A Washington Post military reporter brilliantly charts the conception, creation and history of the Pentagon, an architectural “monstrosity.”
Throughout his seamless narrative, Vogel weaves many fascinating tales, about the Potomac riverside site eventually chosen for the Pentagon; the aesthetic and political battles that accompanied construction; the building’s 1941 racial integration and the still incomplete project to fully unify the armed forces; the grinding down of Secretaries of Defense from Forrestal to McNamara to Rumsfeld; the 1967 anti-war march that resulted in “The Battle of the Pentagon”; the bombing by the Weather Underground in 1972; and the catastrophic 2001 terrorist attack. Principally, however, he features the heroic project of constructing, then reconstructing, the mammoth building conceived as only temporary headquarters for the War Department. With Hitler unleashed in Europe, the Pentagon, planned for efficiency, not beauty, went up with astonishing speed thanks to the hard-driving General Brehon Somervell, whose indispensability during World War II now seems largely forgotten; his virtual clone as a taskmaster, General Leslie Groves, whose relentlessness later made him the perfect head of the Manhattan Project; and contractor John McShain, whose thirst for glory had already induced him to build most of 1930’s official Washington, including the Jefferson Memorial. Working under Chief of Staff George Marshall, who would occasionally inspect the project from horseback, and enduring the meddling of FDR, who fancied himself an amateur architect, these men accomplished an engineering marvel and left a legacy almost perfectly matched decades later by the quietly efficient Lee Evey and the brilliantly profane structural engineer, Allyn Kilsheimer, who ran the Phoenix Project, the swift resurrection of the Pentagon following 9/11.
Among books dealing with seemingly impossible engineering feats, this easily ranks with David McCullough’s The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas, as well as Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome.