The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 would create what Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce called “the greatest public works program in the history of the world.” The bill authorized the building of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways—turning the word interstate into a noun while radically and permanently altering the American landscape.
Two formative experiences had made Eisenhower a staunch advocate of a national system of superhighways. The first came in 1919, when as a young Army staff officer he accompanied a cross-country motor convoy meant to determine how the nation’s roads would accommodate the newly motorized armed forces. Struggling along roads that he described as “from average to non-existent,” the 81 cars and trucks took 62 days to cross the country, averaging 5 miles an hour.
By contrast during the occupation of Germany after World War II, the future President saw firsthand the Reichsautobahnen, the national high-speed highways that Hitler had ordered built beginning in 1933. Besides accelerating commerce, the roads had proven a boon to the German army. Eisenhower became convinced that America needed something similar.
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