What Infrastructure Really Means

Making sense of current fights over a word we borrowed from the French long ago.

An aerial view of criss-crossing highways.
Infrastructure has long referred to more than roads and bridges. (Cavan / Getty)

About the author: Peter A. Shulman is an associate professor of the history of science, technology, and American politics at Case Western Reserve University.

On March 31, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that he lauded as “a once-in-a-generation investment.” The package recalled the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and the public investments in the space race in the ’60s. However, this program is distinguished from those earlier ones not only by its price tag but in its unprecedented scope. Over the past three months, as Congress has debated Biden’s plan, three key questions have emerged: How should the bill be funded? How much spending should be devoted to new investments versus continuing current spending? And, most fundamentally, what counts as infrastructure in the first place?

No one has objected to including roads or bridges in the package, but what about investing in advanced manufacturing? Mitigating climate change? Home health care? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell complained that “less than 6 percent of this massive proposal goes to roads and bridges.” Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia derided Biden’s original plan as “a partisan proposal that goes far beyond what constitutes … infrastructure.” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio slammed the bill as one full of “broad policy priorities that are a far cry away from what we’ve ever defined as infrastructure” and that “redefines infrastructure to include hundreds of billions of dollars of spending on priorities like health care, workforce development, and research and development.”

In response, the White House has pointed out that Republicans previously included in their own infrastructure plans the very items they now seek to exclude, and that, in any event, the American economy has changed and the investments needed to make it run have changed as well. Above all, Democrats have tried to define infrastructure on their own terms. “When I’m talking about making sure that you take that asbestos out of schools, that’s infrastructure,” Biden said in April. “When I’m talking about building high-speed rail, that’s infrastructure. When I’m talking about making sure you’re in a situation where we can redo some of the federal buildings that are just absolutely leaking energy every single day, that’s infrastructure.”

More traditional economists have endorsed the narrower definition. Columbia University’s R. Glenn Hubbard rejected as infrastructure any investments that are “not productivity-enhancing.” Similarly, when Harvard’s Edward Glaeser considered even meritorious projects such as affordable housing and home health services for the elderly and disabled, his response was simply, “It does a bit of violence to the English language, doesn’t it?”

Tracing the history of the term infrastructure tells a more complicated story.

In the summer of 1951, representatives of the NATO alliance, founded just two years earlier, were fighting over how to turn the idea of “containment” into an operational plan for protecting Western Europe from the threat of Soviet invasion. What resources were needed to support Allied armies? What would they cost? Who would pay?

Amid these negotiations, American journalists began noticing an obscure new term circulating among advisers to Dwight Eisenhower, NATO’s supreme commander. From his offices outside Paris at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), Eisenhower and his staff discussed plans for infrastructure, a word they had lifted from their French counterparts that one journalist explained meant “supporting air bases, lines of communication, supply depots and other facilities an army needs to live and fight.”

Officials around Eisenhower loved the term. It concisely described a set of investments whose only common element was being necessary to support modern warfare. “New jargon though the French word ‘infrastructure’ may be,” observed one reporter, “SHAPE technicians declare the general public might as well get used to it because they (the military) find the term fits like a glove what else it would take reams to say.”

It might have taken reams to say otherwise because even then, precisely what Eisenhower’s NATO staff meant to include and exclude within infrastructure remained fuzzy. “The term ‘infrastructure’ is applied to all ‘housekeeping’ installations and includes all kinds of real estate, buildings and equipment not used in actual combat, but excludes all matériel such as planes, tanks and guns,” noted The New York Times in 1952. But it could include much more. The Washington Post informed its readers that infrastructure “means, as we understand it, the military installations (together with men, equipment and finances) built in one country for the benefit of the whole NATO membership.” Part of the problem was, as one author noted after interviewing a French official in 1951, “this word has no English equivalent.” The precise boundaries remained vague.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about infrastructure—the word—as the U.S. military was. The longtime journalist Theodore White called it “one of those long dull words invented to conceal political explosives.” Others chose world-weary cynicism. “Infrastructure is a North Atlantic treaty organization word which means that Uncle Sam will pay the entire bill,” grumbled one stateside columnist.

Others expressed bewilderment. “One thing I can’t explain to you is how these facilities came to be called by the name ‘infrastructure,’” confessed Secretary of State Dean Acheson in an article noting that he found the term “baffling.” Acheson had worked on economic diplomacy at the highest levels for the previous 11 years and was apparently unfamiliar with the term. Another writer, who thought the word sounded like “some sort of heating-lamp contraption designed to make use of infra-red rays” blamed the Pentagon’s penchant for jargon. “Where else could this horrible new term ‘infrastructure’ have originated but with the people steeped too long in the gobbledygook of Washington?”

The term infrastructure did not emerge from the mid-20th-century Pentagon, but instead originated in late-19th-century French railway engineering. It was used to describe those elements either figuratively supportive of or literally below—Latin infra—the rails themselves, such as excavations, earthworks, embankments, tunnels, bridges, and viaducts. For French engineers, these components were distinguished from the railroad’s superstructure, or stations, service roads, and water tanks. The structure was the railway; some components were supportive of it as infrastructure and some facilitated its operations after construction as superstructure. This usage briefly appeared in print in the late-19th-century U.S. to discuss French engineering projects, but it appears to have quickly fallen out of use.

In France, however, the word immediately took on broader meanings. In terms of social analysis, what became commonly translated into English as the Marxist economic “base” of society (materielle Basis) and social and political “superstructure” (Überbau) became, in French, “infrastructure” and “superstructure.” Infrastructure also came to apply to physical networks beyond railways. By World War II, it had taken on the meaning that both befuddled and excited postwar American diplomats and military officials.

After its entrance into the American lexicon during the Cold War, the term quickly expanded into still wider use in the United States. Chester Bowles, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s veteran ambassador to India, described the social needs of developing nations as requiring “so-called infrastructure—the roads, rail transportation, schools, power and the communications networks” that “are in large measure a governmental responsibility.” In the ’50s and ’60s, the term embraced such components of modern society as housing, hospitals, schools, public services, functional legal systems, and governmental bureaucracies.

Infrastructure’s metaphorical utility also led to its use far outside that of physical networks. President John F. Kennedy spoke of “gambling infrastructure” and “educational infrastructure,” General William Westmoreland referred to the “political cells” of the Vietcong as “Communist infrastructure,” and the Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon hammered Johnson on “the infrastructure of organized crime.” As president, Nixon spoke of developing the “economic infrastructure” of Native American communities. And while the term could be applied narrowly to technological systems, Nixon could speak revealingly of “good schools, health facilities, transportation systems, and other infrastructure attractive enough to keep people in rural America.” President Jimmy Carter noted “the infrastructure of our legal society” and “basic capital infrastructure” for American territorial possessions. President Ronald Reagan spoke of “the infrastructure of democracy.”

As the use of infrastructure grew in the ’50s and ’60s, earlier terms that had some overlap in meaning, such as public works and civil works, experienced a decline. Public works was most often associated with urban systems such as electricity, gas, water, and sewage, and civil works with large, publicly funded construction projects such as dams, bridges, public buildings, and airports. These terms, especially public works, were widespread from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries, gaining special prominence in the New Deal’s Civil Works and Public Works Administrations. Why they gradually receded in the postwar United States is not immediately obvious. Perhaps the highways, airfields, and energy systems of the era were so often justified on security grounds that simply calling these constructions civil seemed inappropriate. (In the 19th century, civil engineering was created specifically to distinguish its projects from those conducted by militaries.) Perhaps the central role of private industry, both publicly and privately funded, made references to “public” projects seem inappropriate as well.

In an even earlier echo, as the historian John Lauritz Larson has shown, when Americans began using the term internal improvements in the 1780s, they originally included not only roads and canals, but schools and even religious instruction—“all kinds of programs to encourage security, prosperity, and enlightenment among the people of the new United States.” Only later would the term narrow to refer to the public investments in trade and transportation (roads, canals, the dredging of rivers and harbors—the meaning intended by every U.S.-history textbook discussing early national America) before ultimately falling into disuse.

The tendency to narrow the meaning of words like infrastructure obscures means and ends. My colleagues in civil engineering may build bridges because they love building bridges, but the rest of us build them (or support the building of them) as a means to move passengers and freight over otherwise impassable terrain. The goal is not material for its own sake but for the service of larger social and economic values.

In the mid-20th century, the word infrastructure filled what Leo Marx has referred to in another context as a “semantic void”—it is plainly useful to have a term that collectively embraces the physical systems and networks that undergird modern life. But infrastructure is not merely structures. Instead, it comprises the things that make structures work, whether those structures are a French railway, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or the modern American economy. Infrastructure can embrace education and health care because they are prerequisites to a better society, just as earthworks are prerequisites to a French railway.

Technological systems like highways or electric grids cannot function without an educational system to train those who build and maintain them, or a labor market to keep them staffed. They would not function without a legal and regulatory regime to facilitate their operation. They would not work without a system of public and private financing. Speaking of infrastructure merely as the physical components obscures all the other necessary ones.

Whether a new, bipartisan agreement on a smaller infrastructure deal can receive enough support to transcend a filibuster remains to be seen, and a promised accompanying spending bill to contain Democratic priorities that did not make it into the bipartisan plan remains to be written. It is possible that some goals of the president’s original plan might be included in other bipartisan bills. And if bipartisan bills fail, it is unclear whether Democrats could write their own, partisan infrastructure bill that could pass under Senate rules that sidestep the filibuster, a path that would require the support of every Democratic senator and nearly every Democratic representative.

The path forward faces continued headwinds. On July 8, a coalition of conservative groups released a letter targeting Republicans in Congress that assailed the Senate’s most recent—and fragile—bipartisan infrastructure agreement. Among the four preconditions that its authors demanded Republicans support was the continued policing of the meaning of infrastructure. “Every penny must be for real infrastructure,” it read, “roads, bridges, pipelines, and airports.” Elsewhere, the letter attacks “expensive and underused mass transit systems” as well. But the history of the word shows that in its postwar usage, “real” infrastructure has never been conceived so narrowly. Infrastructure is simply the means to build something greater, whether a fairer society with a cleaner environment or a more unequal society more vulnerable to climate change. This argument over definitions is an effort to exclude certain visions of America’s future from our collective political imaginations.