Just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., in an area once known as Hell’s Bottom, stands the Pentagon — a ubiquitous and stately building known around the world as a symbol of American military power.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
In a new book titled “The Pentagon: A History,” Washington Post military reporter Steve Vogel chronicles the politics and tribulations surrounding the construction and operation of the Department of Defense leviathan during the past 66 years.
And it’s a story more, well, storied than most.
The building is the result of the controversial visions of ambitious then-Brig. Gen. Brehon Somervell. Somervell dreamed of housing the entire War Department under one mammoth roof. Proponents of the project had to fight Congress, the Fine Arts Commission and myriad other obstacles to construct what was then the largest office building in the world — all in little more than a year.
“One of the things that sort of surprised me was how much of the Pentagon was an accident,” Vogel said, referring to the time- pressured decisions made by many of the original Pentagon developers. “A lot of people see the five sides as symbolic.”
In fact, as Vogel’s book reveals, the pentagonal design was merely the product of the reality of time: the awkward layout of the original building site and a need to accommodate a massive amount of space in a relatively short building (in the buildup to World War II, steel required to construct a high-rise was in short supply).
Instead of writing his history in the standard textbook fare heavily weighted toward numbers and away from action, Vogel, who conceived of the book from the stories he heard while working around the Pentagon, chose instead to narrate it through the experiences of the building’s main characters.
“I thought it would be a lot more interesting that way,” he said, noting without the personal stories “the building itself is just a big round block of concrete.”
His characters include such people as Somervell — “clearly the father of the Pentagon,” in Vogel’s words — who embarked on an impassioned, and at times deceitful, campaign to convince the nation that the building was desperately needed. Or men like the egotistical John McShain, a friend of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt who would be required to mobilize a veritable army of construction workers to fulfill his promised contract on time. Interspersed with personal histories of each of the characters, readers are able to experience the key players as they interact with each other while striving to bolster or block the Pentagon’s construction.
It’s a style that works to much success, making the book, despite its more than 600-page length, an easy read for those who become quickly tired by endless dates and now-obscure generals and politicians, and therefore approachable for the average reader.
However, to compile so much information, Vogel said he had to ply through many a research library, consulting journals and analyzing taped conversations, eventually amassing thousands of pages of documents. The entire project lasted about two years.
“It took me longer to write the book than it took them to build [the Pentagon],” he noted.
In addition to perusing old records, Vogel also conducted numerous interviews with key players such as Lt. Robert Furman, the project’s executive officer, as well as more junior actors such as Marjorie Hanshaw.
Hanshaw, a secretary for the War Department’s Ordnance Department, was one of several hundred workers who initially moved into the building — at a time when large parts were still under construction. She and her fellow compatriots would later be termed “plank walkers,” a term derived from their trek to the Pentagon atop a pathway of boards in an effort to avoid the mud and mess of the construction site. It was just one of many squalid conditions early workers in the building were required to endure.
While it makes up a significant chunk of the book, initial political wrangling and the subsequent construction aren’t the only topics chronicled by the work. Vogel also devotes many pages to covering significant events surrounding the Pentagon, such as the debate over what to do with it after the surrender of Japan.
During the initial design phase Roosevelt had said, at least in public, that after “the great emergency” the War Department would return to the District of Columbia and the Pentagon would be turned into a massive document storage facility. However, as the book chronicles, the military would never let go of its grand edifice — a condition aggravated by the rapid rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Additionally, Vogel allots a few chapters to the fascinating reconstruction effort undertaken in the Pentagon in the late 1990s, during which restorers were confronted by many incongruities relating back to the initial rushed construction.
Vogel also details the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and chronicles the struggles of many Pentagon workers in their effort to escape the building as well as the rebuilding — an effort that, in some respects, paralleled the original construction.
“What they proved on the Phoenix Project is it could be done a lot faster than most people thought,” said Vogel, who visited the site on the day of the terror attacks.
While Vogel does occasionally turn off on tangents that are sometimes distracting — spending a few pages on a particular character’s future endeavors, for example — most of the ancillary stories help add context and depth to the story. And despite the book’s heft, Vogel’s writing coupled with the dynamic, conflict-strewn history of the Pentagon provides for a fascinating and comfortable read while giving new insight into an old Washington landmark.