HISTORY: INSTITUTIONS

The House That War Built

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was closely involved in the Pentagon's design -- as he had been earlier for National Airport, Bethesda Naval Hospital and even the Jefferson Memorial.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was closely involved in the Pentagon's design -- as he had been earlier for National Airport, Bethesda Naval Hospital and even the Jefferson Memorial. (AFP)

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Reviewed by James Mann
Sunday, June 17, 2007

THE PENTAGON

A History

By Steve Vogel

Random House. 626 pp. $32.95

The Pentagon was built upon a foundation of lies, secrecy and cost overruns. When the gargantuan five-sided structure was being constructed with miraculous speed at the start of World War II, the officials responsible for the new War Department headquarters told a series of untruths about what was in the works.

At the time, Congress and the press were asking too many questions. Harry Truman, the junior senator from Missouri, had skillfully homed in on excesses in military spending. When the plans for a new office building for the U.S. military were brought before the Senate on Aug. 14, 1941, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan was puzzled. "Unless the war is to be permanent, why must we have permanent accommodations for war facilities of such size?" he asked. "Or is the war to be permanent?" And so, as Steve Vogel recounts in The Pentagon, the military officials in charge of constructing the new War Department headquarters dissembled. They claimed that the building would be much smaller than it was and that it would have considerably fewer people working there than it did. They repeatedly lied about money, at first claiming the building would cost less than $35 million, then later raising the figure to $49 million, when in fact they were hiding expenses of over $75 million.

Amazingly, they even told whoppers about how many floors the building would have. War Department officials had originally promised Congress the building would have only three stories -- but the "basement" turned out to be a fourth floor above ground, with a "sub-basement" beneath and a "sub-sub-basement" under that. Then, before the building was completed and after they had fessed up to four floors, War Department officials secretly added a fifth floor on top of the whole thing, burying the plan in congressional documents as merely "fourth floor intermediate."

The result was an edifice so overwhelming that no one could quite get a handle on it. By mid-1942, a joke was already making the rounds (still told in various forms today) about a messenger who got lost in the Pentagon and came out a lieutenant colonel. When Dwight Eisenhower moved to the Pentagon after commanding allied forces in World War II, he went astray on the way back to his office from the general officers' mess. "I walked and walked, encountering neither landmarks nor people who looked familiar," he recalled. Giving up, he asked a stenographer where he could find the office of the army chief of staff. "You just passed it about a hundred feet back, General Eisenhower," she replied.

Vogel's book is not a history of the Pentagon as an institution or of American defense policy such as, for example, James Carroll's recent personalized account, House of War. Rather, The Pentagon is intended as a history of the building itself, concentrating primarily on the original plans and construction. In the final third of the book, Vogel continues the narrative up to the present, with chapters on the Vietnam antiwar protests at the Pentagon, the Sept. 11 attack and its aftermath.

The book contains nuggets of particular interest to residents of Washington. Readers learn, for example, that the Memorial Bridge across the Potomac was constructed in part because President Warren G. Harding was caught in a huge traffic jam on the way to the 1921 ceremonies for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1941, the War Department was supposed to move into a new building in Foggy Bottom, where the State Department is now located, until President Franklin Roosevelt decided that with war approaching, his military headquarters would need far more space.

Vogel has uncovered a wealth of stories about the Pentagon from its early days, when the phones didn't work and top generals and civilians were maneuvering for the biggest offices with the best views. Ugly fights over segregation broke out in 1942, when officials put up a sign directing black Pentagon employees to a "colored cafeteria." That caused Ruth Bush, a young typist, to tell a guard, "This is America, not Germany. . . . Just think, I have brothers in the war now, fighting." She was accused of starting a riot.

Unfortunately, in addition to these engaging anecdotes, The Pentagon is also laden with more details, side excursions and numbers than many readers will want. "The massive operation produced as much as 3,500 cubic yards of concrete daily, requiring about 5,500 tons of sand and gravel, 937 tons of cement and 115,000 gallons of water every day," writes Vogel at one point. If you like sentences such as that one, you'll love The Pentagon. If not, you'll wish that its sometimes-ponderous 500-page narrative had been edited down to perhaps 350 pages.

Vogel's other problem, not necessarily of his own making, is that the book's leading character, Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, isn't all that interesting. As the Army official in charge of supply and logistics, Somervell supervised the construction of the Pentagon. From his vantage point in the Senate, Truman considered Somervell a martinet who "cared absolutely nothing about money." But Somervell was mostly a bureaucrat's bureaucrat, which doesn't make for great reading.

The most interesting character in The Pentagon is Roosevelt. In the midst of impending war, he took the time to oversee the details of the Pentagon's construction. He made the choice for the site. (When Somervell tried to lobby for a different tract of land in Arlington, Roosevelt told him, "My dear general, I'm still commander-in-chief of the Army.") The president was also closely involved in the building's design -- as he had earlier been for National Airport, Bethesda Naval Hospital and even the Jefferson Memorial. How many presidents, in the modern era, would get involved in the architecture and the construction of federal buildings? (Not too many, one hopes.)

Indeed, the Pentagon's quick recovery from the Sept. 11 attack is due in part to an accident of Roosevelt's design. He had at first envisioned that after World War II, the War Department would be cut back in size and moved out of the Pentagon building, which would then be used as a repository for government records. So Roosevelt ordered Somervell to build the Pentagon with floors of unusual strength to hold lots of heavy file cabinets. "Sixty years later, Roosevelt's tinkering paid off," Vogel writes. When American Airlines Flight 77 rammed into the building, its core withstood the blow.

The Pentagon endured; the damage was repaired within a year, well before the beginning of the war in Iraq. Roosevelt's dream of turning the Pentagon into just an ordinary file repository remains unfulfilled. ยท

James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent books are "Rise of the Vulcans" and "The China Fantasy."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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