President Dwight Eisenhower gets claimed by both conservatives and liberals for historical praise. The former likes the times he presided over and that he was an anti-communist and the latter likes his warning against the “military-industrial complex” and his decision to not try to overturn the New Deal. Indeed, many of them think that Eisenhower would not be a Republican today, rather a Democrat. Some in the media have promoted this line of thinking and one of the justifications is the Interstate Highway Act.
Historian Tom Lewis favorably compared Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act to Barack Obama’s proposals for public works programs. Mike Tokars (2015) of the Christian Science Monitor added to this view when he wrote “Also, historians would be quick to point out, one of Eisenhower’s greatest achievements as president was the creation of the Interstate Highway System – a massive civic infrastructure project that cost the equivalent of $500 billion in today’s dollars”. This was in an article giving some credence to Bernie Sanders’ quip that he was to the right of President Dwight Eisenhower in the primary debates. This argument for Eisenhower being a bit of a creature of the left sounds good on its face: after all Republicans mocked the Obama Administration’s “shovel ready” projects and have often stood against public works projects in modern times as they regard them as “make work” projects and “pork”. The opposition of the Republican Party to pork has some history, but that’s for a different post. What I want to address here, like with some of Nixon’s achievements that are lauded as “liberal”, is the idea that the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was a “liberal” law.
President Dwight Eisenhower was, as the commander of the western theater of World War II, naturally not keen on importing policies from Nazi Germany but he made a sole exception: the Autobahn. He admired the creation of the Autobahn and thought it would be great for the United States to have such a system. The official justification, which had its base in Cold War politics, was for the need for military forces to get across the country in case of emergency. You would think that if this were a deeply ideological issue, that the breakdown of passage would be liberals for, and conservatives against. However, the roll call votes that exist on this legislation prove this is not the case. On April 19, 1956, Rep. George Fallon (D-Md.) introduced what would become the Interstate Highway Act after the unexpected defeat of a previous proposal the last year. The House bill had a remarkably easy passage, 388-19, with only fifteen Southern Democrats and four Republicans voting against. This measure even won the approval of H.R. Gross (R-Iowa), who was legendary for his opposition to high spending and pork. The measure moved on to the Senate, in which the primary source of debate was on the application of Davis-Bacon wages to these projects, requiring the paying of construction workers the local “prevailing wage”, which would add to construction costs. A conservative effort to stop the prevailing wage from applying failed, and the conference report on the act was ultimately adopted on June 22nd on a most controversial vote of…drumroll… 89-1. The one vote against was that of Democrat Russell B. Long of Louisiana, who opposed increasing the gas tax. Indeed, such conservative figures as Barry Goldwater of Arizona, John J. Williams of Delaware, and Harry F. Byrd of Virginia all saw the value of the measure and voted for, for defense and infrastructure reasons. The final product of the Highway Act provided $24.8 billion (about $247 billion in 2021 dollars) for 41,000 miles of freeways over a 13-year period and raised federal gas taxes from 2 to 3 cents a gallon with the federal government providing 90% of the funds (Glass). President Eisenhower, who was hospitalized for an intestinal illness, signed the legislation from his hospital bed on June 29th.
The credit for the Interstate Highway Act can in truth go to both liberals and conservatives as it was a consensus measure, just like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act under President Nixon. It is some of the particulars of such measures that met with the most intense debate. Although it is true that conservatives had some major differences on the issues of the day with Eisenhower, including on foreign aid, housing, and federal aid to education, interstate highways wasn’t among them.
Glass, A. (2012, June 26). Federal-Aid Highway Act, June 26, 1956. Politico.
HR 10660. Highway Construction Act. Amend and Supplement Federal-Aid Road Act By Authorizing Funds For Highway Construction. Amend Internal Revenue Code to Provide Additional Revenue for Highways. Govtrack.
HR 10660. Highway Construction Act. Conference Report on Federal Highway and Highway Revenue Acts. Govtrack.
Lewis, T. (2008, December 26). Eisenhower’s roads to prosperity. Los Angeles Times.
Tokar, M. (2015, November 15). Was Eisenhower more of a socialist than Bernie Sanders? The Christian Science Monitor.
Weingroff, R.F. (1996). Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating The Interstate System. Public Roads 60(1).