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About - The Pentagon - A History

The creation of the Pentagon in seventeen whirlwind months during World War II is one of the great construction feats in American history, involving a tremendous mobilization of manpower, resources, and minds. In astonishingly short order, Brigadier General Brehon B. Somervell conceived and built an institution that ranks with the White House, the Vatican, and a handful of other structures as symbols recognized around the world. Now veteran military reporter Steve Vogel reveals for the first time the remarkable story of the Pentagon’s construction, from it’s dramatic birth to its rebuilding after the September 11 attack.

At the center of the story is the tempestuous but courtly Somervell–“dynamite in a Tiffany box,” as he was once described. In July 1941, the Army construction chief sprang the idea of building a single, huge headquarters that could house the entire War Department, then scattered in seventeen buildings around Washington. Somervell ordered drawings produced in one weekend and, despite a firestorm of opposition, broke ground two months later, vowing that the building would be finished in little more than a year. Thousands of workers descended on the site, a raffish Virginia neighborhood known as Hell’s Bottom, while an army of draftsmen churned out designs barely one step ahead of their execution. Seven months later the first Pentagon employees skirted seas of mud to move into the building and went to work even as construction roared around them. The colossal Army headquarters helped recast Washington from a sleepy southern town into the bustling center of a reluctant empire.

Vivid portraits are drawn of other key figures in the drama, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who fancied himself an architect; Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, both desperate for a home for the War Department as the country prepared for battle; Colonel Leslie R. Groves, the ruthless force of nature who oversaw the Pentagon’s construction (as well as the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bomb); and John McShain, the charming and dapper builder who used his relationship with FDR to help land himself the contract for the biggest office building in the world.

The Pentagon’s post-World War II history is told through its critical moments, including the troubled birth of the Department of Defense during the Cold War, the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the tumultuous 1967 protest against the Vietnam War. The pivotal attack on September 11 is related with chilling new detail, as is the race to rebuild the damaged Pentagon, a restoration that echoed the spirit of its creation.

This study of a single enigmatic building tells a broader story of modern American history, from the eve of World War II to the new wars of the twenty-first century. Steve Vogel has crafted a dazzling work of military social history that merits comparison with the best works of David Halberstam or David McCullough. Like its namesake, The Pentagon is a true landmark.

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    Among books dealing with seemingly impossible engineering feats, this easily ranks with David McCullough’s The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas, as well as Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome.
    Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
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    Vogel artfully weaves architectural and cultural history, thus creating a brilliant and illuminating study of this singular (and, in many ways, sacred) American space.
    Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
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    "An amazing story, expertly researched and beautifully told. Part history, part adventure yarn, The Pentagon is above all else the biography of an American icon."
    Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize winning author of An Army at Dawn
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    It was one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century–driven by the intelligence and willpower of larger-than-life figures prepared to cut corners and demand the impossible. Mr Vogel has brought to our notice a thrilling achievement.
    The Economist, June 30, 2007
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    Superb! Not only the best biography of a building ever written, but a fascinating look at the human architecture behind the Pentagon--the saints and scoundrels of our national defense. With his decades of experience covering the military and a web
    Ralph Peters, author of Never Quit The Fight
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    This is not, of course, the first account of the [9/11] attack, but with its Clancyesque action and firsthand detail… it is surely the most vivid.
    Witold Rybczynski, The New York Times Book Review , June 10, 2007
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    A first-rate account of the transformation of a dilapidated Arlington neighborhood into what Norman Mailer called "the true and high church of the military industrial complex.
    Yonatan Lupu, The San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2007
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    Steve Vogel's marvelous work recounts the construction of one of the world's most iconic buildings - the Pentagon. But more compelling by far, he relates the human stories underlying this huge construction effort.
    Frederick J. Chiaventone, New York Post, June 17, 2007
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    A Wall Street Journal selection for its 2007 summer reading list.
    Robert Hughes, The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2007
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    Vogel's writing coupled with the dynamic, conflict-strewn history of the Pentagon provides for a fascinating and comfortable read while giving new insight into an old Washington landmark.
    Roll Call, June 5, 2007

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