Tuesday, July 29, 2008


In researching the history of the federal highway system, I came across this account of its birth, full of fascinating anecdote and prominently featuring one of the favorite figures of this blog, Gen. Lucius D. Clay.

When Sherman Adams, the President's Chief Assistant, asked who should serve on the committee, the President said, "Call General Clay."

In a biography of Clay, Jean Edward Smith quoted an oral history interview in which General Clay recalled how he became involved in the President's Advisory Committee:

Sherman Adams called me down. This was in August 1954. We had lunch with the President, and they were concerned about the economy. We were facing a possible recession, and he wanted to have something on the books that would enable us to move quickly if we had to go into public works. He felt that a highway program was very important.

It's interesting to me that the national highway system often is presented, even by historians, as a Cold War solution to the problem of mobilizing a huge military or evacuating cities in the case of nuclear war. Those were part of the rationale that the government used to sell the plan. But the reasons discussed at the time of birth, apparently, focused on other fears from the early Cold War era: that with World War II over, the Great Depression would return.

In selecting members of the committee, General Clay's idea was that, "If we were going to build highways, I wanted people who knew something about it." He chose Steve Bechtel of Bechtel Corporation, Sloan Colt of Bankers' Trust Company, Bill Roberts of Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company, and Dave Beck of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He chose them because, he said, "They knew what the highway system was all about" He added:

Steve Bechtel had more experience in the construction field than anyone in America. He wasn't involved in road building, but had a comprehensive knowledge of the construction industry. Bill Roberts built construction equipment; he knew what the problems were there. Mr. Colt was experienced in finance. We had to determine how we wanted to finance this, and so his experience was invaluable. And Dave Beck of the Teamsters certainly had an interest in highways, and he gave us labor representation.

... Although these men "knew what highways were about and how important they were," as Clay put it, none of them had been involved in the business of road building. Clay had rejected the suggestions he received from colleagues that he select such individuals as Robert Moses, the New York road builder, or a representative of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). He thought they represented "special interests" with preconceived ideas.

Which is typical Clay. People with the deepest knowledge of the sort of problems to be tackled. But not one of them an insider.

Where, today, would you find the equivalent of "Dave Beck of the Teamsters" to serve on such a board? Beck, ultimately convicted of corruption, may not have been a sterling choice even then. But does anyone think we're better off for not having "labor representation" in such a situation? With the direct challenge of communism -- not the wretched Soviet Union but the ideal of a worker-run economy -- a mere historical memory, do hardhats no longer count when important decisions are made?