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

June 2024
18min read


It was August 1941, and Congressman Sam Rayburn was worried about the draft. He personally had no fear of being called; rather, as Speaker of the House, he wanted very much to pass a bill that would keep the Selective Service Act in force. That law had whooped through Congress a year earlier, just after the fall of France and with the Battle of Britain on every front page. But the British had held, and the Nazis had directed their armies against the Soviet Union. It was possible to believe that war might spare our country after all.

Rayburn knew that support for the draft had fallen off with the easing of war fears. He also knew that the draft was essential, for many of its inductees would soon be leaving the Army. The chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall, had testified that with no conscription law to bring in replacements, his service would face disintegration. Rayburn had done all he could, talking one by one with his fellow House members, cajoling them, insisting again and again that “I need your vote.” Now the clerk was calling the roll, and these congressmen were making the decision.

“On this roll call, 203 members have voted aye, 202 members nay, and the bill is passed,” Rayburn intoned. This was more than a routine announcement of the tally, for he had used his knowledge of House rules to make this statement at a most propitious time. Under those rules no member now could change his vote. By the margin of a single congressman, the draft would continue. The Army might still be unready for battle, but at least its preparations could proceed with no threat of interruption.

Change was also coming to the War Department, which had charge of the Army. It counted 24,000 employees that were spread throughout 17 buildings. With the department scheduled to grow in size by 25 percent during the second half of 1941, it was clear that its makeshift arrangements could only spawn confusion.

Gen. Brehon Somervell, the Army’s chief of construction, took the view that the Army needed an entirely new headquarters that would consolidate its Washington staff within a single building. In July 1941, with the issue of the draft still in the balance, he set a group of architects to prepare a design. He was in a hurry; he gave them a weekend. The site he had in mind was on the Virginia side of Memorial Bridge, close to Arlington Cemetery and not too far from Lee mansion. A road cut off one corner of the property, and this led the designers to propose a pentagonal structure.


Somervell won the support of President Roosevelt, who sent a request to Congress for the necessary funds. Quickly a storm of criticism arose. Some people dubbed the project “Somervell’s Folly,” demanding to know why the Army needed such a large and permanent structure. They were mollified when officials responded that it could also serve as a veterans’ hospital or as a repository for archives. Other critics denounced the proposed location, and they were not so easily put off. The land had been reserved for expansion of Arlington Cemetery, and to build on that site would require the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts. Its chairman, Gilmore Clarke, invoked the city plan created by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 and testified that the Army proposal “would be one of the most serious and worst attacks on the plan of Washington that has ever been made.”

The Army responded by moving the site three-fourths of a mile to the south to an area of dumps, shacks, pawnshops and a rendering works. It was known as Hell’s Bottom. But it was within view of the Capitol and convenient to downtown, and the government already owned half of the necessary 583 acres. Groundbreaking took place on August 11, and construction proceeded afterward at the pace of a forced march.

The shape of the building remained pentagonal. To change the plans would have cost time, but this shape was no hasty compromise; it yielded efficiency. The most effective shape would have been a circle, offering the shortest distances between widely separated offices. But that would have ruled out use of long, straight sections, which were easiest to build. A square structure, by contrast, would have added distance wastefully. A pentagon mediated neatly between these possibilities.

Efficiency also dictated the broad, low shape. A high-rise would have demanded elevators, but the building’s five-story plan dispensed with them, allowing people to reach different floors rapidly by using broad ramps. A similar concern for traffic flow was evident in the design of roads. Adjacent highways sprouted cloverleaf interchanges and overpasses, eliminating traffic lights. A thousand-foot busway ran below one of the five segments of the structure, accommodating surges of up to 30,000 people per hour. Architectural Forum noted approvingly that such arrangements “give a real foretaste of the future,” adding that “as building approaches the scale technically feasible, the distinction between architecture and city planning vanishes.”

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 .

The admirals’ revolt had involved the Navy’s roles and missions, but fundamentally it was a quarrel over money. The military budget, which had peaked at $83 billion in 1945, had plummeted to less than $14 billion during the Truman years, barely 5 percent of the gross national product. But this was about to change, for the Soviets had consolidated their control over Eastern Europe and had exploded their own atomic bomb. Truman, learning of this new Soviet weapon, said, “This means we have no time left.” At virtually the same time, China fell to its own communists.

Truman already was setting up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and early in 1950 he ordered a high-priority effort aimed at building a hydrogen bomb. Then in April he took the next significant step, directing his National Security Council to prepare a policy paper to be known as NSC-68. It authorized a major new build-up, and declared that up to 20 percent of the GNP would be spent for this purpose. It also accepted a strategy under which the United States would not limit itself to a well-defined sphere of influence. Instead we would meet any threat by the communists, anywhere in the world.

Two months later the army of North Korea struck at its southern neighbor, and with the suddenness of Pearl Harbor, America again was at war. Truman rushed U.S. forces to the defense, but they had to retreat, falling back on Pusan in the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula. As more troops arrived, we and the South Koreans held the line, but with little prospect of a breakout or counter-attack. But the commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was prepared to fight by sea as well as on land, and in mid-September he unleashed his masterstroke.

Dividing his forces, he left enough in place to defend the Pusan perimeter and put the rest on oceangoing transports. He then struck from the sea at Inchon, well up Korea’s western coast, and slashed across the North Korean supply lines. Within days their offensive turned into a rout, and MacArthur pushed his forces northward. His goal was the YaIu River, the border with China, and by October his forward battalions had it in view.

The Chinese government had become increasingly concerned. There were no diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing, but through neutral parties such as India, Chinese leaders gave increasingly insistent warnings that they would intervene. MacArthur ignored them. So did Truman, who in the wake of Inchon had every reason to defer to his general. China thereupon jumped in with 33 divisions, and when the front finally stabilized, we found ourselves in a war we could neither win nor end. Finally, after two years of stalemate, the Chinese accepted truce terms that amounted to restoring the status quo, and the war was over.

The Korean War nevertheless was important in an entirely different respect, for it brought a desegregated military. In July 1948 Truman had issued Executive Order 9981, which declared that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Henceforth promotions were to be based “solely on merit and fitness.” By mid-1953 more than 90 percent of blacks in the military were serving in integrated outfits. The last all-Negro units were abolished during 1954.

That same year also launched an entirely different era of change, as the long-range ballistic missile suddenly became a matter of urgency. There had been considerable talk of such weapons since 1945, but the plans and designs had foundered on guidance systems so errant that even the power of the atomic bomb was not enough to compensate for their inaccuracy. But the hydrogen bomb was another matter; it could destroy a city even with a miss of up to three miles.

A good deal of the technical groundwork for such missiles was already in place when a new type of H-bomb, designated Bravo, exploded on March 1, 1954. The test occurred at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific and yielded fifteen megatons, with the bomb being compact enough to deliver by air. Within three weeks the Air Force Secretary directed that the missile program was to receive “the maximum effort possible with no limitation as to funding.” Two weapons of 5,000-mile range, Atlas and Titan, received the main attention, but there were other such projects as well. The forced pace of the effort was particularly clear in one of them, the 1,500-mile Thor. In less than a year its manufacturer, Douglas Aircraft, went from contract signing to having a working missile on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

The advent of the missiles thus represented the Pentagon’s response to the H-bomb, just as the Strategic Air Command had been its principal response to the A-bomb. This time, however, the Navy would share in the developments. Its focus of attention was the submarine, which had proven itself as a formidable commerce raider in both World Wars. Yet those diesel-powered boats could submerge for only a few hours at a time.

Hyman Rickover’s nuclear subs, with USS Nautilus in the van, eradicated these limits and introduced the true undersea warship, able to operate in the depths for weeks at a time. Very soon such submarines took on an additional role, as carriers of solid-fuel missiles. They offered the Navy an entirely new mission, the strategic nuclear attack. The missile subs, in turn, would be both highly mobile and virtually undetectable; the entire expanse of the oceans would become a launching ground. And the nuclear submarine would stand alongside the aircraft carrier as a capital ship.

Spurring the fast pace of these programs was the fear that the Soviets were ahead of us—a fear that reached its peak between 1957 and 1959 as Moscow used enormous rockets to launch its first spacecraft. The largest of them, Sputnik III , weighed a hundred times more than the 30-pound packages that America was struggling to place in orbit. Yet the Soviets’ lead, ironically, stemmed from their pre-mature commitment to an obsolescent technology. In their rush to be first, they had committed their resources to building rockets of great size. These behemoths were fine for space but clumsy for military use. The American missiles were much smaller, but that made it possible to build them in large numbers. By 1962 the United States had a clear lead in the missile race, and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, saw only one way out. He would give his medium-range missiles the striking power of long-range versions, by placing them in Cuba.


The ensuing crisis may well have brought the world to within a few hours of nuclear war. Soviet technicians began to work feverishly to make ready their missile bases. A major attack force stood across the Florida Strait, and peace hung on the question of whether Khrushchev would agree to withdraw the missiles. If he rejected those terms, the attack would proceed. A Soviet expeditionary force was already in Cuba, its commander having tactical nuclear weapons and the authority to use them. Moreover, Soviet war-fighting doctrine took the view that in a war with the United States, nuclear escalation was “inevitable” and would feature “maximum” use of such weapons from the very beginning.

“It isn’t the first step that concerns me,” said President John Kennedy, “but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step—and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so.” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, returning to the Pentagon on the previous evening, had wondered aloud how many sunsets he would see. Then on the morning of October 28, thirteen days after the crisis began, Radio Moscow announced that “the Soviet government… has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you described as offensive and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.” The end of the crisis marked a watershed in superpower relations. Arms build-ups would continue, but never again would Moscow mount so reckless a challenge.

Nevertheless, there was recklessness in Washington as well, which came to the fore in Vietnam. To ask how we got into that conflict is somewhat like asking how Rome fell; the answer in both instances is bit by bit and in small steps, with few people having any clear idea of what really was happening.

From the outset we had no strategy for victory. Here was no war against main-force battle units as in Korea, where we had held the line along a front. The war rather was largely one of counterinsurgency, formless and fluid, with the enemy unseen and yet everywhere. Geography offered no opportunity to isolate the battle-field; even in 1968, with half a million Americans in country, the North Vietnamese still were prepared to continue to funnel at least 200,000 men into the South. Nor could we strike too strongly at the North; the memory of Chinese intervention in Korea was all too vivid. So we let the enemy wage a war in his country on his terms.

What was more, we fought that war with a conscript army. America had long rejected such notions as large standing armies and peacetime conscription; yet we had embraced both in the wake of Korea, and with surprisingly little controversy. The draft had become one more of life’s prospects that young people would face; when Elvis Presley got his notice in 1958 and went off to basic training like everyone else, he made this point with particular clarity. But during Vietnam the draft proved a source of vast bitterness and divisiveness.

In the country at large the dominant mood was not “Hell no, we won’t go.” Rather it was “Win or get out.” “!Tie maiority of draftees went stolidly, as had their fathers and older brothers in their day. But on university campuses, particularly the prestigious ones, fear of the draft spurred a hatred for the war and a contempt for the military. Such feelings echoed within the nation’s media, which increasingly came to present the war as failure and folly.

The turning point came in February 1968 as the communists carried out a coordinated series of large-scale attacks across the whole of South Vietnam. On the field of battle they met defeat. But in the field of public opinion they scored a major success, for America had had no reason to expect such a blow. Similar setbacks had marked the progress of earlier wars, but now what told was that American leaders had failed to convince their people that the country had any major interest at stake, any compelling reason to be there. By the end of March, Lyndon Johnson had chosen not to seek reelection. Soon Richard Nixon was in the White House, with a mandate to withdraw the troops and end the war.

To a commander a retreat is among the most difficult of maneuvers, for it can readily turn into a rout. That was the situation facing the entire Pentagon in the years after 1968, years that saw a major stand-down. Though the budget remained nearly constant at $75 to $80 billion, inflation ran high; by 1974 the Defense Department’s purchasing power, in constant dollars, had fallen by 37 percent. Its budget fell from 9.5 percent of the gross national product to 5.8 percent, then fell further to 4.7 percent in 1979. With the Soviets conducting a large-scale build-up of conventional forces, our Army nevertheless still had the responsibility of countering any Warsaw Pact thrust into West Germany. The generals responded with a most uncertain trumpet, emphasizing that they would take the initial blow and fight on the defensive.


Nevertheless, the military was grappling in a serious way with the lessons of Vietnam. In 1973, with the ink barely dry on that war’s peace accords, we abolished the draft and returned to the concept of a citizen army. The Pentagon, supported by Congress, raised pay and benefits, while emphasizing that young people in the service would receive superb opportunities for training. These policies succeeded in attracting an all-volunteer force. Moreover, military service proved sufficiently enticing that many of the volunteers were high school graduates. As the new Army took shape, the draftees of Vietnam, who had spent their time counting the days of their one-year tours of duty while waiting eagerly to get back to the world, faded into memory.

Another reform accompanied President Reagan’s build-up, early in the 1980s. The flows of new equipment made possible a major new emphasis on combined arms. The Army made this change explicit in the 1982 revision of its principal manual of doctrine, FM 100-5. Gone now was its former emphasis on defensive battle. The focus now would feature an aggressively offensive approach known as Air-Land, which would demand close work with the Air Force. Rapid maneuver would complement the earlier emphasis on firepower, with the battlefield extending up to hundreds of miles in depth. Germany and the Warsaw Pact were still the anticipated theater and foe, but in this doctrine lay the main features of Desert Storm.

Unity of command also gained support. The Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 strengthened the hand of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, giving him new freedom to set priorities and to say no to chiefs of the individual services. It also set up new arrangements, within the Pentagon, aimed at promoting joint planning and coordinated activities involving these services. The chairman then could take on a role similar to that of MacArthur in Korea or Chester Nimitz during World War II, subordinating his colleagues’ rivalries and jealousies in the interest of a common effort. The nation saw the result during Desert Storm, when the chain of command was simple and clear: Bush in the White House, Richard Cheney as Defense Secretary, Colin Powell chairing the Joint Chiefs, Norman Schwarzkopf commanding in the field.

That 1991 war brought America its first unambiguous military success since the landing at Inchon, forty years earlier. It is true that Iraq would hardly bear comparison to the Warsaw Pact, and that Saddam Hussein proved to be a most cooperative enemy, giving Schwarzkopf all the time he needed for the U.S. build-up. Yet Iraq’s strength had to be taken seriously; Saddam had a world-class tank force, blooded in his recent war with Iran. And because he was a Soviet client, there was the prospect that Moscow would funnel men and equipment to Baghdad, to keep the war going.

Desert Storm had its share of spectacular actions. A star of the war was the Stealth fighter, the Lockheed F-117A, which had been developed in secrecy rivaling that of the Manhattan Project. It was advertised as being invisible to radar and took on the task of slipping past Iraqi defenses to strike at Saddam’s command centers. Also there were “smart” weapons, including laser-guided bombs and the Tomahawk cruise missile. The latter carried electronic maps within its onboard computer, permitting it to navigate through Baghdad’s streets like a tourist.

Less publicized, but equally significant, was a Marine operation called Imminent Thunder. This was an ambitious invasion of the Saudi Arabian coast, carried out as an exercise and billed as a prelude to a similar assault on the heavily defended shores of Kuwait. This threat was a bluff; yet Saddam, believing that it was real, redeployed his forces to strengthen the coast. That made it easier for Schwarzkopf to execute his “Hail Mary” play, as he sent his tanks in a long sweep far to the west of Kuwait, setting up Saddam’s army for a battle of annihilation. So Imminent Thunder amounted to more than a feint on the desert chessboard. It was a vietory for unity of command.


Yet just as Sherlock Holmes found an important clue in the dog that did not bark, a significant element in our victory lay in the major power that did not stir. Moscow abandoned Iraq to its fate. And by the end of 1991 the Soviet Union itself was no more. Three centuries of Russian imperialism had collapsed in only two years; the western border was nearly that of 1648. Between Moscow and a newly reunified Germany lay two complete tiers of independent states.

How had this happened? Part of the reason lay in the Soviet response during the quarter-century that followed the Cuban missile crisis. The Defense Ministry vowed that never again would it face so humiliating a retreat. Already commanding a disproportionate share of the Soviet economy, its marshals proceeded to take still more, building a major bluewater navy, greatly strengthening their nuclear forces, while claiming first call on the best talent and the most productive equipment. The Reagan defense build-up put further pressure upon Moscow, intensifying this trend. The result was a weakened economy and a nation in decline.

The decline was slow and undramatic, but within the senior reaches of Soviet leadership, it brought demand for change and reform. Those demands in turn brought Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of premier. Gorbachev faced no imminent crisis demanding quick action; he was no Roosevelt coming to power in the depths of the Depression. He could well have emulated Khrushchev and pursued only superficial reforms that might have sustained his system into the next century. But he believed sincerely that communism was strong enough to accept genuine reform. In the end, like Louis XVI, he did no more than whet the people’s appetite for change, while making it safe for them to demand much more. Still, as communism went off to history’s dustbin, at least there was no guillotine in Red Square.

What does it mean, then, that our adversary is no more and that we have won the Cold War? During the Reagan build-up, defense spending had risen from a Carter-era low of 4.7 percent of the gross national product to a 1986 high of 6.6 percent. But early in 1992 Secretary Cheney set forth a fiveyear budget that projects a drop to only 3.4 percent in 1997. Should reform and hope lake hold within the Soviet Union, further cuts could be in store. Russia, in turn, might develop along Western lines, anchoring a Europe that would extend from the Atlantic well beyond the Urals.

What sort of military may we have then? Within our all-volunteer military, future force reductions could put an even stronger emphasis on quality, building a lean but strongly professional and highly mobile armed service whose personnel will feature the true citizen-soldier, pursuing with élan the profession of arms.

The matter of equipment will also deserve attention (see “Arms and the Future,” page 9). A commonplace view is that today’s missiles and “smart” weapons offer a kill with every shot, and that full-scale battle will destroy planes and tanks far more rapidly than the rate at which industry could build replacements. But the world’s navies have grappled with this issue for two centuries. At Trafalgar in 1805, for instance, Admiral Nelson in a single afternoon destroyed more capital ships than Napoleon and his Spanish ally could build in several years. Aircraft are already approaching the costs and limited numbers that used to characterize warships; perhaps the answer will lie not in technology but in extending naval doctrine into the Air-Land battle. Tomorrow’s generals then may add the great naval expert Adm. Alfred Mahan to the list of strategic thinkers whose works they will study.

Yet the most important changes may involve our public attitudes. We have lived so long with the Cold War and with large standing forces that we have come to regard such circumstances as normal. But if the next few years go well, then we may enter into a Long Peace, in which wars will be small-scale, short, and rare. There once indeed was such a world, between 1815 and 1914, when Britain played the role to which America aspires today. Should the twenty-first century resemble the nineteenth in this regard, our descendants may someday view our era as a time of barbarism, erupting amid two much longer ages of peace and civility.


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