The Pentagon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

In 1940, as it stood on the brink of war with Germany and Japan, the United States government undertook one of the most colossal building projects in history: the construction of a new headquarters for the Department of War. Motivated by concerns that elements of the Army’s various departments were scattered all over Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed himself to be convinced that a giant new building would solve this important command-and-control problem. For the next three years, the unusual five-sided structure seemed to rise from the ground across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia. As its design became evident, people began referring to it as “the Pentagon building,” and the name stuck.

When it was completed in 1943, the Pentagon was the largest office building in the world. Over the next sixty years, it would become the symbol of America’s military mightso much so that when terrorists chose to attack the United States in 2001, it was one of four targets selected for destruction. Unlike the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, however, the Pentagon withstood the devastating blow from the hijacked civilian jetliner flown directly into the structure. The resilience of the building’s inhabitants, and of the government’s efforts to rebuild it, quickly became a hallmark for the nation’s response to the terrorist threat.

The story of the Pentagon’s construction, and its role in American history since, is the subject of veteran military journalist Steve Vogel’s detailed and engaging The Pentagon: A HistoryThe Untold Story of the Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon, and to Restore It Sixty Years Later. Blending his skills as an interviewer and researcher with an exceptional ability to write clear, compelling prose, Vogel provides a detailed account of the genesis of what would become one of the most important edifices in the world. He explains how dozens of engineers and thousands of laborers transformed the swampy terrain along the banks of the Potomac into a solid foundation for a monumental building that would eventually house more than twenty-five thousand workers and the intricate network of roads and interchanges that would carry them to and from their jobs. He describes the construction methods employed to ensure that the building would serve not only as a safe and structurally sound home for the War Department but also later as a repository for government recordsthe ultimate purpose Roosevelt believed the Pentagon could serve when conflict with Germany and Japan ended and the nation could reduce its military to prewar levels. He details the architectural features that distinguish the building, noting how the final structure is a combination of the design of California architect G. Edwin Bergstrom, builder John McShain, who would go on to become one of the leading contractors in the nation’s capital, and President Roosevelt, whose tinkering with the plans produced some of the most notable aspects of the Pentagon’s final appearance.

On the whole, however, Vogel’s book is less about bricks and mortar (and concrete and dirt) than it is about peoplethe people who had the vision for the nation’s largest building and the drive to get it built in the 1940’s, and those who had the tenacity to rebuild sections of it destroyed by the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Insights into the personalities of men such as McShain, Bergstrom, and a number of others influential in getting the building approved, constructed, and opened provide the human touch that will appeal to a wider reading audience than those who might simply be interested in details of construction, architecture, and financing.

Dominating the pages of Vogel’s narrative as he dominated the project to construct the Pentagon is Brehon B. Somervell, the audacious (some might say egomaniacal) Army officer who conceived the idea for the building and drove efforts to complete it. Somervell, a West Point graduate of 1914, had managed to see action during World War I but like most career officers had shifted from job to job for the next twenty years. By 1940, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel and made a name for himself by cleaning up the corruption and inefficiency that had plagued the New York Public Works Administration. His efforts attracted the attention of officials in Washington, and Somervell was selected to oversee a massive buildup of military bases and facilities to serve the Army that Roosevelt...

(The entire section is 1842 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 18 (May 15, 2007): 8.

The Economist 383 (June 30, 2007): 93-94.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 9 (May 1, 2007): 439.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (June 10, 2007): 13.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 18 (April 30, 2007): 150.

The Washington Post, June 17, 2007, p. BW03.