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Most Significant Events of the Twentieth Century

Updated on August 18, 2010
Interstate Highway marker, the most visible symbol of the Interstate system
Interstate Highway marker, the most visible symbol of the Interstate system
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who vision helped stimulate the creation of the Interstate system
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who vision helped stimulate the creation of the Interstate system

1950s--The Interstate Highway System

Internal improvements. Known today as public works, the idea of using government money to finance projects such as road and canal building has been a part of public policy discussions since Henry Clay promoted his "American System" in the early 1800s. The policy matured during the Great Depression, when the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations pushed through works programs to alleviate severe unemployment. The ultimate legacy of Henry Clay's internal improvements advocacy, however, is the Interstate Highway System, the complex network of roads begun in the 1950s that currently ties the nation together, for good or ill. The system's benefits are debatable, to be sure, as history tells us; designed as a product of its times, it serves as a symbol of an extended process of increased government control of the national life, the results of which are, as we shall see, mixed.

The first road built with funds appropriated by Congress was actually the National Road. Started in 1815 in Cumberland, Md., it ultimately stretched to St. Louis, Mo., and became the main route for westward migration for several years. It was poorly maintained, however, and fell into disrepair. The first highway to span the nation from coast to coast was the Lincoln Highway, which went from New York to San Francisco, a distance of over 3000 miles. This road became the inspiration for the Interstate Highway System. In 1919, the Army conducted a convoy of trucks along the Lincoln Highway to test its efficiency in an emergency; the trip took 62 days, a time that was ludicrous even then, due to the poor condition of the road. A young Army major, Dwight Eisenhower, was one of the officers riding in the convoy; having served in Europe in the Great War, he had seen the very efficient Autobahn network in Germany, and he knew what good roads should look like, and their clear advantages for military purposes were not lost on him and others.

Plans for a federal highway system began in 1921, when the Army, at the request of the Bureau of Public Roads, produced the Pershing Map, a diagram of roads considered of strategic importance. State and local highway systems began to be built a few years later. By the late 1930, the federal government finally began to see the need to push for a national system, and the result was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, which was passed to study a proposed system of toll roads. The Bureau of Public Roads found this system to be inadequate, recommending instead a network of over 25,000 miles of federally supported roads. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 provided for a 40,000-mile network, but no funding. A same-named law passed in 1952 provided only minuscule funding, as did legislation in 1954.

In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower became President, and almost immediately took the lead of the lobbying effort for a standardized federal highway system. Following the rule of thumb that opposition to almost any new program can be counteracted by pointing to the horrible consequences that would accompany failure to adopt it (no matter how far-fetched the claims might be), supporters claimed that a widespread highway network was needed because of the danger of a Soviet missile strike crippling transportation--with the new system in place, they said, if the Russians managed to destroy one or more highways with a nuclear bomb, the rest of the network could easily take up the slack. There were, of course, other, more practical advantages to the system, including more efficiently linking distant locations, which would allow for faster travel from one place to another and increase public mobility.

Finally, in 1956, Congress passed, and Eisenhower signed, the latest Federal-Aid Highway Act, which created the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, better known as the Interstate Highway System. (President George H.W, Bush signed legislation in 1990 changing the name to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.) The law provided for 41,000 miles of limited-access highways ("limited-access" meaning they could only be entered by way of widely separated interchanges known as exits); the system was to be regulated and standardized according to national standards, and 90 percent of the costs would be paid by the federal government through a Highway Trust fund set up in the law in order to make it basically self-financing and not add to the federal deficit (a major condition set by President Eisenhower).

The original appropriation for the system was around $37 billion, a figure that had more than tripled by 1991. The construction time was also much longer than originally anticipated; the original network was finally completed in 1993, two years after the end of the Cold War, which had been the entire rationale for its creation in the first place. The Interstate Highway network remains today the largest public works project ever conducted (Henry Clay, presumably would have gasped at its extent), and covers every state in the Union except Alaska.

The system has had huge impacts, both positive and negative, on the development of American society. On the plus side, as stated, it has increased mobility, becoming a kind of symbol for individual freedom, and it has help the growth of businesses and the economy. It has also helped in the development of suburban areas, allowing many to escape the confines of the city and even experiencing home ownership; the number of Americans owning their own houses exploded along with the growth of the Interstate system. On the other hand, significant disadvantages of the system include the development of so-called "corridors of circulation" which have resulted in the creation of urban regions and urban "sprawl" (the obverse side of the urbanization coin); numerous problems such as traffic congestion and smog which are the direct result of increased automobile use; the increasing dependence of the population on automobile transportation and fossil fuels, along with the decline of alternative mass transportation sources, such as passenger railroads; and an aging, badly deteriorated highway system which is virtually crumbling in many places, for which the federal government (supposedly responsible for much of the system's maintenance) has only provided minimal funding for repair.

The major reason for the system's significance is that it represents the first huge example of increasing federal authority in the post-war United States. It was created in the shadow of the ideological struggle between the relatively "democratic" West and the socialist East. It's continued existence is an example and symbol of the combined legacy of national expansion that has its roots in early 19th Century American traditions, and the fear-laced politics of the modern era that continues today in anti-terrorist rhetoric. Interstate highways bind the nation physically; can they also bind it emotionally, producing a whole that is greater than its individual parts?  Stay tuned...


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