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  • Writer's pictureMGMUS

Ike and the Interstate:The Infrastructure plan that birthed the marine chassis industry

What was it like to cross the United States by vehicle before the interstate was built? It is a question Dwight D. Eisenhower could have answered.

As part of the War Department's Transcontinental Motor Convoy, he made a two- month journey across America's primitive two- lane highways in 1919. This experience, coupled with his viewing of the German autobahn as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World

War II, bolstered his support of an American interstate highway system that ensured more roadway capacity for defense and commerce. This national system was the largest public works project ever undertaken in the United States to that date. It was an unequivocal accomplishment of Eisenhower’s two-term presidency, which included sponsoring and signing the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 and negotiating the truce of the Korean War.

This week the long-awaited Eisenhower Memorial opened in Washington, DC along Independence Avenue a few blocks east of the U.S. Capitol. It depicts two scenes that mark Eisenhower’s legacy. The first shows Eisenhower addressing troops before the Normandy invasion, which boldly changed the direction of the European theater of World War II. The four-acre park designed by Frank Gehry features a stainless-steel tapestry as the park’s backdrop, depicting the beaches of D-Day. The other setting presents Eisenhower during his presidency as the consummate leader.

It took measurable leadership to rally Congress and state and local governments behind the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Competing bills had been considered, but when the machinations were done, the Senate approved the bill 89 to 1, the House approved it on a voice vote, and President Eisenhower signed the bill into law three days later. Construction started soon thereafter and a new era in transportation started, and its impact cannot be underestimated culturally and economically.

Malcom McLean, the renowned entrepreneur who launched the first container shipping service, ran a trucking firm in the 1950s before the interstate system was built. He saw the opportunity to load boxes on vessels to accelerate port loading and unloading, and he also knew that ships could be faster than the roads at the time, especially running north-south across the U.S. Envisioned as a domestic service, the maiden voyage of the Ideal-X from Newark to Houston carried fifty-eight 35-foot trailers on board, and it created a new competitor for motor carriers as well as railroads. Container shipping began as a solution to domestic inefficiencies.

Without the interstate, trucks were on local roads, turnpikes and parkways, traveling at 25-30 miles per hour, explains Peter Keller, current chairman of SEA/LNG and former chairman of OCEMA, the Ocean Carriers Equipment and Maintenance Association, among other accomplishments in our industry. “Malcom knew the limitations of trucking at the time, and in order to compete with truckers, he needed wheels at the port.”

The marine chassis business was born, and it remains an integral part of container shipping. The U.S. chassis provisioning model is unique in comparison to other regions worldwide, and how it functions and who controls it remains contested between ocean and motor carriers and chassis lessors. Wheels are essential, and the need for chassis has been unabated even as the early domestic focus of container shipping shifted long ago to a global industry. Where once the lack of roadways enhanced the rationale for containerization, the ubiquity of clover leaves and eight-lane interstates has realized the promise of its hyper-efficiency.

"I see an America where a mighty network of highways spreads across our country," President Eisenhower said in 1956. In proposing the Interstate Highway System, he could not have foreseen all the benefits and derivatives of the investment, but remarkable leadership is not confined to knowing the answer as much as spotting the opportunity.

As we were putting together this weekend’s Sunday Night Read, we at MGM learned about the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a great American who had this to say on the topic of getting along:

It comes from my savvy mother-in-law, advice she gave me on my wedding day. 'In every good marriage, it helps to be a little deaf.' I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of marital partnership. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best to tune it out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade."

We find these words to be sound advice to maintain many types of relationships: e.g. friends, family, countrymen.


Top banner image: "National system of interstate and defense highways : as of June, 1958", courtesy of the Library of Congress. 1919 Convoy and Eisenhower signing photos available via the Eisenhower Library. Topeka road paving via the Kansas Department of Transportation. McLean Trucking photo via Fred Gruin, Jr.. McLean at Port Newark photo courtesy of Maersk Line for use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 International License


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