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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We The People: Eisenhower’s legacy and the Philadelphia I-95 collapse

An elevated Interstate 90 freeway runs over Wallace, Idaho.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
By Ignacio Cowles The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s Question: Dwight Eisenhower is famous for many things. Name one.

President Joe Biden last week visited the site of Philadelphia’s Interstate 95 collapse, where a truck fire melted an overpass and made the highway impassable to its more than 160,000 daily users.

Likely the busiest segment of the highway in the state, the damage created delays along the entire Eastern Seaboard.

The National Interstate Highway system, now integral to U.S. infrastructure and culture, was the brainchild of another president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose experiences with road transport encouraged him to create today’s interstate highway system.

Robert Donnelly, associate professor of history at Gonzaga, teaches about both post-WWII presidents and the role of the city in American history.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library says that the 34th president saw the importance of a national roadway system in 1919, when as a young Army officer he took part in an expedition assessing the military use of road travel from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The trip took 62 days and averaged 6 miles per hour, with soldiers often needing to push trucks up steep and inadequate trails.

Twenty -five years later, as supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower became well known for his skill in military logistics. He created the “Red Ball Express,” a truck convoy system that supplied Allied troops in France and the Low Countries in response to the war-torn continent’s decimated transport networks.

He witnessed the benefits of Germany’s “Reichsautobahn,” a rural highway system that contributed to the country’s prewar economy and later helped American GIs as they chased retreating German armies back into the fatherland.

“Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land,” Eisenhower later wrote.

As president from 1953 to 1961, Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Interstate Highway System.

This newfound ease of cross-country travel resulted in a huge cultural shift, making suburban living much more accessible and embedding the automobile as an intrinsic part of American life.

The adoption of the automobile had been in force since Ford’s Model T made driving accessible to the general public, but highways made traveling by car more accessible than ever before and even contributed to the popularity of national parks, Donnelly noted. They were made a feasible destination for the middle class.

Highways also created the sprawling cities of Los Angeles and Houston with the car as their exclusive conduit.

The highway system was also controversial for demolishing neighborhoods and dividing cities along racial or class lines, a process that has continued to disadvantage primarily lower-income communities of color that were brushed aside during the system’s construction because they lived on the cheapest land in urban centers.

The system “made segregation even more rigid,” Donnelly said, but he did not think this was necessarily the president’s intention.

“Eisenhower was primarily concerned with national defense and didn’t consider Civil Rights the utmost priority,” Donnelly said.

In Eisenhower’s mind, the system would both ease transport of the military for defense purposes and encourage the growing economy, and he was not involved in the system’s implementation or specific choices of land, Donnelly said.

While Eisenhower did intervene in Civil Rights cases, most notably sending the 101st Airborne to protect the group of Black students trying to desegregate Arkansas schools known as the Little Rock Nine, his concern was first and foremost crushing states’ defiance of his federal orders, Donnelly said.

The last of the coast-to-coast highways, Interstate 90, was completed in 1991 in Wallace, Idaho, after the town pushed to designating the entire downtown as a historical place. It forced construction of a viaduct instead.

On June 17, Biden pledged to “move heaven and earth” in completing the repairs in Philadelphia, with a timeline of two weeks proposed before a more permanent bridge could be constructed.

The highway was reopened ahead of schedule on June 23 with a temporary bridge made from recycled glass. A more permanent overpass is slated to be built in the coming months.