Frontiers in History
Ideas from the National Archives for NHD 2001

Resources at the 
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library 

The U-2 Spy Plane Incident

At the height of the "cold war," as critics of the Eisenhower administration complained about the growing "missile gap," the United States secretly gathered data on Soviet missile capabilities through photographs obtained from U-2 reconnaissance plane overflights of the Soviet Union. In May 1960, plans were finalized for a crucial Paris summit conference between western nations and leaders of the Soviet Union with disarmament to be the main focus. Hopes for a successful summit were dashed when on May 1, May Day, an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet air space. On the first day of the Paris summit, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stormed out after delivering a condemnation of U.S. spy activities. Manuscript materials, photographs, and a listing of relevant collections on this topic are available through the Eisenhower Library.

International Geophysical Year (IGY)

From July 1957 to December 1958 an international cooperative scientific program was conducted to study the earth and its environment.  This program was the International Geophysical Year.  More than 70 countries participated in the project which led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts around planets, the theory of plate tectonics, exploration of outer space, construction of earth satellites, and increased research in the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions. IGY was sponsored by the International Council of Scientific Unions and involved nearly 30,000 scientists.  In a radio and television address on June 30, 1957, President Eisenhower expressed his belief that "the most important result of the International Geophysical Year is that demonstration of the ability of peoples of all nations to work together harmoniously for the common good.  I hope this can become common practice in other fields of human endeavor."  Documentation on this program is found in manuscript collections in the Eisenhower Library.

Sputnik and the Space Race

If an American happened to be gazing at the stars on Friday, October 4, 1957, they may have noticed an object crossing the evening sky.  Radio listeners, too, may have heard a series of "beep, beep, beep" sounds coming from their radios.  A momentous event had occurred in the region of the Soviet Union known as Kazakhstan-the Soviets had launched an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth.  The satellite named Sputnik, Russian for "traveling companion," transmitted the beeping sounds as it followed its orbit around the globe.  Rather than celebrating this momentous scientific feat, Americans reacted with a great deal of fear.  The event came at a period near the end of the McCarthy communist "witch hunts," a time when school children were involved in "Duck and Cover" air raid drills, and citizens were encouraged to build their own civil defense shelters.  It was widely believed that if the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they probably could launch nuclear missiles capable of reaching U.S. shores.  Documents on the launching of Sputnik, international reactions and the ensuing U.S. space program are located at the Eisenhower Library.

The Salk Polio Vaccine

The 1950s are often considered to be a safe and quiet decade when American families moved to the suburbs, drove large modern automobiles, and enjoyed a stable and prosperous economy.  But beneath this tranquil scene, parents faced a great fear-the dreaded poliomyelitis, or polio as it is commonly known.  The disease had killed more than thirteen hundred Americans (a large percentage were children) and crippled more than eighteen thousand more in the year 1954 alone.  On April 12, 1955, America received the much-welcomed news that Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine against the frightening disease.  Immediately, the federal government implemented a plan to have the vaccine produced by six licensed pharmaceutical companies and distributed to children throughout the country.  Within one year, the deaths attributed to polio declined by 50 per cent, and this downward trend continues to the present when polio has been totally eradicated in most of the world.  Documents and photographs, and a list of pertinent manuscript collections are available at the Eisenhower Library.


After shattering the traditional bottle of champagne across the bow of the U.S.S. NAUTILUS, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and others gathered at the Electric Boat Yard of General Dynamics Corporation in Groton, Connecticut, on January 21, 1954, watched as the world's first nuclear-powered submarine slipped into the Thames River.  The submarine became the first commissioned nuclear-power ship in the U.S. Navy on September 30, 1954.  The NAUTILUS went on to log a record number of hours and shatter many records.  The most momentous of her feats was a four-day trip in 1958 when the NAUTILUS traveled submerged 1830 miles under the Arctic polar ice cap.  Photographs and an official program of the christening ceremony, documentation on the 1958 mission, and a list of pertinent collections on the "nuclear navy" are available at the Eisenhower Library.

World War II:  D-Day, The Invasion of Normandy

The D-Day operation of June 6, 1944, brought together the land, air, and sea forces of the allied armies in what became known as the largest invasion force in human history.  The operation, given the codename OVERLORD, delivered five naval assault divisions to the beaches of Normandy, France.  The beaches were given the codenames UTAH, OMAHA, GOLD, JUNO and SWORD. The invasion force included 7,000 ships and landing craft manned by more than 195,000 naval personnel from eight allied countries.  Almost 133,000 troops from England, Canada, and the United States landed on D-Day.  Casualties from the three countries during the landing numbered 10,300.  By June 30th, more than 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tons of supplies had landed on the Normandy shores. Fighting by the brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the allied forces Eastern Front and Russian forces on the Western Front led to the defeat of German Nazi forces.  On May 7, 1945, German General Alfred Jodl signed an unconditional surrender at Reims, France.  Documents, photographs, and a listing of collections on this subject are available through the Eisenhower Library.

1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy

In the summer of 1919, a young Lieutenant Colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower participated in the first Army transcontinental motor convoy.  The expedition consisted of eighty-one motorized Army vehicles that crossed the United States from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, a venture covering a distance of 3,251 miles in 62 days.  The expedition was manned by 24 officers and 258 enlisted men.  The convoy was to test the mobility of the military during wartime conditions.  As an observer for the War Department, Lt. Col. Eisenhower learned first-hand of the difficulties faced in travelling great distances on roads that were impassable, and that resulted in frequent breakdowns of the military vehicles.  These early experiences influenced his later decisions concerning the building of the interstate highway system during his presidential administration.  For documents and photographs concerning the 1919 Convoy, please contact the Eisenhower Library.

Interstate Highway System

Persons travelling through the United States today may find it difficult to imagine our country without the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.  It was not until June 29, 1956, when President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, that interstate highways began to meet the challenge of the growing number of automobiles on the nation's highways.  While in Europe during World War II, then-General Eisenhower viewed the ease of travel on the German autobahns.  That, coupled with the experiences of a young Lt. Col. Eisenhower in the 1919 Transcontinental Convoy, convinced the President of the overwhelming need for safer and speedier highways.  The President also felt that the newer, multi-lane highways were essential to a strong national defense.   Copies of documents and a listing of relevant collections on this topic are available at the Eisenhower Library.

The Saint Lawrence Seaway

Though the idea for the St. Lawrence Seaway dates back to the late 1800s, it was not until May 13, 1954, when the Wiley-Dander Seaway Act was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, that this important waterway became a reality.  The Act authorized the U.S. government to work jointly with the government of Canada to create a deep-water 114-mile navigation channel in the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Ogdensburg, New York.  The seaway enabled large ships and tankers to sail directly from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minnesota, on the Great Lakes. The completed seaway resulted in lower costs for shipping goods to and from the Midwest.  For documents on the project, photographs of the St. Lawrence Seaway and President Eisenhower signing S.1250, and a listing of collections containing material on this topic, please contact the Eisenhower Library.

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