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Five-By-Five: The Making of the Pentagon

Jeffrey Syken

As war clouds gathered over the nationís capital in the summer of 1941, Washington D.C. was a beehive of activity as preparations for Americaís eventual entry into the Second World War reached fever pitch. By that time, for military planners it was a matter of when, not if, we would enter the fray. In fact, there were so many military personnel in the District of Columbia in the days before Pearl Harbor that they were ordered to wear civilian clothes to try and mask the build-up from isolationist government officials. With War Department offices spread across the District in no less than seventeen buildings, it was hard to disguise the fact that war was imminent and the decentralized offices of the military command were woefully inadequate. That may have been barely tolerable in peacetime, but in wartime it would be both inefficient and unacceptable.

Something had to be done, and quick. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall turned to the head of the U.S. Armyís Construction Division Ė General Brehon Burke Somervell, a hard-driving, no-nonsense career military man to solve the problem for him. Somervell realized that centralization of War Department offices would solve the problem best. But where to put the largest office building in the world without spoiling the beautiful architecture of the capital and/or upsetting Pierre LíEnfantís street plan? It was obvious there was no site large enough in the District that could accommodate a low-rise building that would, under one roof, shelter 40K military and civilian personnel. So it was that a site; at the threshold of the National Cemetery in Arlington, VA, was chosen for its size and proximity to the capital. For some though, including the Fine Arts Commission and FDRís Uncle Frederic Delano, it was a little too close for comfort.

In the end, a site was selected to the immediate south, adjacent to the Washington-Hoover Airport in a tawdry area within the Potomac Riverís flood plain named Hellís Bottom. So as not to disturb the vistas of the capital, the building had to have a low profile and a large footprint. To save vital war materials, it would be made of reinforced concrete. Itís shape Ė a five-sided Pentagon, was a left-over from the original site which was bounded by five roads, but it worked well for a building so large and was retained (as efficient as a circle but at a lower cost because of its inherent straight lines). It would be completed in only sixteen months and, contrary to original intentions (it was planned to become a government archive after WWII ended), it became the permanent home of the nationís Department of Defense. Through hot wars, cold wars, regional conflicts and terrorist attacks directed at the building itself, it remains a potent symbol of Americaís military might, ever changing and adapting to its noble mission of defending the nation it serves.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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