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 ), 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.