A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History

By Clayton McClure Brooks | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
Connecting the United States
Governors and the Building of the Interstate System

DAN MCNICHOL

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways has become an asphalt and concrete monument to greatness in government. A half-century after work on the project began it stands as a primary example of the powerful partnership between states and the federal government. The Interstate System, built by a state and federal coalition, has physically united the nation, modernized the economy, and strengthened national security. When he took office in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower knew that in order to succeed this largest of federal programs needed the backing of every governor in the United States. Logically, he introduced the idea of his “Grand Plan” to his fellow chief executives who were attending the Governors’ Conference of 1954. These governors became the ones most responsible for the program’s success. Governors unleashed their state’s resources, carrying the Interstate System through its crucial stage—the first few years of construction. In supporting the commander-in-chief’s concept of one enormous superhighway system, governors handed members of Congress a mandate to do the same. Finally, it was these governors who got the program off the ground by raising funds, launching the work, and ensuring that the undertaking would prevail.

Winning the support of every governor proved challenging—even for the most victorious general in American history. During the 1950s, there were 166 governors. After Eisenhower’s election to the Oval Office in 1952, there was only one president. The numbers were not in Eisenhower’s favor.1 Hosting a group of governors for lunch at the White House, Eisenhower broke bread in the first few hours of his first term. The topic of road building was raised. The consensus among the governors at the table: the federal government should get out, and keep out, of the roadbuilding business. These governors believed that states should be the

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