Talk about irony. This week, on September 11, 1941—60 years to the day before Islamic terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon in an effort to destroy America’s premier symbol of military might—actual construction of that symbol began when ground was broken in Arlington, Virginia. Just over a year later, officers and staff of the U.S. War Department (later renamed the Department of Defense) moved into their headquarters in the Pentagon, which today is still the world’s largest office building.
It was, to say the least, a challenging undertaking even before groundbreaking because most members of Congress, who had to approve the building’s funding, did not understand why such a building was necessary. For one thing, in September of 1941 the United States was not at war with anyone. For another, even those members of Congress who assumed we might someday be at war with Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan did not believe the war would last forever. So why such a large, obviously permanent structure for war-making?
It seemed a fair question, which is why military officials in charge of building the Pentagon repeatedly misled members of Congress, wildly underestimating the costs and the size of the building they wanted to construct, and even the number of people who would be working in it.
These Pentagon boosters also had an invaluable ally in President Franklin Roosevelt who, together with General Brehon Somervell, the chief of the Army Construction Division, insisted that a central war headquarters was critical, not only in case America went to war against Germany and Japan, but also because America was becoming a world power and could no longer afford to have the operations of its War Department dispersed — as they were in 1941 — among dozens of different locations. Both Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall foresaw that America’s armed services, both manpower and material, would grow exponentially, necessitating a central command structure. As usual, FDR got his way, even picking out the location in Arlington, and engineering it so that his favorite building contractor, John McShain (who also built the Jefferson Memorial during FDR’s presidency) was awarded the construction contract.
In hindsight, FDR’s instincts were dead on. Despite massive challenges (including trying to hide from Congress the true size and cost of the building), the Pentagon was completed in just over one year, and today most historians agree that centralizing under one roof the War Department’s responsibilities, functions and command structure helped ensure victory in World War II.
Speaking of symbolizing America’s might, the Pentagon was built so solidly that it was repaired and operational less than a year after American Airlines Flight #77 slammed into it on Sept. 11, 2001.