The Federal Highway Act: America’s Landscape and Culture Forever Changed

Eisenhower HighwayThe Federal Highway Act – By Daniel Sheridan

On this day, July 12, 1954, a plan was put forward which brought about one of the greatest changes in the American landscape and culture.

My parents remember vividly the political climate of the 1950s. They recall going to Chicago beaches and seeing signs everywhere bearing the slogan, “I Like Ike.” In the 1970s, when I was a child, my father got me hooked on coin collecting. He would snatch up every Eisenhower silver dollar he came across to add to my collection, those were my favorite. My prized possession was my double-headed Eisenhower silver dollar, a misprint of some kind. My friends always wondered why I won every coin toss determining who bats first, and I’ve yet to this day revealed my secret!

The former General was courted by both parties, but he ended up running and winning as a Republican. The cold-war was raging and Ike seemed like the perfect man for the job under such circumstances. Over 75-million people watched President Eisenhower’s inauguration on TV.

Ike, having seen enough of war, longed for peace. He downsized the military and used the extra money to improve our quality of life at home, his infrastructure improvements making the most impact. Ike pushed through Congress the largest public works project in American history, a project which forever changed the American landscape and way of life.

On this day, July 12, 1954, Ike put forward a plan for an interstate highway system called, “The Federal Highway Act.” Congress approved it in 1956 and work began almost immediately. The largest road-building project in American History called for the laying of 41,000 miles of road over a thirteen year period at the cost of 32-billion dollars.

Ike sold the act as a national security measure. If there was a nuclear attack, the roads would provide rapid routes for people fleeing the cities; in case of Soviet invasion, the roads provided maneuvering routes for the U.S. military. Thankfully, they were never utilized for these purposes! Instead, the military project provided for the peaceful transportation of people and goods.

The Federal Highway Act forever changed the American landscape and culture. The mid-50s saw an economic boom as a result of the cold war spending and wages had doubled since World War Two. As a result, people’s idea of the American dream was altered. Before World War Two, most people lived in cities, found jobs close to home, and were content to stay where they were for the rest of their lives. But in the 50s the people, because of their higher wages, were driving bigger cars and living in bigger houses, and because of the new highway system eighty-percent of those houses were being built in the suburbs. By 1960, the suburban populations equaled the cities. The Federal Highway Act is largely responsible for this change of landscape and culture.

Ike was worried about the spending, however, as the Act accounted for half of I Like Ikethe budget. Ike’s final message to the American public was a solemn warning about the Military Industrial Complex.

Next time you drive the Interstates or visit a suburb, remember the slogan, “I Like Ike.”

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