By Peter Galuszka
Northern Virginia, the economic engine that drives the rest of the state, has always been strongly linked to the federal government. By extension, that means tied to the Pentagon, and, as a recent book shows, the Central Intelligence Agency and today, all its antecedents.
Author Andrew Friedman, a history professor at Haverford College, spins an often intriguing but flawed narrative about how human settlement patterns converge with America’s domination of the post-colonial world after World War II.
Former CIA Director Allen Dulles handpicked Langley, an obscure North Virginia town, for the new headquarters of the fast-growing organization then housed during the late 1940s and 1950s in a series of ugly and drafty temporary buildings thrown up around the Reflecting Pool near the Washington Monument.
Selection is key. Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, made the choice according to the mores of the narrow elite of which they were part and the fear of imminent nuclear holocaust.
There were plenty of choices, writes Friedman, in “Covert Capital, Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia,” University of California Press:
“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, in a county where a greater percentage of CIA agents already lived.”
What decided the matter was happenstance and perhaps some long-term strategy. It just so happened that Allen Dulles’s sister owned a country house near McLean that was built in a Frank Lloyd Wright style centered around a swimming pool. Lots of the Cold War elite gathered there on warm evenings for a swim and “dry martinis and Overholt Rye.” Invited along were ambassadors and visiting heads of state. Stuffy German army brass loosened up after they got a pair of bathing trunks and a cocktail.
It wasn’t the only reason. Top executives at the CIA also somehow liked that part of the woods for retreats for relaxing when they weren’t planning sabotage or training dictators how to keep dissidents in check. One was Desmond FitzGerald, who ran guerilla operations against Communist China. Another was Lyman Kirkpatrick who trained Fulgencio Batista’s political police in pre-Castro Cuba.
So it was. The decision was made in 1955. It was finished in 1963 so that 11,000 people could move in. Just to give the flavor of the times – not only could the entire area be toasted by nuclear weapons in nanoseconds, but “colored” passengers moving on a bus across Key Bridge had to stop at the Virginia and reseat themselves according to Virginia’s Jim Crow laws. This happened near the current site of the Key Bridge Marriott, which, over the years, has been a favorite haunt of visiting spies.
The inevitable sprawl began. There wasn’t much in McLean, but in due course, there was Tysons Corner. Dulles International Airport (named for John Foster) had its own access Road. Route 7 was highly developed as was Reston, in a new “planned unit development” mode around Lake Anne.
Apparently by design, keeping the CIA people and their families segregated when they went shopping played softball or held a cookout was part of the plan. It was for security but it may also have been to keep them from questioning what their job was all about. The officials had a particular circuit – organizing some intelligence gathering or active measure like training thugs in one Third World country and then rotating back home to the patio Weber and margaritas. Hardly anyone went into the District.
Likewise, the CIA’s Foreign Helpers also ended up in the neighborhood –notably members of the friendly government of South Vietnam who flooded the area after the fall of Saigon.
This pattern of isolation is maintained today as much of the intelligence world expands or has been privatized throughout the NOVA sprawl. The War on Terror has greatly increased the number of people with security clearances and they spill all over the place from Prince William County to Winchester. The same suburban value system prevails.
Friedman may be making too much out of a few things. Segregating intelligence types is hardly uncommon. In the old Soviet Union, the headquarters of the KGB was at Lubyanka, a large Neo-Baroque building in downtown Moscow. But the real spy work is done at Yasenevo, a huge and tightly secure complex in suburban Moscow that has been around for decades. The Russians, of course, have for centuries made it a high art form to rope off their elite.
Friedman seems to imply that the CIA and Allen Dulles created the concept of exurban sprawl. Not exactly. About the time he was building the new CIA, superhighways and white flight were building a suburban culture throughout the U.S, especially in the Sunbelt from DC to California. The whole point was to be isolated from cities and to move among people of similar race and income levels. The word “Edge City” is not just something a reporter in NOVA thought up as Friedman suggests. The term has been used for years and featured prominently in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel about development in Atlanta. Friedman also hits the South a little too hard. Jim Crow was despicable but it was hardly unique to Virginia.
Still, Friedman’s book is of special interest to me. In 1956 or 1957 – I can’t remember – I moved with my Navy doctor father from Camp Lejeune to Bethesda, then a small bedroom community not far from Northwestern D.C. I remember a bunch of small bungalows, a farmer’s market, a couple of movie theaters and the huge government complexes of NIH and the National Naval Medical Center, now Walter Reed.
I remember when they broke dirt for the Beltway behind our home but I had moved away before the big NOVA exurb had been created. Over the years, I learned much more about the place and its people. But I have always been baffled by one point: why such a crucial spot during America’s imperial and post-imperial eras could be such an aesthetic nightmare. Friedman helps explain why.