Transportation Readings for American Conservatives – How did we get in such a Mess?

June 24, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The following is a list of books conservatives should read to understand how we got in our current transportation cul-de-sac. After reading this selection one cannot help but think our current situation is a big mess created by greed, corruption, incompetence and hopelessly misguided progressivism. The inspiration for this list came from “the canon” developed by my friend William S. Lind for the U.S. Marine Corps to further understanding of the development of the four generations of modern warfare. The canon, consisting of seven books, if read in the prescribed order will take the reader through the first, second, third and fourth generation warfare. As a friend of mine in the US Marines remarked on the list, “Even if the guy is a total rock, he’ll get it after reading the canon.” The transportation reading list revealed in this paper is still a work in progress, so the order is not so precise and story not yet fully chronicled in a critical way. Yet, the accounts cited below should convey to the reader a general sense of how we reached our current dilemma (or debacle, if you will).

The best place to start is with the development of the railroad industry, where misguided progressivism, corruption and statist mentalities almost totally destroyed what should be considered a crown jewel of the American free enterprise system. Two books by Albro Martin provide a good overview of the rise, decline and revitalization of American railroad industry: Enterprise denied; origins of the decline of American railroads, 1897-1917 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971) and Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). While the federal government assisted the construction of private railroads with land grants, this was not without a price as railroads had to carry government cargoes (mails and military supplies) and personnel at reduced cost. Railroads also paid income taxes and property taxes, perhaps making them the only form of transportation to be profitable to federal and state governments.

Corrupt politicians such as Frank Hague in New Jersey used railroads running through their states as personal piggybanks, robbing them as they saw fit. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) emerged as a draconian regulatory agency that long blocked the railroads from developing coordinated transportation, in other words, integrated rail, road, air and water passenger transport and intermodal freight shipping.
American railroads were quite amazing. They maintained their own infrastructure including major urban passenger terminals, provided for their own security with their own police forces, provided health care for their own employees with their own hospitals and surgeons, cleaned up their own accidents, and even maintained a cadre of transportation specialists at their own expense to stand ready for military mobilization during national emergencies. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 finally abolished the ICC. Correspondingly, railroads recovered magnificently after the 1980s as efficient freight carriers. Privately operated passenger rail service may see its emergence in the state of Florida, although in a limited way, in the next two years.
Image RemovedConservatives should recall that federal road building has long been part of the left wing/progressive agenda, always in part directed against the private ownership of transportation infrastructure. The rise to primacy of the petroleum powered motor vehicle in America was in part due to the destruction of privately owned and operated electric interurban and street railways. The CEO of General Motors (GM), Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., came to the conclusion in 1923 that the American automobile market was saturated – those who wanted cars already owned them. As a result, from the 1920s to the 1950s GM used its sizeable financial muscle through a Byzantine network of subsidiaries and holding companies to buy privately owned electric railway systems throughout the United States and systematically dismantle them, forcing former users no other alternative but to purchase automobiles. While GM and their co-conspirators, Standard Oil, Mack Trucks and Firestone Tire Company, were caught red-handed at this, they received only token fines. Stephen Goddard’s Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Rail and Rail in the American Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) provides a good overview of the rise of the federal highway system as well as the destruction of privately owned electric rail transit in America. Helen Leavitt’s Superhighway – Superhoax (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Press, 1970) also deals with the rise of the federal highway system, but her book addresses actual national defense needs and federal interstate highways in a stronger way than Goddard’s Getting There.
While ’robber baron’ has been an oft-misused moniker, it does well describe many of the powerful and corrupt government bureaucrats and politicians associated with highway construction. Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975) gives a good insight into the character of such men through his study of the notorious Robert Moses.
The federal interstate highway system was perhaps the greatest American defense fraud of the twentieth century. According to Leavitt, labeling the interstate highway system as vital to national defense “was simply a ‘sweetening’ device to gain support for the program back in 1956.” From reading General James A. Van Fleet’s monograph Rail Transport and the Winning of War (Washington, DC: Association of American Railroads, 1956), one sees that highway transportation was actually more vulnerable in an atomic attack and interstate highway construction for defense purposes was counter to the transportation lessons learned in the Korean War where Van Fleet was commander of the Eighth Army. Both sides in the Korean conflict were heavily reliant on rail transport. Despite strategic bombing, the North Koreans and Chinese were able to keep their railroads running, supplying new offensives against the United Nations forces. Reading Robert Goralski’s and Russell W. Freeburg’s Oil & War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in WWII Meant Victory or Defeat (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978) clearly shows the overall strategic stupidity of developing a national transportation system increasingly dependent on the consumption of petroleum. By the 1950s, the United States was an importer rather than an exporter of petroleum, increasingly dependent on distant sea lanes that could be disrupted as shown by the Suez Crisis of 1956. The virtue of rail transport from a strategic perspective has been (and still is) that it is about three times more energy efficient than motor transportation. Railroads could also be powered electrically from alternative sources such as coal, hydro, or nuclear power.
The long term effects of the destruction of privately owned rail mass transit systems and the federal interstate highway gosplan is well covered in James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994). The effects can hardly make conservatives happy as it has meant the destruction of the traditional sense of community on a large scale. It also shows that a national economic policy based on continuously encouraging construction of patches of McMansions connected to the interstate highway system is not sustainable or fiscally sound. What can be done? Some ideas are provided in Paul M. Weyrich’s and William S. Lind’s Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation (Washington, DC: Reconnecting America, 2009).
There is a lack of critical books on the development of American air transportation in the post-World War II era. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, critics of George W. Bush’s plan to bail out the airlines affected by the attack, pointed out that with the federal financing of airport construction, operation of the air traffic control system and numerous bailouts of bankrupt airlines (justified for national defense purposes), the aviation industry has been a money loser for the federal government since 1945. If such a book is written, it will be a sorry tale of greedy airline executives, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous lobbyists – all with a winner take all mentality towards their favored mode of transport, none of it boding well for the development of an integrated national transportation system or balanced federal budgets. The result is a lack of choice and convenience in intercity travel, jack-booted federal security at airports and, overall, to the traveling public, domestic air travel akin to how hogs for many years traveled to the Union Stockyards in Chicago.
Dr. Eric Sibul is a professor at the Baltic Defense College in Tartu, Estonia
Pacific Electric Railway cars piled atop one another at junkyard on Terminal Island, Calif., 1956 image via Wikipedia Commons


Tags: Oil, rail, Transportation