The Crack-Up: Dwight Eisenhower & the Road Trip that Changed America, with Brian C. Black

Nov 18, 2019

In 1919, a young Army officer named Dwight Eisenhower, along with a "Mad Max"-style military convoy, set out on a cross-country road trip to examine the nascent state of America's roads. Penn State Altoona's Professor Brian C. Black explains how this trip influenced Eisenhower's decisions decades later, both as general and president, and laid the groundwork for the rise of petroleum-based engines and the interstate highway system.

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to an episode of The Crack-Up, an occasional podcast about the events of the year 1919 and the way they still shape our lives. We're lucky today to have as our guest Brian C. Black, who is a distinguished professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona.

Welcome, Brian.

BRIAN BLACK: Thanks, Ted. It's great to be here.

TED WIDMER: Brian, your piece was just so wonderfully written and such an interesting topic in our 1919 series about Eisenhower's road trip, the greatest road trip in American history perhaps. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?

BRIAN BLACK: Sure. I certainly am appreciative that the entire project was being put together focusing on the special year of 1919, let's say. When I began to think of my own work as it related to 1919 in particular, this was the event that really stood out to me, and the reason that it did was for the larger reasons that I get into in the piece. It is a great story, it is a famous person, and it is a little-known event.

But all those things aside, in terms of the larger work that I do in looking broadly at the human history of energy use, this was a real turning point. It struck me that it was a perfect moment to amplify it in a way that would allow us to talk about some of these larger issues.

TED WIDMER: I love so many things about it. Every reader likes a road trip. They're just naturally good vehicles, as it were, for stories. But you loaded so much into it. You loaded all of the ways the country changed. Maybe not immediately, but so many legacies came out of Eisenhower's trip in 1919, when he's only a 28-year-old young man. You talk about the history of petroleum use and the decision to build interstate highways. It was just a mesmerizing piece.

BRIAN BLACK: Thank you so much for saying that. I find that a lot of times the interplay of my writing and my teaching is very noticeable to me but maybe not to other people. This is one of those moments where it was very noticeable to me because obviously when you're in the classroom and you're trying to teach about something, you look for a hook. You look for something to get the undergraduates' attention.

That's much the same way that I concocted the logic behind this piece. This exact event is something I've written about in a number of different venues, but in particular in a supplemental world history textbook that I published a few years ago called Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History. This event was an extension of the importance of World War I. This was just one aspect of that.

But it did give that opportunity to really focus on somebody we thought we knew about, Dwight Eisenhower, to explore something we didn't know, and also to humanize him in a surprising way, I think, to give that snapshot of a young man looking for opportunities in the world he was suddenly going to go out into.

TED WIDMER: Maybe you can help our listeners understand what is the trip itself. Who's on it? How long does it take? And where are they going?

BRIAN BLACK: It's largely a military endeavor. This is a trip across the United States ostensibly. Most of them had just come out of the service, like Eisenhower, and World War I—as the United States was moving out of it in 1919—was very clearly in the past at that point, and yet there was still a very militarized culture about. Part of that was to look around for what changes they had seen during the years of war on the battlefield itself, and how those might translate into the domestic side in the United States, into everyday life in the United States.

There were lots of aspects of that. This is the beginning of the "radio age" and a lot of technologies like that that began on the battlefield, then would move into everyday life. This is just one of those where we begin to see the engines, the motors, the internal combustion engine, identified as the most likely future of American transportation. In order for that to happen—and I think one of the things that impresses me the most, and that's why I use this event to talk about energy transitions—there was a very clear understanding by the military and by government that it wasn't just a magic wand, that you couldn't just suddenly put people behind the wheel of automobiles and have everything function correctly in society, that it was going to be a large, complicated transition that involved many different aspects of life.

As a young man looking for an opportunity, Eisenhower identified that this "excursion"—and that's the term, either that or "expedition"—was something that he wanted to be part of. Frankly, I really see it very similarly to some of the Western exploration trips of the 19th century, where the government sent out groups of scientists and other people to learn about the West.

In this one, they were ostensibly demonstrating that the road system was not acceptable. In a very interesting way, these soldiers primarily were sacrificial lambs because they were meant to have trouble. So, the road trip was meant to be challenging, and that would be publicized, and the government hoped, the military hoped, that it would be a teaser that would get the public to be more interested and willing to adopt all the infrastructural expense that taxpayers would have to weather with adopting automobiles and vehicles as our primary way of getting around.

This little event was basically to use the existing road system as it was, which was very poor, to demonstrate that this technology wasn't ready and that it needed attention and needed taxpayer dollars to finance a lot of it.

With that in mind, then there is also an aspect that was interesting for me to learn about where each community that the expedition would stop in generally held veteran's celebrations of the end of the war and they talked about their experiences. So, there was a real connection between both this initiative—and that it was patriotic to support it, that "This is how we got through the war effort," and that this was an extension of it—with the Progressive Movement forward in society, that people were expecting and essentially setting the stage for, as we began the Roaring Twenties and really changed so many ways of living in the United States in particular.

TED WIDMER: It wasn't a very fast road trip, was it? It took them a long time to get across.

BRIAN BLACK: No, it was very slow. That's one of the things that I really enjoy about particularly the record that Eisenhower left, as he took notes. In the article I put just one quote, where he says, "The roads were very good today. We made 57 miles in eleven-and-a-third hours." We contrast that with our travels today at 55 mph or more, and it's just crazy to think about that.

TED WIDMER: A jogger could almost do it that fast.

BRIAN BLACK: It really is. And some of it was that the roads were not quality, but it also was because they had real challenges—a lot of vehicles getting stuck in the mud because they were unpaved roads for the most part—so we really see that something like a large-scale energy transition like we had in the 20th century in the United States doesn't just happen. It is something that takes generations basically to play out.

TED WIDMER: As you point out in your piece, you need very high quality roads that can carry heavy vehicles, and you need frequent filling stations with petroleum underground. None of that existed then.

BRIAN BLACK: Right. And don't forget the diners and all the other good things that needed to be built.

TED WIDMER: Right. One of the agonizing moments in your piece is the realization that we might have had an electric car very early. In 1912 Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are putting the pieces together, and an electric battery-powered vehicle looked viable, but then the war made it better for petroleum-fueled vehicles. In the war itself, petroleum basically won out because of battlefield conditions.

BRIAN BLACK: That's certainly how I put it to my students. I'm involved in a number of writing projects that I think will clarify that transition more than it has been before, but primarily what I've been able to put together is the record, essentially documenting that it's not even too much of a stretch to say that Henry Ford did not really expect the internal combustion engine to be the 20th-century power source for automobiles.

TED WIDMER: That's amazing.

BRIAN BLACK: Right. He put it on the market and got the price really low through the automated processes of manufacturing and then kept going. He was essentially working doggedly on perfecting how the Model T would be powered by an electric engine, so he went, of course, to the source that you would in that era, which was Thomas Edison and his inventors.

They had devised a battery. They were able to release that vehicle—1912–14 is when it was put on the market. I always tell my students we have this movie out there: Who Killed the Electric Car? It's a story of the 1990s, and it's a very good story, and it did happen that way, but a murder happened before that.

TED WIDMER: That's incredible.

BRIAN BLACK: So, the electric car at this juncture would have been, I think, where most investors would have put their money on the future of transportation. It seemed the most likely, the most reliable, largely because of the idea of combustion, and that was what Henry Ford was worried about, the explosion that was not controlled at that time in the technology.

When you add in the emergency of World War I, it became a laboratory for working out the kinks of the internal combustion engine largely framed around the reality that in battle, there wasn't any practical way to use electric vehicles. Especially with Eisenhower's influence, we just ride that transition right into a 20th century of internal combustion engine-powered vehicles that change our lives.

TED WIDMER: Was it the tank specifically that was showing the reliability of the internal combustion engine?

BRIAN BLACK: They were using trucks, too, so we couldn't say that it was the only thing, but it was what Eisenhower knew the most about, and that's what he had worked the most. The tank is basically one of the technologies that emerges on the battlefield in World War I, and it is powered by diesel fuel. That is part of the transition as well. At least one tank did go along on the excursion, and that would be something that they were showing in each community as a way of demonstrating progress and "how we won the war," so to speak.

TED WIDMER: If you're standing on the road out West, say, in Utah, what would this convoy look like as it was beginning to come up? It was motorcycles in front.

BRIAN BLACK: Right. Exactly. I do encourage your listeners to look up either with the article the photos that we were able to use or in the National Archives. They have a wonderful collection of photos from the convoy. It's just amazing. Imagine how otherworldly it would have looked. The first thing I thought of was the Mad Max movies.

TED WIDMER: Absolutely right.

BRIAN BLACK: You have just this bunch of different kinds of vehicles. A lot of them just looked like a mechanic was on board keeping it going and building it as you went.

TED WIDMER: That's great.

BRIAN BLACK: You do have the classic motorcycles, Harley-Davidson and Indian, leading the way, and just roaring across if you can consider the rate they were going at as roaring. They were at least loud. Then, a lot of military vehicles as well.

TED WIDMER: They arrive in San Francisco. The trip is done. Does America start to change right away, or does it take some time to process?

BRIAN BLACK: That is certainly the rest of the story. I'll be creating that in some of the writing that I'm doing now, but it is a long and involved process.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that it took government, it took laws, it took the zoning laws that would define our landscape over the 20th century, and that was complicated stuff. So, no. It took decades.

If you were focused in an urban area like New York City, you might feel like it happened pretty quickly, but if you were in those outskirt areas that they traveled to in the convoy, no, it would take a long time. Even by the time we get to the 1930s and know a lot about the Depression out there, there still were not—think of the Joad family crossing on Route 66 and other places. It was still pretty rough traveling.

That change goes over a lifetime, you could almost say, because Eisenhower personifies that, too. The real transformation is the interstate highway system in 1956, when he's involved in passing that legislation. That will modernize a road system that is the envy of the world. Certainly, it's the American version of the pyramids. It's probably what we'll be known for to a lot of future generations.

TED WIDMER: It's so great for your story that the pretty low ranking, young Army officer, Eisenhower, 28 years old, ends up the president of the United States.


TED WIDMER: It's a great story. It's just incredible.

Did he talk about the motor convoy as president? A lot of time had gone by.

BRIAN BLACK: He was very nostalgic about it from everything that I've been able to encounter. It was a hard experience, but I think he found it inspiring. I think if we were able to spend some time with him, we probably would find that this was a calling almost, that his mind always came back to. I think we all know someone who has an issue like that or a certain initiative. This probably would have been one of those for him.

I haven't looked through the rest of his lifetime and how often he talked about roads and everything, but if we just look at his record—almost like a Forrest Gump character, he moved himself through this part of life in America—it's obvious that this was something that kept coming up for him. Even during World War II and the period before that, when he looked at European roads and really got to known the Autobahn, all of that was part of him becoming almost a global expert on the idea of automotive infrastructure.

TED WIDMER: Do you know if he used that knowledge as commander-in-chief of the armies? With D-Day and the fighting that followed—they must have been—were fast-moving vehicles on good roads part of his military strategy as he's leading?

BRIAN BLACK: I think we can assume it. I think this is one of those ways that we get to know something that was taken for granted. Certainly, he was a great leader for lots of different reasons, but maybe this was part of that. Maybe this was raw material that he uniquely had in his mind. I think that's to be pieced together by another scholar. I haven't read it anywhere, but I think we can make that kind of assumption about him.

TED WIDMER: I saw another telling detail in your piece, which is that he joined the convoy at Gettysburg, which is interesting for anyone who loves American history, but then also he later had a farmhouse in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

BRIAN BLACK: Oh, sure.

TED WIDMER: Maybe that, too, was part of that nostalgia you're mentioning, that it was just a good place for him.

BRIAN BLACK: I think so. He becomes very nostalgic about the Gettysburg battlefield in particular, and that is his retirement home that was there.

Yes, I thought it was kind of interesting that that's where he picked it up. As far as I know, that's by chance, but maybe that's when he caught the bug for Gettysburg. I don't know.

TED WIDMER: It's so nice to learn new things about a figure, a president especially, who you think you understand, and then you realize you're missing some important early chapters. I'm so grateful to you for shining a light on the early Dwight D. Eisenhower.

BRIAN BLACK: Thank you. Sometimes that's just something we didn't know about him. In this case, this is a whole new importance to put on him. He had enough. He had plenty. But all of a sudden to see him at this juncture of an American energy transition that we know defined the 20th century, wow. We hadn't assigned that to him before. Yes, I'm excited by it, too.

TED WIDMER: It's huge. I loved your hopeful final paragraph in which you say, maybe another energy transition is right in front of us, and we don't know who the next Eisenhower will be. I thought that was a lovely thought.

BRIAN BLACK: Thank you. I think Ike's great. I think there's lots we can learn from him, but my mission is to help people better understand history through energy and energy transitions in particular. Especially when you're in one, which I argue that we are in one now, it becomes almost not discernible. You can't imagine a different way of living than what you're doing right now. This was just a great example of someone who had that imagination, who was able to foresee a world that was moving beyond animal power, which again, it's crazy to think, but at the beginning of the 20th century we were still talking about a lot of animals being used for things.

TED WIDMER: Amazing.

BRIAN BLACK: He had that vision, and that is what we need today. We need forward-looking individuals who take the new technological innovations and see how our country in particular—but humans in general—can use them to grow and prosper, and that's what Eisenhower did.

TED WIDMER: That is a great way to end our conversation, Brian. I appreciate the knowledge and the hopefulness. On all levels, I'm really appreciative of our talk.

BRIAN BLACK: My pleasure, Ted.

TED WIDMER: Thank you.

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