The Pentagon's 50th ... and the Future for America's Defense

By Heppenheimer, T. A. | American Heritage, September 1992 | Go to article overview
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The Pentagon's 50th ... and the Future for America's Defense


Heppenheimer, T. A., American Heritage


The huge building at the heart of the American defense establishment is now a half a century old. The nation's military has changed tremendously since it was built--and is changing now more than ever.

It was August 1941, and Congressman Sam Rayburn was worried about the draft. He personally had no fear of being called; rather, as Speaker of the House, he wanted very much to pass a bill that would keep the Selective Service Act in force. That law had whooped through Congress a year earlier, just after the fall of France and with the Battle of Britain on every front page. But the British had held, and the Nazis had directed their armies against the Soviet Union. It was possible to believe that war might spare our country after all.

Rayburn knew that support for the draft had fallen off with the easing of war fears. He also knew that the draft was essential, for many of its inductees would soon be leaving the Army. The chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall, had testified that with no conscription law to bring in replacements, his service would face disintegration. Rayburn had done all he could, talking one by one with his fellow House members, cajoling them, insisting again and again that "I need your vote." Now the clerk was calling the roll, and these congressmen were making the decision.

"On this roll call, 203 members have voted aye, 202 members nay, and the bill is passed," Rayburn intoned. This was more than a routine announcement of the tally, for he had used his knowledge of House rules to make this statement at a most propitious time. Under those rules no member now could change his vote. By the margin of a single congressman, the draft would continue. The Army might still be unready for battle, but at least its preparations could proceed with no threat of interruption.

Change was also coming to the War Department, which had charge of the Army. It counted 24,000 employees that were spread throughout 17 buildings. With the department scheduled to grow in size by 25 percent during the second half of 1941, it was clear that its makeshift arrangements could only spawn confusion.

Gen. Brehon Somervell, the Army's chief of construction, took the view that the Army needed an entirely new headquarters that would consolidate its Washington staff within a single building. In July 1941, with the issue of the draft still in the balance, he set a group of architects to prepare a design. He was in a hurry; he gave them a weekend. The site he had in mind was on the Virginia side of Memorial Bridge, close to Arlington Cemetery and not too far from Lee mansion. A road cut off one corner of the property, and this led the designers to propose a pentagonal structure.

Somervell won the support of President Roosevelt, who sent a request to Congress for the necessary funds. Quickly a storm of criticism arose. Some people dubbed the project "Somervell's Folly," demanding to know why the Army needed such a large and permanent structure. They were mollified when officials responded that it could also serve as a veterans' hospital or as a repository for archives. Other critics denounced the proposed location, and they were not so easily put off. The land had been reserved for expansion of Arlington Cemetery, and to build on that site would require the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts. Its chairman, Gilmore Clarke, invoked the city plan created by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791 and testified that the Army proposal "would be one of the most serious and worst attacks on the plan of Washington that has ever been made."

The Army responded by moving the site three-fourths of a mile to the south to an area of dumps, shacks, pawnshops and a rendering works. It was known as Hell's Bottom. But it was within view of the Capitol and convenient to downtown, and the government already owned half of the necessary 583 acres. Groundbreaking took place on August 11, and construction proceeded afterward at the pace of a forced march.

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