Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia

Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia

by Andrew Friedman

Hardcover(First Edition)

Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Friday, April 23


The capital of the U.S. Empire after World War II was not a city. It was an American suburb. In this innovative and timely history, Andrew Friedman chronicles how the CIA and other national security institutions created a U.S. imperial home front in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. In this covert capital, the suburban landscape provided a cover for the workings of U.S. imperial power, which shaped domestic suburban life. The Pentagon and the CIA built two of the largest office buildings in the country there during and after the war that anchored a new imperial culture and social world.

As the U.S. expanded its power abroad by developing roads, embassies, and villages, its subjects also arrived in the covert capital as real estate agents, homeowners, builders, and landscapers who constructed spaces and living monuments that both nurtured and critiqued postwar U.S. foreign policy. Tracing the relationships among American agents and the migrants from Vietnam, El Salvador, Iran, and elsewhere who settled in the southwestern suburbs of D.C., Friedman tells the story of a place that recasts ideas about U.S. immigration, citizenship, nationalism, global interconnection, and ethical responsibility from the post-WW2 period to the present. Opening a new window onto the intertwined history of the American suburbs and U.S. foreign policy, Covert Capital will also give readers a broad interdisciplinary and often surprising understanding of how U.S. domestic and global histories intersect in many contexts and at many scales.

American Crossroads, 37

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274648
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/02/2013
Series: American Crossroads , #37
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Andrew Friedman is an Assistant Professor of History at Haverford College. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Journal of Urban History, the Baffler, and the Village Voice.

Read an Excerpt

Covert Capital

Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia

By Andrew Friedman


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95668-1


The Covert Intimacies of Langley and Dulles

MANY OBSERVERS SEEM UNSURE as to whether "Langley" is a place or an idea. Just as "Washington" is a synonym for the executive branch and Congress, Langley is often the CIA writ large: Langley thinks, Langley acts, Langley feels. But the CIA complex is a three-dimensional place. Its placement and proximities in local and distant space, its architectural form and everyday use were the result of strategic choices made by some of U.S. imperialism's major theorists and activists, who saw Langley as the space necessary to manage a newly sprawling empire in the days of the Cold War.

Eight miles from the White House, Langley achieved two things for the agency, according to conventional wisdom. The building's fixed physical footprint ensured the CIA a lasting place in the federal bureaucracy, ushering the agency from seat-of-the-pants agent handling and improvisational coups around the world to a humdrum round of paper shuffling, technological eavesdropping, and oversight. Tucked in the woods, it gave the CIA security not possible in its many offices scattered around busy 1950s Washington.

At the same time, the CIA complex wasn't merely an architectural site. The goal of a permanent headquarters drove Director Allen Dulles throughout his career in intelligence. When the dream finally took physical form at Langley, it was the spatial articulation of how Dulles's philosophies of intimacy, secrecy, security, and efficiency could provide a civilian foundation for U.S. global management and authority, philosophies that mobilized American political forces within the triumvirate that ran between John Foster Dulles at the State Department, Allen Dulles at the CIA, and Dwight Eisenhower in the White House.

Set at one end of what became the Dulles Corridor, the Langley complex was also part of an unrecognized spatial sequence of Dulles family buildings that played crucial roles in postwar U.S. foreign policy, a sequence including the modernist Eleanor Dulles house on Spring Hill Road in McLean, and the modernist airport named after John Foster Dulles at the endpoint of the corridor. These structures provided a set of instructions and blueprints for the performance and ethics of imperial management as a way of life domestically. They linked the transformation of modern American architecture and landscape after World War II to the transformation of modern American empire in the same period, magnifying missing relays between key cultural histories of the 1950s.

Both a machine for generating covert action globally and a stark invisibility, the CIA headquarters holds all these histories. The secret heart of a covert capital, it trapped its social and political agendas in the very grain of its concrete, in the serial length of its corridors.


In 1954, the CIA was dispersed across the nation's capital in more than thirty-nine government buildings and temporary structures huddled around the Washington Mall. The spread was the shambling result of the hectic and disorganized expansion of the federal bureaucracy during World War II. The agency's headquarters was located in a columned brick building at 2430 E Street, near the State Department. But the "Tempos," as they came to be known, were more famous—perhaps the most legendary federal eyesores of the period. Named blandly for letters of the alphabet, testament to the government's inability to accommodate its staff, the "ghostly white" wooden Tempos froze in winter and grew so sweltering during humid DC summers that secretaries had to dash out at lunch, roll up their skirts and pant legs, and douse themselves in the Reflecting Pool to cool off. Agents peeled classified documents off their sweaty forearms. Lunches hung suspended on strings from ceilings to guard them from ant columns, mice, and insects. The ramshackle, stinking structures leaked in the rain and saw safes holding classified documents plummeting through rickety upper floors to crash into the offices below. Some had been there since the First World War, while others started as barracks for newly recruited navy women during the Second World War. The agency paid $3 million a year for secure maintenance and shuttles to connect the offices to E Street. Allen Dulles dubbed the Tempos, with their warped floors and clapboard walls, "a damned pig sty."

Two events in 1954 dislodged a new headquarters from the realm of ideas into reality. Approaches for the new Roosevelt Bridge across the Potomac promised to pave over some Tempos. Others were to be knocked down by a Department of Interior project to clear obstructions from the Mall. On November 16, Dulles wrote to the director of the Office of Defense Mobilization, Arthur S. Flemming, and stated the CIA's case: "Security problems, inefficiency and excessive costs ... have long indicated the high desirability of providing space for the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington in one permanent building."

That Flemming, the man charged with shielding DC from nuclear attack, was one of the first officials Dulles addressed is important. Dulles needed Flemming's approval to break the dispersion standards drafted to cope with an imagined nuclear threat to the city. Federal regulations mandated that new government buildings be located ten or more miles from the perimeter of an "urban target," that is, DC. But Dulles needed permission to locate his new complex within the allowable security boundary. "It is essential that the Director be immediately available to the President and the National Security Council," he said.

Some historians claim the suburbanization of the CIA was a Cold War nuclear security move. It was not. At a more conceptual level, the Dulles-Flemming letter contests the still-implicit idea that the nuclear Cold War and armed Soviet Union were the motive forces guiding Dulles's project for the agency. Even as the Dulles brothers used nuclear threat to frighten the nation—and Dulles stressed this in public, claiming before capital planners that Langley could better resist fallout from a hydrogen bomb than other sites—Dulles chose to design a home for his agency that, rather than a model of how to spatially reorganize a nation under a nuclear shadow, reorganized space in metropolitan DC in a subtler, more covert fashion, one suited to the agency tasked with mediating between the high-flying rhetoric of the Cold War and the realities of U.S. imperial management on the ground.

As early as 1947, Dulles had expressed his view that postwar U.S. power and intelligence would need to be equipped to deal not only with ideological conflicts "between Soviet Russia and the countries of the west," but also "in the internal political conflicts within the countries of Europe, Asia, and South America." Some scholars suggest that the CIA was formed in the first place as a response to the creation of the United Nations in order "to explain international events in a manner that would defend American interests." In the newly aggressive foreign policy blessed by the Eisenhower administration—driven by a feeling that "containment" of communism and leftist national struggles had been too passive—U.S. agents abroad took on a wider mandate, one that could and did reach beyond conventional Cold War and Soviet perimeter defense concerns per se.

In the words of one CIA officer, a Soviet expert who lived in Northern Virginia, the United States would only succeed if the country took into account "the powerful nationalist, racial, religious, and economic forces at work in the world that have little to do with the Soviet-American confrontation." As another local officer who specialized in Soviet analysis put it, the CIA was soon becoming an agency that "seeks largely to advance America's self-appointed role as the dominant arbiter of social, economic, and political change in the awakening regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America."

Dulles—the son of a Presbyterian pastor and the grandson of the secretary of state who approved the taking of the Hawaiian Islands—reoriented the CIA toward the Third World. According to a history prepared for Congress, this shift occurred at the same time that "the Agency emerged as an integral element in high-level United States policymaking" because of "the ways covert operations could advance U.S. policy." By November 1954, Dulles and his staff had generated a number of models for the role he saw for the United States in the world as a "hands-on nation," none that had to do with all-out nuclear war—the harassment of the democratically elected president of Costa Rica in March 1954; the secret CIA coup against the democratically elected president of Guatemala on June 27; the CIA agents who arrived in Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam to train paramilitary units in July after the French colonial defeat at Dien Bien Phu; the trial of American agent Hugh Redmond for spying against China in September. To execute the secret wars and "preventative" ventures in the Third World overseen by Dulles, an immediate, informal intimacy with those in power was the central priority; a bunkered nuclear defense was only marginal.

The Dulles-Flemming letter also illustrates the degree to which Dulles had committed to the Langley site, eight miles from the White House, as early as 1954. Through the extensive site search and hearings of 1955, many rural and urban locations for the new CIA headquarters were supposedly considered. The CIA received lavish proposals, and most made more obvious sense—cheaper sites in Prince George's County, Maryland; sites more secure from nuclear fallout in Charles County, Maryland; sites more convenient to commuters off Shirley Highway near the new subdivisions of Springfield, Virginia, southwest of the city; sites in Southwest DC, then being redeveloped; sites in Montgomery County, near the National Institutes of Health and the Naval Hospital; sites in Alexandria, once part of the District, with easy access to defense development at National Airport and the Pentagon, in a county where a greater percentage of CIA agents already lived. A staff committee of the National Capital Planning Commission, chaired by Harland Bartholomew, America's most famous city planner, submitted an exhaustive report to the wider commission in May that analyzed twenty-nine possible locations. Beloved by Eisenhower and then in the dignified twilight of his career, Bartholomew favored a different site, likely a tract in Alexandria.

Yet by February 1955, CIA officials were already meeting Northern Virginia planning officials. By March, they were in talks with water and utility companies about connecting the Langley site to the grid, and CIA officials were making chart and map presentations to planners about Langley, two months before the Capital Planning Commission—which technically had to approve any choice—even delivered an initial report on the preliminary options, and three months before mandatory appropriations meetings before Congress. By summer, stories leaked to the press headlined "Allen Dulles Favors Langley," and Dulles's friend Gilmore D. Clarke, former chairman of DC's Fine Arts Commission and frequent Robert Moses collaborator in New York, became the CIA's New York consultant on the headquarters project. On October 25, 1955, Clarke's landscape architecture firm, Clarke and Rapuano, delivered not so much a study as a reverential paean to the wonders of Langley, and the utter insufficiency of all other proposed sites.

It was common knowledge in those days that the CIA director was a minor celebrity, overseeing matters so important that democratic process was a formality at best. Dulles eased these relationships with a legendary social life centered around dinners at his house in Georgetown and after-hours chats over highballs with the power elite of fifties Washington. These networks and Allen Dulles's vision of the headquarters, its intended function and strategic possibilities, accounted for the persistence with which Langley rose to the top of CIA wish lists.

Allen Dulles favored Langley. But the question remains as to why this woody land crossed by a creek lodged itself so deeply in his imagination. A former Robert E. Lee family plantation on the Potomac with no major roads or utilities—only "horse and buggy streets"—the place was surrounded by a centenarian Episcopal church, lonely dairy farms, a shuttered trolley line, and a foxhunting forest. Not even a real village, Langley was "simply the name for a fork in the road." By 1911, it had merged into McLean—itself a mere trolley stop—and only retains its discrete identity (and that, only for people who have never been there and seen how little of it exists) because of the headquarters.

The answer to this question lies in the particular geographic and social features offered by the Langley ecology. From bucolic and rural roots, the area had undergone a distinct gentrification of country homes since the early part of the century. By the 1950s, Langley was seen as an alluring terrain that had "the beauty and charm of the countryside," but could "reflect in modern living the graciousness of the past." Chicago real estate heir Joseph Leiter had bought 700 acres, built a seventy-two-room mansion called the Glass Palace on a portion of the future CIA site by 1912, and hard-surfaced the area's first major road. Dulles's uncle, Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state, Robert Lansing, was a guest with his wife at the Leiter estate, "the scene of brilliant social functions and ... a favorite gathering place for those members of society who liked to ride and hunt," and a place where Lansing might have expressed his concerns about Wilson's idea of national "self-determination," which he considered "simply loaded with dynamite." Dulles, who was close to his uncle, had first seen the area while attending parties there with his wife, Clover, in Coolidge's Washington, when many ambassadors began settling its environs.

By the fifties, Langley residents included Trevor Gardner, the Pentagon's top ballistic missile advocate; Supreme Court Justice Byron White; the wealthy magnate Hugh Auchincloss, who had been married to, in turn, the mothers of Gore Vidal and Jackie Bouvier; and the "young Sen. John Kennedy" himself, who had moved into the country mansion of late Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Dulles didn't simply cultivate an elite, informal social life in Washington to get the headquarters built—elite, informal social connections were the grounds for his politics. This area provided a crucial setting for them.

Most critically, by the fifties, McLean was home to the striking and revered bungalow of Allen Dulles's sister Eleanor, whose gleaming swimming pool became a kind of Round Table for Cold War Washington, a watering hole and serene meeting place for the Dulles brothers to make policy—the early site for their presidentially empowered conversations over dry martinis and Overholt rye whisky. The brothers met there at least once every few weeks, frequently on Sunday afternoons, and swam there individually more often. Eleanor herself was an official at the State Department and joined in the conversations, but her role in the family seemed to fall in the realm of consummate politicized suburban hostess.

The distinct leisure of her estate pool, like the parties of Coolidge's Washington or the air of entitlement and status surrounding the residential landscape of estate-laden McLean, was the constitutive setting for the presumptive derring-do that characterized early CIA interventions across the globe. In her autobiography, written thirty years later, Eleanor Dulles recalled with nostalgic whimsy the almost uncanny power her personally designed domestic space in Virginia had to influence world affairs in the actual capital of DC, like an invisible magnet that could somehow change the stuffy, formal city's inherent polarity.

"I think back to the evening when the new German Army was planned in my swimming pool in McLean, Virginia," she wrote in Chances of a Lifetime, her memoir, with an only somewhat acknowledged sense of the absurd. "Jimmy Riddleberger [an official at the State Department] came to me with a request. He said the German generals, in Washington to discuss their military contribution to Europe's defense, were stiff and uncommunicative. Jimmy suggested it might ease matters if I would invite them for supper and a swim in the pool. They came ... I pressed them to have a swim before supper. They started to refuse, but I gave each a pair of swimming trunks and before long they were bobbing about in the pool, along with five Americans I had invited. The formality was gone ..." Understated, and serious about her career, Eleanor was open to the ways in which her gendered access to the category of "hostess" could have a curveball effect on the stiff and masculine regimes of capital foreign policy.


Excerpted from Covert Capital by Andrew Friedman. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The Covert Intimacies of Langley and Dulles

Chapter 2: At Home with the CIA

Chapter 3: Saigon Road: the Co-Constituted Landscape of Northern Virginia and South Vietnam

Chapter 4: The Fall of South Vietnam and the Transnational Intimacies of Falls Church, Arlington and McLean

Chapter 5: Iran-Contra as Built Space: U.S. Imperial Tehran in Exile and Edge City’s Central American Presence


Customer Reviews