Sample text for House of war : the Pentagon and the disastrous rise of American power / James Carroll.

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1. Hell"s Bottom

A year after the Al Qaeda attack, at a rededication ceremony on September
11, 2002, much was made of the post-9/11 repairs having been completed in
a mere twelve months. No one seemed to know that the entire Building had
been constructed from start to finish in less than sixteen months. It was
made of cement for which 700,000 tons of sand were dredged from the
Potomac riverbed next to the site. The river"s edge is key to the Building"s
impression, evoking a forbidden temple of the timeless past, as if looming
over the ancient Nile.1 The picturesque lagoon that sets off the River
Entrance, like a plaza waiting to receive the barge of Cleopatra, is a vestige
of that dredging.2
Relatively little steel was used in the construction -- those ramps
instead of elevators -- because it was needed just then for bullets, shells,
and tanks. Planners took for granted that once the war emergency had
passed, the hulking edifice would be handed over for civilian use: a depot for
government records or -- and this is what my mother told me, which is why I
always believed it, even after learning it was a myth -- a facility for the care
of wounded and disabled veterans, the ramps built for wheelchairs and
gurneys. The largest hospital in the world. My mother"s devotion to this idea
was sacralized when my brother Joe was stricken with polio, making her a
haunter of hospitals, a connoisseur of ramps. Joe"s polio, in turn, transformed
into worship her devotion to the similarly stricken, but nobly unbowed,
President Roosevelt. He was photographed visiting the Building just before its
completion in January 1943, but there is no record of his using a wheelchair
In fact, Roosevelt was deeply conflicted about the Pentagon. As
assistant secretary of the Navy during WorldWar I, he had ordered the
construction of barracks-like "tempos" all over Washington, and these
eyesores were still there twenty years later, despoiling especially the Mall
between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The
structures were a source of self-rebuke to Roosevelt. The War Department
alone occupied seventeen separate facilities around Washington. To
consolidate the offices in one handsome place, FDR had personally overseen
the construction of a new headquarters building at 21st Street in Foggy
Bottom, but no sooner was it completed than World War II broke out. By mid-
1941, the Army had mushroomed to a million and a half men; the new
headquarters was instantly inadequate, and senior Army officials told the
president they would never use it.3 Though its entrance was decorated by a
huge, undiplomatic martial mural -- helmeted soldiers in combat -- the
building would become the headquarters of the State Department, which it
remains to this day.
The size of the space was not the only issue. The freshly
empowered Army wanted its new building to be set apart from the so-called
Federa West Executive Area, apart from entanglements with, and the limits
of, the seat of government. In a time of peril, the Army was not about to be
treated as just another bureaucratic function, alongside Interior and
Commerce and Indian Affairs. The Army would transcend. Senior military
officials immediately began scouting sites outside the city -- this despite the
explicit terms of congressional appropriations for construction within
Washington.4 A site in Virginia appealed to the Army because, for one
thing, District of Columbia architectural supervision would not hinder the
mammoth scale envisioned by departmental planners. Yet even across the
river the initial site selection proved controversial. The D.C. Fine Arts
Commission, chaired by Roosevelt"s cousin Frederick A. Delano, reached
across the Potomac to denounce the "flagrant disregard"5 of context in the
Army"s wish to build at the western end of Memorial Bridge. The site was
then occupied by Arlington Farms, an agricultural research facility -- all that
was left of Robert E. Lee"s original plantation, the rest of which had long
before been seized by the federal government to serve as the national
cemetery. Recovering from the punitive impulse of that requisition,
Washington had, in the 1920s, established a symbol of reconciliation
between North and South by aligning an axis along Memorial Bridge between
Lee"s becolumned mansion atop the hill at Arlington and the Lincoln
Memorial, which was completed in 1922. Joined to Lincoln in this way, Lee
was thus linked along the Mall to George Washington and the Capitol. The
proposed new War Department building, just below the Lee mansion and
directly on that axis, would destroy the geographic symbol of national
When that was pointed out to President Roosevelt, he ordered the
War Department building moved about a mile downriver. At the same time,
considering the architects" plans for the hulking structure, FDR ordered the
size of the building reduced by half. Among other considerations, the
president expressed concern for the psychological effect on those who would
be employed amid such dominating impersonality.6 He also affirmed that,
after "the present emergency," the War Department headquarters would be
returned to Washington where it belonged; no permanent headquarters
building would be necessary in Virginia. Roosevelt found himself declaring
that the Army could make do, as the Navy would, with yet more tempos.
(The Navy Annex was constructed to be temporary, but to this day it sits on
the Arlington ridge, above the Pentagon.)When the general in charge of the
project objected to these terms, the president said, "My dear General, I"m
still Commander-in-Chief of the Army."7
The general complied, but only partially. The new downriver site
was accepted -- an unsightly shack-ridden wasteland called Hell"s Bottom. It
was a former airfield and railroad yard littered with abandoned tin hangars and
rusted-out boxcars. But without Roosevelt"s knowledge, the general declined
to reduce the size of the Building, and with the help of Virginia congressmen,
he protected the appropriations needed to make the construction permanent.
By then the Building"s architects, led by G. Edwin Bergstrom, who had also
designed the Hollywood Bowl, had completed drawings for the upriver site at
Arlington Farms. The original design for that now abandoned location called
for a simple rectangular footprint, but access roads required one corner of the
rectangle to be cut off, leaving an asymmetrical five-sided building. What
Bergstrom did was to even up the five sides, producing -- voilà -- the
Pentagon. When the site was moved downriver, the polygonal shape was no
longer required by the limits of the roadways, but such was the hurried pace
of the project that the architects did not change the design. Eventually
Bergstrom and others would mythologize the pentagonal form of the War
Department headquarters as an echo of Napoleonic-era fortress
architecture.8 The true, entirely mundane origin of the design would be
Over the next year, more than a hundred architects and nearly as
many engineers worked around the clock in those abandoned airplane
hangars, turning out drawings for the more than fifteen thousand laborers,
who often didn"t wait for specs. Pearl Harbor was attacked almost three
months after groundbreaking, and from then on the already quickened pace of
construction was redoubled. "How big should I make that beam across the
third floor?" one architect asked another, who replied, "I don"t know. They
installed it yesterday."9
* * *
Supervising all of this work was a Corps of Engineers colonel named Leslie
R. Groves, who was forty-five years old when appointed to head up Pentagon
construction. He was a burly, corpulent man whose belly protruded like lips
over his brass-buckled belt.10 A man of the job, Groves was an important
military manager. In charge of the Army"s crash building program across the
country (in 1940 the Corps"s construction budget skyrocketed from $20
million to $10 billion), he had already purchased half the lumber in the United
States.11 Born into an Army family four years after the Battle of Wounded
Knee, in 1890, which marked the end of the Indian wars, Groves had spent
part of his childhood at Fort Apache, Arizona, living in the house of a man
famous for killing Indians.12 His lifelong hero was General William Tecumseh
Sherman, whose "march to the sea" across Georgia legitimized the spirit of
total war, which after the CivilWar was unleashed on Native Americans.
Groves began as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, but when his older brother died in 1914 -- of a disease
contracted at the same Arlington Farms that would much later be the first
site proposed for the Pentagon -- Groves transferred to West Point. From
then on he wore a mustache, which did nothing to soften his stern, unfriendly
demeanor. Work in the Corps of Engineers was essentially a matter of
management, and Groves proved himself again and again. By the time he
was put in charge of Pentagon construction, his most notable prior service
had been in Nicaragua, developing plans for a second (never undertaken)
canal across the Central American isthmus.13
As the Pentagon neared completion, Groves was promoted to
brigadier general, although for a reason having to do with his next project, not
this one. Among his last decisions in Arlington was one that provided the
new Building with separate eating and lavatory accommodations for "colored
people" and whites. The dining areas for blacks would be in the basement,
and on the other floors, at each corridor junction, double toilet facilities would
be built, separated by race. When President Roosevelt visited the Building
shortly before its dedication, he asked why there were so many lavatories
(more than two hundred), and he was told that the Army was abiding by
Virginia"s racial laws. Roosevelt had issued an order prohibiting such
discrimination throughout the U.S. military only six months earlier, and he
told Groves to get rid of the Whites Only signs at once. Groves obeyed.
Because he was overridden by the president, the Pentagon would for a long
time be the only place in Virginia where segregation was not allowed.14
Within days of Roosevelt"s visit to the new War Department
headquarters, at an understated ceremony presided over by Secretary of War
Henry L. Stimson, the Pentagon was dedicated. Wartime exigencies
eclipsed such a formality in the memoirs and memories of witnesses. Honor
guards would have mounted battle flags in mahogany stands, and portraits of
former secretaries of war would have been unveiled. One imagines the Army
band playing martial music. Perhaps a ribbon was cut. It was January 15,

Copyright © 2006 by James Carroll. Reprinted with permission by Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
United States -- Military policy.
Pentagon (Va.)
United States. -- Dept. of Defense.
Militarism -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Militarism -- United States -- History -- 21st century.
Arms race -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Arms race -- United States -- History -- 21st century.