19. Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds broadcast induced widespread panic in 1938
According to a popular story, when Orson Welles broadcast an episode of The Mercury Theatre of the Air based on H.G. Wells popular science fiction story The War of the Worlds, the live presentation caused a nationwide panic, as listeners were unable to ascertain that the broadcast was entertainment and not a live news broadcast. No doubt some listeners were fooled, and since commercial breaks were infrequent (that the story was fiction was aired during the first break, about thirty minutes into the broadcast) the tale presented as evolving news of a Martian invasion was frightening. The broadcast creating a widespread panic is a myth, however. For one thing, there just weren’t that many people tuned in. Four different times during the broadcast listeners were reminded that the show was a play.
The newspapers of the time exaggerated the level of the panic, far beyond the phone calls into CBS stations of listeners demanding more information. Radio was an emerging competitor for newspaper advertising markets, and the papers stressed first the irresponsibility of the airwaves inducing panic among the people for commercial gain. According to polls taken at the time, only about 2% of the radio audience listened to the CBS broadcast, and in many markets, CBS affiliates substituted local programming that Halloween night. The War of the Worlds broadcast did happen, and it did frighten some listeners, but the extent of the panic it created was wildly exaggerated, to the point it became another American myth, one which Orson Welles exploited for years.
20. Dwight David Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System
One of the myths of the American Interstate Highway System is that Dwight Eisenhower, impressed with Hitler’s autobahn, wanted a similar system for the United States. Except that it wasn’t Hitler’s autobahn at all, it was largely in existence in 1931, two years before the Fuhrer became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party assumed control of the German government. Hitler did expand the project upon assuming power, under the leadership of Fritz Todt. The autobahns were not built to facilitate the movement of troops, as most of Germany’s war machines moved long distances by train or air. They were built as a public works project. Eisenhower, who had traveled across the United States by car and truck in the 1920s, was well aware of the need for a better road system there.
In the 1930s the US government began extensive studies of what eventually became the Interstate Highway System, as well as improvements to the existing US Highway System. As President, Eisenhower, no doubt recalling the months-long cross-country trip of the 1920s became a champion of the project, influenced by both General Motors and Standard Oil, both of which saw the benefits to their business models. Construction began in 1956. The original system was declared complete in 1992, after 35 years of work and more than $500 billion dollars spent. As the interstates grew America’s passenger and interurban rail systems faded. Large sections of the interstate system are functionally obsolete today, carrying traffic well beyond their design loads, especially on bridges across the country.
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