History of the Pentagon

black and white photo of the pentagon

There are certain institutions ingrained in our national identity. The Pentagon is one of those American institutions. While we know it's an important part of the infrastructure of our government and a well-known building, the history of the Pentagon might not be as familiar to most Americans. Let's take a look at some main points in the history of the Pentagon for a better understanding of this important icon.

The Beginning

When looking at the history of the Pentagon, it's important to understand what it is and why it was needed in the first place. Serving as a central hub for the nation's various military branches and services, the Pentagon is a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt declaring a state of national emergency. Following a surprise attack by Germany on the Soviet Union, Roosevelt declared the national emergency on May 27th, 1941 as the realization that Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime had already occupied much of Europe. With the current U.S. War Department spread out among at least 17 different buildings in D.C., and the personnel expanded to 24,000 people on the payroll with no signs of slowing in growth, Roosevelt wanted all of the War Department housed in one safe, secure building. He approved the 18-million-dollar budget, and construction began with the location set to open in June 1941. However, this building was deemed too small once completed and in 1947 would become the headquarters for the State Department as we know it today. While the building did not remain the same, Roosevelt created a notion of our nation's military presence being centralized in one place, which is still the basis of the Pentagon today.

Building the Pentagon

When the original building wasn't big enough to house the ever-growing personnel due to the war, the Army's Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, sought the aid of General Brehon B. Somervell, head of the Army's Construction Division, to come up with a useable solution. Somervell came up with a proposal that was especially bold for the time of creating a building big enough for 40,000 people and with 4 million square feet of space. The war was a mounting concern and because of this Roosevelt approved the plan. There was a small problem however of finding a location large enough to accommodate such a building. They chose a site across from the Potomac River, east of Arlington National Cemetery. Interestingly enough, this plot of land was once part of the estate of General Robert E. Lee.

The star shape the building is famous for was a result of Somervell factoring in the roads neighboring the plot of land. He also determined that the building couldn't be more than 3 stories high for a few reasons. For starters, he wanted to make sure D.C. was still visible and making it any taller would block that view. There was also a wartime scarcity on important supplies such as steel. While the House of Representatives would pass the required legislation for the project to get underway as of July 28 and the Senate would do the same on August 14, 1941, by that time a controversy among Americans threatened the future of the project. Many Americans were concerned it was disrespectful to build so close to the hallowed Arlington National Cemetery. There were also growing concerns about the incredible size of the building. Roosevelt, a president known to listen to American opinions, declared the project needed to be no more than 2.25 million square feet total and relocated it to a different site.

The new site didn't require the star shape, but the shape remained for a few reasons. For starters, they were tight on time and needed to get the building up and running with the growing war tensions mounting. The United States needed to be capable of producing a serious threat when they declared their involvement in the war, and this was a crucial step in getting there. In fact, the U.S. would go on to declare war on Germany, Italy, Japan, and their allies within just three months of starting the construction of the Pentagon, and by 1945 this iconic building would be the base for the most undeniably powerful military presence in the entire world.

The star shape was also kept in place because it had the unique benefit of creating shorter interior distances than with a rectangle building. This building is huge, so the shape helped make it easier to reach other areas faster, which was important when time was a factor.

The star shape also stood as a metaphor for the nation as whole and helped present a unified military force. It is more than just the central hub of the nation's military presence for most citizens. The star shape lends itself well to the symbol of a strong military force to defend a nation formed on democracy and freedom.

Construction began on September 11th, 1941. The efforts to build this massive building started out strong with 3,000 workers working to build it. By March 1942, following a response to Pearl Harbor and a growing threat, over 10,000 workers were on hand every day, with construction even going on 24 hours a day, to get the building to completion. The first employees of the Pentagon moved into the building on April 30th, 1942 with the building officially opening January 14th the following year.

An interesting fact worth noting is that the building went beyond the 2.25 million proposed by Roosevelt to appease the masses. The war had now reached a critical tension and this drove home the idea that the U.S. needed a large military presence with the Pentagon serving as a symbol of that strength. The finished Pentagon comes in at an impressive 6 million square feet overall. The original budget had also grown due to the pressures of wartime and the threat against national security. It had started as a 35-million-dollar project but had since grown to 75 million by completion.

September 11th Attack

On September 11th, 2001, a commercial plane highjacked by terrorists struck the Pentagon on the 60th anniversary of construction commencing on this historic building. This damaged an approximate one third of the building. The building, made of steel and concrete, took on considerable damage caused by the impact of the large plane going an estimated 529 miles per hour upon impact. The impact caused a gash in the building 30 yards wide and 10 yards deep and ignited the building in flames which would take 36 hours to fully extinguish. The impact killed 135 Pentagon employees and 64 passengers on the flight. The attack was part of a larger attack with two other planes striking the World Trade Center towers, while a fourth plane was also highjacked with the White House as the target. That flight crashed in a rural part of Pennsylvania never reaching the intended target thanks to the heroic efforts of passengers onboard.

This was one of the most historic days in American history and the government knew it was critical to present a strong military presence, especially in the face of such a large scale and deadly attack. Estimates place 9/11 as the deadliest attack on America, ranking it higher than Pearl Harbor in the number of lives lost. As a result, the government allotted a 500-million-dollar renovation project, dubbed the Phoenix Project, to rebuild this important hub of our military. The project would end be completed in February 2005 with an actual 5 billion dollars spent to repair the Pentagon and create a memorial with 184 illuminated benches commemorating the lives of those lost in the Pentagon attack.