Defense Media Network

The Pentagon in Peace and War

Other stories involved people getting lost in its vast corridors – which needn’t have been exaggerated; within months of its completion, The New York Times called it “the great, concrete doughnut of a building where the War Department now lives . . . a maze of corridors, ramps and roads.” In 1992, in an article commemorating the building’s 50th anniversary, American Heritage magazine included this anecdote:

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.

The denotation of a single office number was a difficult code for newcomers to crack, as the Army deputy chief of staff spelled out for new employees in an orientation pamphlet:

… Thus office number 3E210 is on the third floor, in the E Ring, about two tenths of the way around the E Ring in the clockwise direction, starting from the middle of the concourse … Here is your first quiz: find Room BG634A in the Pentagon and report back here. You have ten minutes. (Hint: to make sure you can find your way to turn in your paper, use a ball of string.)

McNamara briefing Pentagon

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara indicates infiltration routes in Vietnam during a briefing circa 1966 in the Pentagon.

Life magazine reported that a typical new Pentagon arrival was “as confused as a fresh rat in a psychologist’s maze.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the World War II hero and former Army chief of staff, later wrote: “One had to give the building his grudging admiration; it had apparently been designed to confuse any enemy who might infiltrate it.”

During the 1950s, another myth sprang up concerning the hot dog stand in the center of the building’s inner courtyard: Every day around noon, the story went, Soviet satellites captured images of top military brass entering the building in the courtyard, and so, assuming it was the entrance to an important command-and-control bunker, kept at least two nuclear warheads aimed at it. The “world’s most dangerous hot dog stand,” also nicknamed “Café Ground Zero,” was replaced by a new eatery, the Center Court Café, in 2008.

The Pentagon’s massive physical, psychological, and geopolitical presence has given rise to more serious cultural debates. Architecturally, it’s the world’s largest example of the austere “Stripped Classical” style, manifested in an outer façade of Indiana limestone, simple columns, and minimal finishes and ornamentation, a look Newsweek magazine derided as “penitentiary-like.” Other observers have admired its simple style and its low elevation; it’s both imposing and subdued. “Large as the Pentagon was,” Vogel observed, “it barely made a ripple on the landscape.”

Prev Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Next Page


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...