The Pentagon’s 50th … And The Future For America’s Defense


It took only 16 months to advance from the first spade turning to completion of construction. The Potomac itself supplied much of the building material, with 680,000 tons of sand and gravel being dredged from the river bottom to make concrete. Construction proceeded in a clockwise manner, with the last section being reserved for elements requiring the most time to design and build. Even so, the first tenants—employees of Army Ordnance—were moving in as early as April of 1942. It was not possible just then to install permanent directional markers, and people soon were getting lost. That led to such legends as the man who entered the building on a Tuesday, wandered through the labyrinth until Saturday, and finally emerged—in Philadelphia.

Another tale told of a woman who rushed up to a guard and exclaimed, “Quick! You have got to get me out of here. I’m about to have a baby.” The guard remonstrated, “You never should have come in here in that condition.” “I wasn’t when I came in,” she snapped back.

Yet the basic layout was simple: five concentric rings linked by ten major numbered corridors resembling the spokes of a wheel. Each office number carried its own directions for getting there. Room 3C273, for instance, lay on the third floor, C Ring (the third one from the center), off Corridor 2.

The structure was finished in mid-January of 1943; a month later it received its official name, the Pentagon. From the start much commentary focused on its size. Five complete Capitol buildings could fit within its 34 acres, while its 4,600-foot perimeter would accommodate the Great Pyramid of Cheops with a couple of hundred feet to spare. It had room for 40,000 employees within its 3.8 million square feet of usable space; the corridors ran to 17 miles; the telephone system could serve a city of 125,000; the cafeterias could feed 7,000 people at once. There was a hospital equipped for surgery, a bank, a drugstore, a barbershop, and a bi-level bus station featuring a concourse two blocks long.

Yet in comparison with its task, the Pentagon was all but lost amid a far vaster immensity. Military expenditures would rise to 38 percent of the gross national product. The armed forces would reach a peak strength of 12.3 million. America also had a civilian army of as many as 15 million, more than a tenth of the nation’s total population, consisting of people who left home to find work in the booming war centers. Well before the Army and Navy sent our forces ashore at Normandy, Joseph Stalin could offer a toast: “To American production, without which this war would have been lost.”

Yet war’s end would bring no return to normalcy. After 1945 the Pentagon’s prime responsibility was to develop weapons and doctrines appropriate to the new nuclear era, while deterring the annihilation it threatened. The first major steps came in the wake of the National Security Act of 1947, which established the Defense Department with its Joint Chiefs of Staff and made the Air Force into an independent service. Very soon the Air Force found itself engaged in a new struggle, not with the Soviets but with the U.S. Navy.


Both these services, in 1948, had sweeping plans for postwar defense. The dominant voices within the Air Force were those of the big-bomber advocates, led by Gen. Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay. With his fleets of B-29 bombers, LeMay had forced the surrender of Japan. His hopes now rested on the much larger B-36, a behemoth powered by six of the largest piston engines yet built, and with range sufficient to strike at Moscow from bases in the United States. These would form the nucleus of a new Strategic Air Command, which would stand as America’s premier offensive force.

Navy doctrine, by contrast, continued to emphasize such traditional roles as control of the seas and warfare against submarines. But the admirals too had nuclear hopes, which focused on a new class of supercarrier that was considerably larger than those of the Pacific war. These would embark aircraft with the size and range needed to launch their own atomic attacks. What was more, the first such vessel, USS United States , was already under construction.


The Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, had been Secretary of the Navy in the war years. But in March 1949 he stepped down in favor of Louis Johnson, who had made his name as a big-bomber man. In April Johnson ordered that the new carrier be scrapped.

The Navy counterattacked with salvos of criticism, but what Time magazine called the “revolt of the admirals” was in vain; the B-36 program went forward while plans for a supercarrier stayed on the drawing boards. The Strategic Air Command indeed gained the pre-eminence LeMay demanded. Not until two years into the Korean War would the Navy succeed in laying the keel for the first of its new carriers, the USS Forrestal .