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Route Cold War
Route Cold War

Las Vegas

Mothball fleet

Interstates: America's concrete Cold War legacy

By Andy Walton
CNN Interactive

The Cold War has left its share of footprints on the U.S. landscape, but none touches more Americans every day than the Interstate Highway System. The interstates have cut a broad swath across the nation, joining cities and becoming emblems of an American culture that the highways both shaped and reflected.

Those highways also shaped the course of the Cold War. The interstates helped make suburbs possible, building the lifestyle that the West trumpeted as the triumph of capitalism. They helped build the trucking industry, which carries much of the country's freight.

The interstates also link the sites that make up Route Cold War, a tour of the history and continuing legacy of the role the AmericanWest played in the battle between the superpowers.

Though the notion of a nationwide, uniform highway system had been floated in the 1930s, it received its first real push during the Eisenhower administration. Two experiences shaped President Dwight D. Eisenhower's desire for an interstate system. In 1919, Lt. Col. Eisenhower was part of the U.S. Army's first transcontinental motor convoy, a dismal affair that took 62 days. Then in World War II, he saw Germany's network of high-speed, multiple-lane autobahns and noted that the Allied convoys moved faster after they entered Germany.

Eisenhower's first stab at establishing the highways came from the President's Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, headed by Gen. Lucius Clay, who had become famous as the U.S. military commander in Berlin. The "Clay Committee" proposal was rejected because of financing concerns, and the Senate instead adopted a plan sponsored by Sen. Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee, the late father of the current vice president.

The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways -- which was named for Eisenhower in the 1990s -- was designed not only to benefit commerce, but to aid in the movement of troops and materiel and speed the evacuation of cities in case of attack. The national defense justification helped convince Congress to support federal funding for the highways.

All 45,012.52 miles of the interstate system are built to uniform design standards -- 12-foot-wide lanes, designed for at least 50-70 mph travel, with at least two lanes in each direction. Interstates have no traffic lights or intersections, and access is limited via a system of exit ramps and interchanges.

The interstates are not uniformly praised. Many complain that they are a homogenizing influence, emphasizing the blandest of America and replacing local culture with a mind-numbing sameness of convenience stores, chain motels and fast-food outlets.

Others complain that the interstates, by encouraging people who work in the city to settle in the suburbs, have fed a rise in urban traffic and a decline in cities' air quality. But for better or worse, the interstates have helped build America -- and vice versa -- during the last four decades.

The Route Cold War team -- Associate Editor Andy Walton and Video Editor Cody McCloy -- had plenty of opportunities to contemplate the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate and Defense Highway System.

Nine destinations dot the Route Cold War map. Join us over the next several weeks as we visit each of the sites -- detailed in text, IPIX interactive images, QuickTime movies and Windows Media streaming video. Between destinations, Road Diary segments will offer first-person observations on the places and people at those sites and in between.

We'll make our first stop next week at Cheyenne Mountain, home of NORAD -- the North American Air Defense Command. Until then, click on each of the map destinations for a look at what's to come.