union, which raised fears among lawmakers that roads would be blocked, making it impossible for Americans to escape a nuclear attack.

Transcontinental road convoy

The world war ended in November 1918; Major Dwight D. Eisenhower’s tank battalion had not yet been sent to Europe before the end of the war. During the summer of 1919, he was assigned as an observer to the army’s first transcontinental motorized convoy. The objective of the convoy was to test military vehicles on the country’s existing roads and “identify the challenges of moving troops from coast to coast.” The convoy traveled 3,200 miles – from Washington, DC to San Francisco. Almost 80 vehicles of all sizes and nearly 300 military personnel were involved in the project.

This map shows the route of the first transcontinental motorized convoy in 1919. (Illustration: US Army)

While traveling in the convoy, Eisenhower took notes for his report; including sightings of the mosaic of narrow and winding paved and unpaved roads the convoy traveled on, old bridges it crossed (some of which predated automobiles), and other obstacles in getting around. Service in the convoy helped him better understand the need for a network of connected roads and bridges.

Details in his report included roads so narrow that oncoming traffic was forced off the road and the bridge infrastructure was too low for trucks to use. He was the most critical of the roads in the Midwest, but noted that the routes the convoy took in the eastern United States were more convenient for truck use. The majority of the American population lived in the East, which meant the road network was better (for the most part). In addition, the trucks of that time were much smaller than the trucks of today.

Eisenhower also praised the paved roads in California. A key observation was that the convoy was negatively impacted by the different grades of roads that crossed the hills encountered.

WWII and postwar years

As Supreme Allied Commander for the invasion of Europe, General Eisenhower oversaw the defeat of Nazi Germany. After breaking through the beaches and hedges of Normandy, the Allied armies rushed through France and Germany to drive out the retreating German Wehrmacht (army). As reported in a recent four-part FreightWaves Classics series on the Red Ball Express, the US armies have passed their supply lines and the Red Ball Express has helped resupply them for nearly three months.

One of the signs along the Red Ball Express route.  (Photo:
One of the signs along the Red Ball Express route. (Photo:

This contrasted with the extensive road network built by the Germans before the war. In his presidential memoir, Eisenhower wrote, “During World War II, I saw the superlative German highway system – [the] national roads crossing this country.

Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler ceremoniously shoveled the earth in September 1933 for the construction of the highway.
(Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R27373 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 from

World War II in Europe ended in early May 1945. Eisenhower was commander of the US occupation zone in Germany until November of that year. During this time, his troops used the highways (and began to repair sections destroyed during the war). He saw firsthand how useful the road network was for moving troops, equipment and supplies.

Gen. Lucius Clay / The Clay Committee

Lieutenant-General Lucius Clay was a graduate of the United States Military Academy and an engineer by training. He helped lead the Allied logistics effort after the D-Day landings. He was also a key aide to Eisenhower during the war and during Eisenhower’s presidency.

Eisenhower appointed Clay to head the President’s Advisory Committee on the National Highway System in 1954. The Clay Committee developed a plan for a national highway system, and submitted its plan and report to Congress on the National Highway Program. .

Lucius Clay and President Eisenhower review the Clay Committee report.  (Photo:
Lucius Clay and President Eisenhower review the Clay Committee report. (Photo:

The heart of the plan was to spend $ 50 billion (around $ 488 billion today) over 10 years to build a “vast system of interconnected highways.” The committee’s proposal to Congress was based on four key points.

Safety was the report’s top priority. He highlighted the 36,000 fatal road accidents in the United States and their impact on the national economy. Second, the report cited the physical conditions of existing roads and their impact on the overall cost of vehicle ownership. Poorly maintained roads have had a negative impact on the economy by increasing transport costs. National security was the report’s third key finding. The potential for a nuclear attack on the United States required emergency evacuations from major cities, as well as the ability to quickly move troops and materiel on the country’s roads. Finally, there was the overall health of the US economy. Roads and transportation improvements were needed to accommodate the growing population, while being “essential to the economy and to the efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

The Cold War

The Interstate Highway System is the largest US public works project in history. (It also spans over 65 years and continues today). It all started when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a major national budget priority and was constantly in the news.

The Cold War was also one of the main reasons for the construction of the Interstate Highway System (IHS). Eisenhower was elected president in November 1952 and took office on January 20, 1953. Shortly after, longtime Soviet dictator Josef Stalin passed away. This led to a struggle for leadership in the USSR which was ultimately “won” by Nikita Khrushchev, who was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

A photo of President Eisenhower and Nikita Kruschev, leader of the Soviet Union.  (Photo:
A photo of President Eisenhower and Nikita Kruschev, leader of the Soviet Union. (Photo:

In August 1953, the first Soviet hydrogen bomb was tested; it ended the US lead in nuclear superiority. The American and Western leaders were very concerned about the new nuclear weapons of the USSR. In addition, the situation frightened the general public. At that time, civil defense exercises were commonplace; bomb shelters were built and many (inside and outside the government) believed nuclear war was on the horizon. In fact, polls have shown that 79% of the United States believed a nuclear conflict was imminent. If war broke out, more than 70 million city dwellers would be forced to evacuate by road.

In this regard, the Clay Committee report said: “Rapid improvement of the entire 40,000-mile interstate system, including necessary urban connections, is therefore vital as a civil defense measure.

National defense / tests

In June 1955, a large-scale urban evacuation exercise was organized. It did not go well (mass confusion as well as congested escape routes) and highlighted the need for IHS. The Eisenhower administration continued to advocate for a uniform system of roads for national defense; the Department of Defense (DoD) has been ordered to get involved in the effort.

In central Illinois, a test area was built to “assess pavement, highway standards and construction techniques, among others.” Equipment and personnel for the tests were provided by the DoD. From their experience of the two world wars, senior military leaders understood that an efficient road network was the key to national defense. For example, during World War I, military truck traffic severely damaged some of the rudimentary roads that had been used to move troops to training camps and then to ports on the east coast. During World War II, the country’s defense factories were supplied by both rail and truck. However, the poor condition of the roads and the absence of uniform road standards have sometimes had a negative impact on this supply effort.

Over a two-year period, US Army trucks traveled more than 17 million kilometers on Illinois test roads. These tests helped engineers develop standards for road construction and maintenance.

Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, allocating federal funds for the construction of interstate highways.

The Missouri Highway Commission awarded the first contract to begin highway construction along famous Route 66 in rural Laclede County, 160 miles southwest of St. Louis. However, construction of the first section of the freeway began in St. Charles County, Missouri on August 13, 1956. Kansas and Pennsylvania also claimed that their states were the first to build functional sections of the highway. highway.

President Eisenhower cuts the ribbon on a brand new section of the IHS.  (Photo: US Army)
President Eisenhower cuts the ribbon on a brand new section of the IHS. (Photo: US Army)

Regardless of which state first built part of the IHS, there was great enthusiasm for a uniform system of roads, bridges and tunnels when construction began in 1956. Construction of the IHS IHS proceeded rapidly across the country, and in the early 1990s, nearly 45,000 miles of interstate highways were completed.

This is an aerial view of a 13 mile section of I-65, which was part of the Mobile to Montgomery route.  It cost $ 3.8 million to build and was not yet open to traffic when this photograph was taken.  (Photo:
This is an aerial view of a 13 mile section of I-65, which was part of the Mobile to Montgomery route. It cost $ 3.8 million to build and was not yet open to traffic when this photograph was taken. (Photo:

The author is indebted to the Federal Highway Administration and US Army archives for the information used in this article.

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