The U.S.A covers a staggering amount of territory. At over 3.5 million square miles, it is the world’s fourth-largest country and takes up about 7% of the world’s total land area. Moreover, it is located in a fertile, temperate climate with relatively few deserts, tundras, or other uninhabitable areas. So unlike Russia and Canada (which have greater area but also include enormous swaths of uninhabited tundra), nearly every part of the U.S. is home to large communities of human beings. As a result, this vast nation needs an advanced and comprehensive transportation system to ensure that people and goods can get across the country quickly.

In an earlier era, this rapid transportation was accomplished by railroads. Once private car ownership exploded in the early 20th century, however, it became clear that the U.S. would need a new automobile-based transportation network to replace the old railways. Several presidents, notably Franklin D. Roosevelt, built bits and pieces of a national highway system, but it was not until after World War II that the interstate system in its modern form began to take shape.

Curiously, the interstate system was not always thought of in terms of its civilian uses. Indeed, President Eisenhower (in office 1953-1961) initially championed the system because he thought it was essential for the defense of the continental United States. From his experiences in Germany during the war, he had learned that modern warfare required rapid movement of troops and supplies across vast distances, and he worried that the United States might be crippled by logistical inefficiency in the event of a massive land invasion. Of course, the idea of such an invasion seems silly today, and the interstates are used exclusively for shipping and personal travel. But even though Eisenhower overestimated the threat posed by the Soviet Union, he nonetheless helped build a system of roadways that still carries Americans and their goods from one end of the continent to the other.


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