by Simon Black, Sovereign Man:
At 11:15am on July 7, 1919, a US Army convoy consisting of 81 military vehicles departed Washington, DC for a perilous journey to San Francisco.
The army convoy wasn’t responding to an emergency or preparing for battle. In fact, since World War I had just ended, the United States was shifting focus back to its own domestic challenges. And one of those challenges was the pitiful state of America’s road network.
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There were hardly any roads in the US back in the early 1900s, and most of the ones that existed weren’t paved. That was actually the entire purpose of the Army’s 3,251 mile cross-country convoy: to demonstrate just how BAD the roads really were.
Among the convoy’s participants was a 28-year old Army officer named Dwight Eisenhower, and he wrote extensively about the journey.
He observed that much of America was almost impassable, even for military vehicles. Roads in the Great Plains turned into bottomless mud pits when it rained, and Eisenhower wrote that during one particularly rainy day, 25 trucks slid off the road.
By the time they got to Utah, the dusty desert roads clogged up their engines, causing them to abandon a dozen vehicles along the way. And the steep grades of the western forests and mountains caused their travel to slow to a pedestrian pace.
Eisenhower found humor in the convoy’s ever-present troubles, writing later that they were like “a traveling troupe of clowns.” But despite his positive outlook, the need to improve America’s infrastructure was burned into his memory.
Decades later when Eisenhower became the military governor of occupied Germany after World War II, he witnessed first hand how much better and more efficient the German autobahn road network was. And he knew the United States needed to modernize its highway system.
Eisenhower became US President a few years later in 1953. And the following year he appointed Lucius Clay to head the national highway project.
Clay was a civil engineer and former Army general who had spent his career overseeing complex infrastructure projects, leading large organizations, managing enormous budgets, and solving major logistics challenges.
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He was even responsible for organizing the miraculous Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949, in which over 270,000 flights brought 2.3 million tons of supplies into West Berlin during the Soviet blockade; it was considered logistically impossible… but Clay pulled it off.
In short, Lucius Clay was eminently qualified for the job of establishing an interstate highway system in the United States.
When Eisenhower presented Clay’s report to Congress, virtually everyone agreed that America’s lack of infrastructure was a problem. And both political parties understood that building a highway system was critical for national defense and economic growth.
Naturally they disagreed on several issues; for example, Eisenhower wanted to fund the project with tolls. Others in Congress wanted to issue debt, while others wanted to fund it with taxes.
But in the end, both Congress and the White House quickly reached a compromise to pass the Federal Highway Act. And on August 13, 1956– less than two years from when Lucius Clay took charge– the groundbreaking of the first interstate highway took place near St. Louis, Missouri (I-70).
The US interstate highway system is a monument to the sensible, efficient way that the federal government was once able to solve large, complex challenges.
There used to be grown-ups in charge who could clearly recognize a problem, rationally discuss practical solutions, prudently consider the consequences, and quickly reach a compromise to make it happen.
They also used to put competent people in charge of things… real leaders with actual qualifications and experience.