At the north end of the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., near the site of the National Christmas Tree, and in the center of the best place to take a photo of the southern entrance of the White House, there is a granite marker that is identified as the “Zero Milestone.” It was intended to be the milestone from which all highway distances in the United States would be measured, and it was the spot from which the very first transcontinental road trip began its westward journey, on July 7, 1919—a century ago.
The milestone is largely ignored, and the trip that prompted it to be placed there would probably be forgotten as well if it weren’t for the presence of a young Army officer who decided, as a lark, to go along. The officer was Dwight David Eisenhower.
In 1919, when he was not quite 30, Eisenhower, an officer with the Tank Corps of the U.S. Army, participated in the “First Transcontinental Motor Train” expedition. The motor train consisted of 81 motorized Army vehicles, manned by 24 officers and 258 enlisted men, along with 15 observers from the War Department (Eisenhower was one of the observers). Their goal was to go all the way across the United States from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.
And they did it: over the course of 60 days, the motor train convoy traveled some 3,200 miles. Their route followed “the Lincoln Highway”—a course that US 30 and I-80 roughly follow today. Along the way, they experienced 230 road incidents such as breakdowns and accidents. They averaged 5.67 miles per hour, owing mostly to the fact that from Illinois through Nevada, the roads were mostly unpaved and very nearly impassable. But slowly and steadily, they journeyed on. The convoy limped into San Francisco, tired but wiser than when they left D.C.
As an observer, Lt. Col. Eisenhower learned firsthand the difficulties faced in traveling great distances on roads that were virtually impassable. In his written report about the trip, Eisenhower observed that even the vehicles that had won the Great War were useless in the absence of a good system of roads.
Much later, in the 1940s, General Eisenhower saw how quickly the German armies moved their men and machines across Germany on the autobahn, and his convictions about roads were confirmed and expanded. These experiences influenced his later decisions concerning the building of the interstate highway system during his presidential administration—nearly four decades after his road trip across America.
In his memoir, At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends, Eisenhower wrote, “A third of a century later, after seeing the autobahns of modern Germany and knowing the asset those highways were to the Germans, I decided, as President, to put an emphasis on this kind of road building. When we finally secured the necessary congressional approval, we started the 41,000 miles of superhighways that are already proving their worth. This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit from it. The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”
Perhaps one of the reasons that Dwight Eisenhower was a great military leader in wartime and then a great president in peacetime was because he took the lessons he learned in life seriously, and he stuck to his convictions when implementing his decisions. “Personal and absolute,” he called his commitment to better roads. We see those same qualities throughout the history of his leadership.
Our work requires our full and personal attention. It cannot be handed off to machines, even while machines and technology can provide us excellent assistance. We are called to be fully present to our task, personally and absolutely involved. When it comes to our values—and the practices and behaviors those values prompt—we must act with absolute conviction, keeping our promises and honoring our decisions. It’s not enough to just say the words; we must live them. Personal and absolute faithfulness means that the promises we make become the promises we keep.
(The Army Signal Corp filmed the convoy’s crossing. This short compilation of some of their most interesting clips is a fun click-through)