Lonesome highway

'The Longest Line on the Map' is by Eric Rutkow.

For decades, leaders in the United States sought to make it easier – not harder – to travel from the US to Latin America. First, they dreamed of a railroad that would span the hemisphere. Then the vision changed to a road from the tip of Alaska to frigid Tierra del Fuego in Argentina.

But the idea of a united hemisphere faded and so did memories of this remarkable bid to connect the continents. “We’ve historically focused on the Panama Canal, and no one has heard about this highway even though it’s an equally important and large project,” says  Eric Rutkow, assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

He reveals an epic, forgotten story in his new book, “The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas.”

Why We Wrote This

Most people know about the Panama Canal. But an even more remarkable project to build a road from Alaska to Argentina in the early 20th century has largely been forgotten. Books correspondent Randy Dotinga interviews Eric Rutkow, the author of "The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas."

In an interview, Rutkow described the highway, which still exists, as “a monument to a forgotten path.” 

Q: At first, the idea was to connect the Western Hemisphere through a railroad. But around the beginning of the 20th century, the US began to push for a road. Why did the vision change? 

By 1920, we have a highway addiction. But there are few cars in Latin America. The idea is that the road will facilitate the motorization of Latin America. In fact, in many of the nations, the Pan-American Highway is known as “Highway 1.”

Q: You mention something called the Good Road Movement that began in the late 19th century when Americans started advocating for better roads. How did that play out in terms of building a road from far north to far south?

The idea was that improved roads spell progress. It’s about the United States trying to uplift people and was very much pushed by social progressives. When cars become a real force, the movement moves from creating roads of crushed stone to roads of asphalt and concrete. 

Q: What other motives did the US have?

If you reach all the way back to the Monroe Doctrine, the idea is to not allow Europe to pursue new conquests in the Western Hemisphere. And after Latin American countries start achieving independence, we say we’ll defend [them] against Europe. And then, in the 1930s, closer relations with Latin America become the primary foreign relations [policy] priority of the US. This highway was the biggest foreign development project between the two world wars. 

Q: You write that the highway preoccupied US presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Jimmy Carter. How did the idea of a united hemisphere fade away?

It’s one of the great mysteries. After World War II, the US is rebuilding Japan and Europe. There’s this global vision, and Latin America is just part of it. Then, during the cold war, there’s a general abandonment of the idea of hemisphere unity, and anti-Americanism becomes more common. 

Today, we’ve shifted from the idea that the big project for the US is building a highway to connect the hemisphere. Now, we want to build ways to separate the US from the rest of the hemisphere.

Q: What does the highway mean for Latin America now?

It’s still phenomenally important for the countries and their economics. In some ways, the smaller the country is, the more important the road is. 

Q: What is the legacy of the Pan-American Highway for the US?

The road is a monument to a forgotten path toward a view of the Western Hemisphere as a region that has common interests and is distinct from the rest of the world. 

There’s a lot of talk about globalism and nationalism in the US without an understanding that there’s another way.

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