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American History: December 1997 From the Editor

Originally published on Published Online: August 11, 1997 
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Thoughts on History

This issue of American History has a lot to do with distances, specifically the difficulty bridging them. The United States is a large country, as I learned from experience the first time I drove across it. One night I broke down on a deserted road in the middle of Texas. Fortunately, there was a gas station about a mile away, so I managed to get going again, thanks to my inventive (if I say so myself) use of a crushed soda can and an empty container of jalapeño bean dip.

No doubt the men of the U.S. Army's 1919 cross-country convoy (page 38) found themselves in similar situations, and I'm sure they derived equally inventive solutions. At least I could find a gas station, a rare thing out west in 1919. It is eye-opening to find out how difficult it used to be to traverse this country, something that is easy to forget today as we zip along interstate highways.

The interstate highway system is a legacy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He learned about the importance of good highways firsthand by signing up as an observer for the 1919 convoy. In fact, he took most of the photographs in our story. At the time, his career opportunities looked pretty bleak. With World War I over, the postwar Army was a difficult place for advancement. In that respect he was much like another soldier in this issue, George Armstrong Custer (page 22). Custer found success during the Civil War, but afterwards he lacked an outlet for his ambitions. He finally found another war on the Western Plains. Thanks to his spectacular death at the Little Bighorn, Custer became a symbol of the clash between the United States and Native Americans–a clash caused by the nation's hunger to expand.

On page 32 you will find out how difficult it could be to transport mail across the country. Like interstate highways, mail is something we often take for granted, but developing efficient delivery has been a long process. People love to complain about the postal system, but it is really quite an amazing one–even when it brings you nothing but junk.

The unofficial motto carved on the New York Post Office Building mentions some obstacles the U.S. Postal Service has to overcome–rain, snow, heat, the gloom of night. In this age of high-speed communications we could update the list to include inconveniences like jammed fax machines and balky modems–though those new-fangled technologies have certainly helped bridge distances. Today we do live in a small world–but as comedian Steven Wright said, I wouldn't want to paint it.

Tom Huntington, Acting Editor, American History

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