Three buildings housing great institutions of the U.S. government have come to be regarded as national monuments and have become part of national and international history: the White House, the Capitol, and the Pentagon. Like the Vatican, the Kremlin, and the House of Parliament in London, they have acquired a distinct public character as symbols of government, and their names evoke worldwide recognition.
The Pentagon is three in one: It is a building, an institution, and a symbol. It is an engineering marvel—a product of its time and civilization. Born of necessity, built in great haste, and occupied section by section, it turned out to be a much better building than anyone expected or had a right to expect. In appearance and soundness of structure it exceeded expectations. It is doubtful that any building of comparable size and utility has been constructed before or since so expeditiously.
The institutional status of the Pentagon derives from its role as nerve center of the country’s armed forces—the largest of U.S. government institutions. From 1942 to 1947 it housed the War Department and since then the major elements of the Department of Defense: the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the highest echelons of the headquarters of the four services. From the Pentagon the President and the secretary of defense have exercised worldwide command and control of the country’s armed forces.
A symbol to the nation and the world since its beginning, the Pentagon above all is a metaphor of American power and influence with all the good and bad images such a symbol suggests. For most Americans, it is the embodiment of U.S. strength and authority, the nerve center of the military establishment, a rock of security. To others it is a symbol of militarism and violence, a “temple of death.” Over the years the traditional antimilitary instinct of the country has given way to acceptance of the Pentagon as a necessary bulwark in a violent and unstable world.
The Pentagon has also symbolized the enormous growth and influence of the military establishment in a country with an enduring antimilitary tradition. At the time of its construction in 1941-43, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and most of the government and the public believed that the building was a response to temporary circumstances and that it would not be required for the military after the war, when conditions would return to normalcy. But the post-World War II world did not return to what Americans regarded as normalcy. Much of it remained in flux, frequent and convulsive changes occurred, and the country encountered persistent and powerful threats to the security of the United States and its friends. Hence, the compulsion to maintain large military forces that averaged almost 2.5 million men and women between 1945 and 1990, nearly 8 times as many as before 1940.
This required a much larger military structure in Washington, of which the Pentagon became the flagship with the creation in 1947 of the National Military Establishment, re-titled the Department of Defense in 1949. Strong consensus on the necessity to provide for security against threats was always tempered by the hope that the need for such large military forces would be short-lived.
Even before it was completed the Pentagon entered history. From the time it became public knowledge that it was to be built, it excited attention and comment, initially only in Washington but eventually throughout the land. During its construction there evolved a miscellany of fact, fiction, myth, whimsy, illusion, and fantasy from which came a folklore of humor, black humor, and hostility that still endures after half a century. Indeed, the lore grew by accretion over the years. After 50 years it is time to set the record straight.
Adapted from The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years