With the stroke of a pen on June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower set in motion the realization of a long-held dream: the construction of a spectacular system of highways that would tie America together as never before.

Whether it is commuting to work, embarking on the great American road trip or something as simple as receiving a product that has wended its way across hundreds, perhaps thou- sands of miles of highway, nearly everyone in America benefits from the Eisenhower Interstate System on a day-to-day basis. Most Americans, however, do not know the history behind one of the country’s greatest public works projects, and fewer still understand the motivation of the man whose personal experience and vision brought the massive and challenging project to fruition. The story of the creation of the Interstate Highway System spans two world wars and the life of one of America’s most famous leaders.

In 1919, following the end of World War I, an Army expedition was organized to traverse the nation from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The First Transcontinental Motor Convoy (FTMC) left the nation’s capital on July 7, following a brief ceremony and the dedication of the “Zero Milestone” at the Ellipse just south of the White House. Joining the expedition as an observer was a young lieutenant colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Only eight months earlier the Allied powers and Germany had signed an armistice ending World War I, a conflict that is today synonymous with savage trench fighting, the chilling call to “fix bayonets!” and so many blighted and blood-soaked fields. Yet as Secretary of War Newton D. Baker noted during the FTMC’s ceremonial send-off: “The world war was a war of motor transport. It was a war of movement, especially in the later stages….There seemed to be a never-ending stream of transports moving along the white roads of France.”

Baker’s important observation factored directly into the departing convoy’s primary objectives. As stated in one official report, those objectives included: “To service-test the special-purpose vehicles developed for use in the first World War, not all of which were available in time for such use, and to determine by actual experience the possibility and the problems involved in moving an army across the continent, assuming that railroad facilities, bridges, tunnels, etc., had been damaged or destroyed by agents of an Asiatic enemy.”

At its starting point, the massive convoy consisted of 34 heavy cargo trucks, four light delivery trucks, two machine shops, one blacksmith shop, one wrecking truck, two spare-parts stores, two water tanks, one gasoline tank, one searchlight, one caterpillar tractor, four kitchen trailers, eight touring cars, one reconnaissance car, two staff observation cars, five sidecar motorcycles and four motorcycles, all of which were operated and maintained by 258 enlisted men, 15 War Department staff observation officers and 24 expeditionary officers. By the time the expedition reached San Francisco on September 6—62 days after setting out, the convoy had traveled 3,251 miles, at an average of 58.1 miles per day and 6.07 miles per hour.

It was truly an unprecedented undertaking in every regard, and although the mission was a success, the numbers were disappointing if not dismal. According to a report by William C. Greany, captain of the Motor Transport Corps, the convoy lost nine vehicles—“so damaged as to require retirement while en route”—and 21 men “thru various casualties” (mercifully there was no mention of fatalities). During the course of its journey, the convoy destroyed or otherwise damaged 88 “mostly wooden highway bridges and culverts” and was involved in 230 “road accidents” or, more precisely, “instances of road failure and vehicles sinking in quicksand or mud, running off the road or over embankments, over-turning, or other mishaps due entirely to the unfavorable and at times appalling traffic conditions that were encountered.”

The after-action report of Lt. Col. Eisenhower, one of the 15 War Department staff observation officers, noted: “In many places excellent roads were installed some years ago that have since received no attention whatsoever. Absence of any effort at maintenance has resulted in roads of such rough nature as to be very difficult of negotiating.” Even more vexing, many of what otherwise would have been considered “good roads” were simply too narrow for military vehicles. Others were too rough, sandy or steep for trucks that in some cases weighed in excess of 11 tons. Eisenhower claimed, “The train operated so slowly in such places, that in certain instances it was noted that portions of the train did not move for two hours.”

The July 30 entry in the FTMC’s daily log, for example, shows it covered 83 miles in 10 hours through Nebraska, not exactly burning up the track but a good clip nonetheless at about 8 miles per hour. Just three days later, however, the convoy became mired in “gumbo roads,” which slowed the rate of progress to 30 miles in 10 grueling hours—at one point even causing 25 of the expedition’s trucks to go skidding into a ditch. “Two days were lost in [the] western part of this state,” Eisenhower later recorded.

For all involved, the military convoy was a learning experience, a sharp illustration of the disrepair and, more often than not, complete lack of highway infrastructure in many areas of the country, particularly the heartland. The majority of the nation’s roads and highways were simply a mess. Even the Lincoln Highway, the most famous transcontinental highway of its day, had been described as nothing more than “an imaginary line, like the equator”!

Eisenhower’s experience with the FTMC provided him with great insight into the logistics of moving large quantities of men and materiel across vast stretches of land and convinced him of the necessity of building and maintaining the infrastructure to do so more efficiently. Yet, as educational as his experience with the convoy had been, it would be dwarfed by the greater and far more serious challenges of World War II.

In November 1942, 21 years after the FTMC and nearly a year after the United States had entered the war, Eisenhower was appointed to command Allied forces in Operation Torch, aimed at evicting the Axis powers from North Africa.

There was much about Operation Torch to dislike from a command standpoint. Given the physical geography and the incredibly poor infrastructure of the lands he and his forces were invading, the operation was a logistical nightmare.

Torch required three amphibious landings spread over 800 miles: at Casablanca, on the western coast of Morocco, and at Oran and Algiers, along the Algerian coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Each group was to hit the ground running and make all due haste east, toward the ultimate goal of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Unfortunately for the Allies, North Africa was not well suited to the rapid movement of military convoys. The Atlas Mountains, where elevation at places exceeds 13,000 feet, spanned virtually the entire area of operations, and the infrastructure, where it existed, was generally poor at best.

The fact that Casablanca was more than 1,000 miles west of its objective meant a longer, more vulnerable supply line and much slower going when speed was essential. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, many, including Eisenhower, “could see no good reason to terminate the seaborne phase of the amphibious assault 1,000 miles away from the objective, which itself was on the coast and could be reached quicker on ship than on foot.” Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, however, was concerned that if all three landing sites were within the Mediterranean it might tempt Adolf Hitler to invade Spain, giving him the opportunity to blockade the Straits of Gibraltar and strangle the seaborne Allied supply lines.

The race to reach Tunis before it could be reinforced with Axis troops found the Allies at a decided disadvantage. Axis troops moved with ease through Benito Mussolini’s Italy and onto Sicily, approximately 150 miles off the Tunisian coast, little more than a long ferry ride. The Allies, according to Ambrose, were, by comparison, “dependent on unimproved dirt roads and a poorly maintained single-track railroad.” When the Allied heads of state began to lament the slow advance, Eisenhower barked back that, in spite of commandeering every vehicle that would move, he was hindered by the complete absence of organized motor transport. Moreover, the Luftwaffe’s strong presence over the Mediterranean prevented shipping supplies that far into the sea.

According to Ambrose, Eisenhower privately confided to Marshall that his situation was so hodgepodge and patchwork it would “make a ritualist in warfare go just a bit hysterical.” Some did; others got creative. Lieutenant General Sir Kenneth Anderson of the British First Army became so fed up with the logistical situation that he resorted to bringing supplies into the Tunis area by pack mule. Every bit as slow and obstinate as the four-wheeled alternative, a good mule was at least much less likely to break down in the mountains.

Although the Allies failed to beat the Axis reinforcements to Tunis, they did eventually win the race to resupply. Germany was so invested in stalemating the Soviet Union along the Eastern Front that the materiel it was allocating to Afrika Korps represented little more than the barest scraps of an almost incalculably vast resource pool. Ultimately, the fact that Allied supplies had to travel much greater distances to the front weighed little against the sheer volume of output coming from American production capacity at its peak. Operation Torch was a success, albeit belatedly. With French North Africa free from the Axis powers, Eisenhower and the Allies were finally able to turn their attention toward the big picture, namely a full-scale Allied invasion of Europe the following year.

As harrowing and dramatic as any single event during the war could be, D-Day was also, by its very nature, only the beginning of the Crusade in Europe (as Eisenhower later titled the memoirs of his experience in-theater). As jubilant as the Allied forces were after having successfully penetrated Hitler’s so-called Atlantic Wall—the layered network of coastal defenses protecting occupied France—there was an even greater challenge facing them on the other side. Several hundred miles of terrain, which the Wehrmacht had occupied for nearly four years, remained between the Allies and their ultimate objective, Berlin. Much of the worst fighting still lay ahead—not far ahead, either.

Normandy’s famous hedgerows stymied Allied advances almost from the beginning. The densely packed hedgerows and narrow roads slowed tank movements to a crawl, making them easy pickings for German units wielding the Panzerfaust (an early model of rocket-propelled grenade). The great majority of the advancing, therefore, had to be done piecemeal by slow-moving infantry. Nearly two months later, all that the Allies had to show for their efforts to push farther into the Continent was a skimpy front 80 miles wide, extending 30 miles inland at its deepest points. In an ominous throwback to World War I, commanders again began to measure their advances in yards instead of miles.

Once the Allies emerged from hedgerow country, however, the terrain significantly opened up. Lieutenant General George S. Patton was the first to break out, on August 1; by the 6th he was halfway to Paris. “The nightmare of a static front was over,” Ambrose wrote. “Distances that had taken months and cost tens of thousands of lives to cross in World War I” were being crossed in mere hours with minimal casualties. Even so, isolated sections of terrain proved nearly impassable. According to Ambrose, the Hürtgen Forest, “where roads were nothing more than forest trails,” and the Ardennes Mountains, with their “limited road network,” were hell on both tanks and infantry. There would be further setbacks not attributable to infrastructure, primarily the German counteroffensive at the Battle of the Bulge, but the Allies were headed full-bore for the Rhine, while on the Eastern Front the Red Army was bearing down on Berlin.

It was not until the Allies broke through the Western Wall and tapped into Germany’s sprawling autobahn network that Eisenhower saw for himself what a modern army could do with an infrastructure capable of accommodating it. The enhanced mobility that the autobahn provided the Allies was something to behold, and years later was still cause for reminiscing. “The old convoy,” Eisenhower wrote, referring to his experience with the FTMC, “had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”,l

Eisenhower’s experience commanding and directing the movements of massive quantities of troops and equipment, added to his early experience with the FTMC, strengthened his recognition that America was sorely lacking in a national highway defense system. In a situation requiring the mass exodus of an entire city or region or the urgent mobilization of troops for purposes of national defense, the federal government, to say nothing of state and local entities, would have been hard-pressed to adequately respond. Moreover, the need for such critical infrastructure became that much more urgent as the Soviet Union eagerly stepped into the power vacuum created by the fall of Nazi Germany. The idyllic Allied notion that all would be right with the world following the death of Hitler and the smashing of the German armies quickly gave way to the painful realization that there is always reason to remain prepared, always someone else to fight.

Not surprisingly, therefore, when Eisenhower became the 34th U.S. president in 1953, he pushed for the building of an interstate highway system. Although Congress had first authorized a national highway system in 1944, it had always been woefully underfunded. Throwing the full weight of his presidency behind the project, Eisenhower declared to Congress on February 22, 1955: “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south.

“Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear— United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

More than a year later, on June 29, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, guaranteeing full, dedicated funding for the project. The National Highway Defense System (NHDS), as it was initially known, has been referred to as one of the “Seven Wonders of the United States,” among other such notable structures as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal. What sets the NHDS apart from those wonders, and what Eisenhower addressed as one of its greatest selling points, is the fact that it truly has strengthened and enhanced the Union (including noncontiguous states Alaska and Hawaii, as well as the territory of Puerto Rico). Only the Panama Canal, which similarly made the United States more accessible to itself by greatly reducing the time required to ship goods from coast to coast, can claim anything approaching a similar distinction.

The scope of the NHDS is underscored by its individual components. The longest east-west route, I-90, stretches more than 3,000 miles, linking Seattle to Boston. I-95 serves a similar end for north-south travel: Extending from Miami to Maine, its nearly 2,000 miles of highway cross through 15 states—including all 13 of the original colonies—and the District of Columbia. (It is also estimated to have been the most expensive route to construct, at a cost of nearly $8 billion.) Texas boasts the most interstate mileage within a single state, with more than 3,200; New York claims the most interstate routes, with 29. California is second in both categories, with just under 2,500 miles of interstate on its 25 routes.

The structural achievements involved are no less staggering than the numbers. Although the “highway” is often declaimed as an eyesore at worst and bland at best, the NHDS is actually composed of many unique wonders of modern engineering and ingenuity. Some of the most spectacular cross large bodies of water or ride alongside the Pacific Coast. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Fla., a so-called cable-stayed bridge, has been lauded by The New York Times for its “lyrical and tensile strength”—indeed rows of small cables attached to two single-column pylons support the weight of the bridge below “like the strings of a harp.”

Several interstate routes in California and Hawaii hug the coasts, offering panoramic views of stunning Pacific seaside vistas to passing motorists.

Other achievements in interstate construction are closely associated with the “Not In My Backyard” movement. Many urban areas have “gone green” in recent decades, improving their routes to meet increased environmental concerns and the aesthetic needs of citizens; some projects were even forced to halt construction entirely until such concerns were addressed in advance. Worries about the safety of the endangered and much beloved Florida panther led to the construction of special underpasses along Alligator Alley, the portion of I-75 that connects Naples and Miami in Florida, allowing panthers and other wildlife to cross safely beneath the flow of traffic. One section of I-10 in Arizona that opened in 1990, the Papago Freeway, runs beneath “19 side-by-side bridges that form the foundation for a 12- hectare [29.6 acre] urban park,” according to Richard F. Weingroff, a former official at the Federal Highway Administration. Known as the Margaret T. Hance Park, the space was conceived as a unique solution to the vexing problem of how to maintain connections between neighborhoods divided by the interstate. In other areas, simpler concerns required simpler solutions, such as tree-lined medians, noise-reducing berms and walls, lowered speed limits and prohibitions against large trucks.

A frequent complaint leveled against the NHDS is that it has stripped the adventure and romanticism from long-distance traveling. Upon the completion of I-40 (Barstow, Calif., to Wilmington, N.C.), the late CBS News commentator Charles Kuralt observed: “It is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything. From the Interstate, America is all steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks and feels and sounds and smells like every other place.” While the criticism is to an extent justified, it is also true that the NHDS directly serves nearly every major metropolitan area (as well as countless smaller areas of population) and is home to, or otherwise conveniently located near, thousands of tourist destinations across the country.

Some of the most intriguing and impressive tourist stops are those that are not content to simply nestle alongside the highway, but those that, like the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, literally straddle it. The Archway Monument, a 1,500- ton structure spanning 308 feet across I-80 in Kearney, Neb., is a celebration of frontier culture designed to resemble a covered bridge. Built to honor the thousands of pioneers who had followed the arduous route from Missouri to the West Coast during the 19th century, the Archway Monument is a living bridge to history over a modern river of asphalt, a testament to the wisdom of and need for well-planned, well-constructed infrastructure. Eisenhower would have approved of the symbolism.

Whatever else these features may be in and of themselves, they are ultimately incidental to the system’s much more vital main purpose. The NHDS, according to a 1996 report written by Wendell Cox and Jean Love 40 years after Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, was conceived and marketed as the best possible way to facilitate “the quick and efficient movement of military equipment and personnel” in the event of a Soviet invasion or nuclear strike. Inspired by the autobahn, Eisenhower envisioned multilane highways—“broader ribbons across the land,” as he called them—yet even at its narrowest points, the system can still accommodate all but the most cumbersome wheeled or tracked military vehicles. Also, most military bases are situated within close proximity to the NHDS, adding to the already unequaled in-country response capability of the U.S. armed forces—a fact that is every bit as comforting as the fact that there has never been occasion to use this capability to its utmost.

One widely held dual-use-related belief is that one out of every five miles of the NHDS is mandated to be straight and level, capable of functioning as an emergency airstrip. Aside from the fact that, according to Weingroff, “no law, regulation, policy, or sliver of red tape requires that one out of every five miles of the interstate highway system be straight,” it is virtually impossible from an engineering standpoint. The NHDS is composed of nearly 50,000 miles of road, meaning that almost 10,000 miles would need to be straight and level to conform to the supposed one-in-five-mile rule, a figure that is wildly unrealistic. In addition, from an aerial standpoint, an airstrip every five miles is superfluous, given the speed at which modern aircraft travel. Although there are long and level stretches of highway that could function as an emergency landing strip in a pinch, they are nowhere near as evenly parceled out as the one-in-five-mile rule would suggest. (The use of highway infrastructure for an airstrip is not unheard of, however: Nazi Germany did use limited stretches of the autobahn for such purposes during World War II.)

One cannot discuss the NHDS without also mentioning its impact on the U.S. economy. It is, quite literally, the economic engine that drives this country’s prosperity. No other industrialized nation has such a sprawling and comprehensive system of roadways, though many are now seeking to emulate the U.S. model as a means toward becoming more competitive in the international marketplace. One look at the figures in the Cox and Love report and it is not hard to understand why. By 1996 the interstates, comprising just over 1 percent of the miles of public road in this country, carried “nearly one-quarter of the nation’s surface passenger transport and 45 percent of motor freight transport.” During the course of its first 40 years, the system was responsible for an increase of “approximately one-quarter of the nation’s productivity.” Highway transportation and directly related industries accounted for more than 7 million jobs.

Indirectly related industries have felt the uptick, as well. In the restaurant business alone, employment “has increased more than seven times the rate of population growth,” according to the Cox and Love report. By making “‘just in time’ delivery more feasible” while simultaneously reducing tractor-trailer operating costs by as much as 17 percent compared with other roadways, the NHDS has played a major role in making the electronic marketplace a workable phenomenon for all parties involved: retailers, delivery companies and consumers alike. Perhaps the most telling figure is the return rate of $6 for every $1 spent on highway construction. Consider also that in the 10 years since those figures were generated, several factors—population expansion, the advent of e-commerce, our national reluctance to fly following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—have conspired to place an even greater share of traffic onto our nation’s highways. The many differences separating 2006 from 1996 notwithstanding, the conclusion of the Cox and Love report concerning the economic impact of the NHDS remains as true today as the day it was written: “By improving inter-regional access, the interstate highway system has helped to create a genuinely national domestic market with companies able to supply their products to much larger geographical areas, and less expensively.”

For most of us, though, the dual-use military features and the economic benefits of the NHDS are barely an afterthought. The interstate is a way to get to work, to go downtown, to shave 30 minutes off the drive to grandma’s house. Often it is the backbone of that uniquely American pastime, the road trip. Sometimes it’s just a headache. Occasionally it becomes a lifeline out of harm’s way.

In 1990 the National Highway Defense System was renamed the Dwight David Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways under an act of Congress signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. As tributes go, it was perfectly appropriate. “Of all his domestic programs,” Ambrose wrote, “Eisenhower’s favorite by far was the Interstate System.”

For all its detractors’ criticism, the interstate system, more than any other project in the past 50 years, has encouraged an unprecedented democratization of mobility. It has opened up access to an array of goods and services previously unavailable to many and created massive opportunities for five decades and three generations of Americans. It has made the country more accessible to itself while also making it safer and more secure, outcomes that in almost any other undertaking would prove mutually exclusive.

“More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America,” Eisenhower wrote in 1963. “Its impact on the American economy—the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up—was beyond calculation.” The clarity of his vision and the resiliency of his words are inarguable. The Eisenhower Interstate System has grown to be valuable beyond its original intent and is a lasting tribute to American ingenuity, ability and strength of purpose.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here