Sundin column: America’s greatest accomplishments
In the course of our history, America has taken on many major challenges and has accomplished heroic results. Notable among these are three wars: the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II, and five transportation challenges: the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Interstate Highway System and the manned moon landing.
In the American Revolution a rag-tag volunteer army under the indomitable will of George Washington fought against the military might of Great Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, for eight years (1775-1783). It cost the colonies, with a population of only 2.8 million, $380 million ($17 billion in today’s dollars), or $6,071 per capita.
It cost the British 250 million pounds ($575 million). Benjamin Franklin cajoled France into spending 1.3 billion livres to finance our revolution, an amount similar to what the British spent. It nearly bankrupted France and set the country on the path to its own revolution. Surprisingly, the number of Americans killed in battle was fewer than 5,000, but deaths due to infection, disease and British imprisonment are estimated at three to five times that number.
The four-year American Civil War (1861-65) was the most costly in lives lost in American history — 600,000 out of a population totaling 32 million, a staggering figure. Cost: $6.7 billion dollars (about $300 billion in today’s dollars), or $9,375 per capita.
World War II (1941-1945) was on a scale greater than any war in history, resulting in the deaths of 50 million people, and was the second most costly war in American lives lost — 420,000 out of a population of 135 million. Cost: over $300 billion (more than $4 trillion today), or $29,630 per capita.
The first major transportation project in American history was the construction of the Erie Canal, connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River. It was 363 miles long, 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, and was dug by manual labor with pick and shovel. It required the construction of 83 locks to accommodate the elevation changes across the state of New York.
It took 8½ years to build (1817-1825) and cut the travel time from Buffalo to Albany from two weeks to five days, and reduced freight costs by 90 percent. New York state (population 1.4 million) asked Congress to have the United States (population 9.6 million) finance the canal, but Congress declined. So Gov. DeWitt Clinton, recognizing the economic potential of the canal, managed to have it financed by New York. The canal was an enormous success, both functionally and financially, and was well worth its cost, $7,144,000 ($280 million today), or $2,692 per capita of New York state.
The Transcontinental Railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California, a distance of 1,907 miles, was also a major undertaking, especially considering that it was started in the middle of the Civil War, when the population of the North was 23 million. It took six years to build (1863-1869). The United States paid the railroads $47 million and granted them 12,800 acres of land per mile of track laid, making it difficult to determine the real cost.
Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. took over construction of the Panama Canal after France abandoned the project. It was completed in 10 years (1904-1914), when the country’s population was 92 million. Cost: $400 million ($18 billion today), or $1,956 per capita.
The Interstate Highway System was initiated by President Dwight Eisenhower, who was impressed by the German autobahn system. It originally included 41,000 miles of roadway and took 35 years to construct (1956-1991). The country’s population averaged about 210 million. Cost: $114 billion ($425 billion today), or $2,024 per capita.
In his inaugural address in 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to, within 10 years, put a man on the moon and return safely to Earth. With the moon landing on July 20, 1969, it was accomplished in only eight years. The country’s population averaged 193 million. Cost: $20 billion (about $150 billion today), or $777 per capita.
Our next major challenge is the extensive repairs needed by our infrastructure — roads and bridges, ports and airports, dams and levies, schools, and water and wastewater systems — estimated to cost $3.6 trillion. At our present population of 320 million, the cost per capita would be $11,250. We’ve met great challenges in the past; do we have the will to rise to the occasion once again?
Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.