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

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Chapter 1: The Covert Intimacies of Langley and Dulles

The idea of a permanent headquarters for the CIA drove Director Allen Dulles throughout his career in intelligence.1 The dream finally took physical form at Langley, Virginia. 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 to a humdrum round of paper-shuffling, technological eavesdropping and congressional oversight. Tucked in the woods, it gave the CIA security not possible in its many offices scattered around busy 1950s Washington.2

For some, these perilous tensions between bureaucracy and freedom, monumentality and secrecy neatly comprise Langley's public identity, itself still largely classified. Other 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 was a three-dimensional place. Its placement and proximities in local and distant space, its architectural form and everyday use were all the result of strategic choices, ones made by some of U.S. empire's major early theorists and activists, who saw Langley as the space necessary to manage a newly sprawling U.S. empire in the days of the Cold War.

At the same time, the CIA complex wasn't only architecture. It was the spatial articulation of how Allen 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 CIA and Eisenhower in the White House until 1959. Set at one end of what became the Dulles Corridor, the Langley complex was also part of a key, unrecognized spatial sequence of Dulles family buildings that played crucial roles in U.S. foreign policy, a sequence including the headquarters, the modernist Eleanor Dulles house on Spring Hill Road in McLean and the modernist airport at the endpoint of the corridor, named after John Foster Dulles.

Active makers of place and culture, 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. Recovering Langley's spaces thus shifts the texture of the study of the U.S. and the world in this period. Events that unfolded as diplomacy across the river in the halls of the U.S. Capitol and the White House retrieved their naked life as U.S. imperial action in their suburban Virginia home. Both a machine for generating covert action globally and a sonorous invisibility, the secret heart of a covert capital, the CIA complex was a crucial monument of the period. It trapped its social and political agendas in the very grain of its concrete, in the serial length of its corridors.

The move to Virginia

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 and somewhat shamefaced result of the hectic and disorganized expansion of the federal bureaucracy during World War II. 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 D.C. 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 pigsty."3 

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 Office of Defense Mobilization Director Arthur S. Flemming, stating 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 D.C. 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 locate ten or more miles from the perimeter of an "urban target," that is, D.C. 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.4

Some historians claim the suburbanization of CIA was a Cold War nuclear security move, which 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 into the arms race-and Dulles stressed this in public, claiming before capital planners that Langley could better resist fallout from a hydrogen bomb attack 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 D.C. in a subtler, more covert fashion, one suited to the agency tasked with mediating between the rhetoric of Cold War and the realities of U.S. imperial management on the ground.

As early as 1947, Dulles had expressed his view that post-World War II 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 "in the internal political conflicts within the countries of Europe, Asia, and South America." 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-the politics of the U.S. abroad took on a wider mandate, one that could and did reach beyond conventional Cold War and Soviet perimeter defense concerns per se, and in the words of one CIA officer, needed to take into account "the powerful nationalist, racial, religious, and economic forces at work in the world that have little to do with the Soviet confrontation," in order to succeed.5

The CIA, in the words of one who worked there at the time and specialized in Soviet analysis, was 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 at the same time that "the Agency emerged as an integral element in high-level United States policymaking," in the words of a history prepared for Congress, because of "the ways covert operations could advance U.S. policy." The shift to greater power for the CIA and intervention in former European colonies and American dependencies went hand in glove. By November 16, 1954, Dulles and his staff had generated a number of models for the role he saw for the U.S. 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 twelve 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 start of the trial of American agent Hugh Redmond for spying against China in September. For the secret wars and "preventative ventures in the third world" overseen by Dulles, an immediate, informal intimacy with those in power was the central thing, a bunkered nuclear defense only marginal.6

The Dulles-Flemming letter also stresses the degree to which Dulles had committed to the Langley site, eight miles from the White House, in 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 D.C., 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 existing 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.7 Bartholomew himself, beloved by Eisenhower and then in the dignified twilight of his career, favored a different site, likely a tract in Alexandria.8

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 on October 25, 1955, the CIA's New York consultants, landscape architecture firm Clarke and Rapuano, of whom Dulles's friend Gilmore D. Clarke, former chairman of D.C.'s Fine Arts Commission and frequent Robert Moses collaborator in New York, was principal, delivered not so much a study, as a reverential paean to the wonders of Langley, and the utter insufficiency of all other sites.9

It was common knowledge in those days that the CIA director, in that era of newness and the blush of Eisenhower's patronage, was a minor celebrity, overseeing matters so important that democratic process was a formality at best. He 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.10 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.11

Allen Dulles favored Langley. But the question remains as to why this woody land crossed only by a creek, a former Robert E. Lee family plantation on the Potomac with no major roads or utilities, only "horse and buggy streets," this place surrounded by a centenarian Episcopal church, lonely dairy farms, a shuttered trolley line and a fox-hunting forest, lodged itself so deeply in Dulles's imagination. Langley wasn't even a real village, "simply the name for a fork in the road." It had merged into McLean-itself a mere trolley stop-by 1910, 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.12

The answer to this question lies in the particular geographical 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 charms of the countryside," but could "reflect in modern living the graciousness of the past." The Chicago department store heir, Joseph Leiter, had bought 1,000 acres, built a seventy-two-room mansion called the Glass Palace on a portion of the future CIA site in 1911 and hard-surfaced the area's first major road. Dulles's uncle, Woodrow Wilson Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and his wife, were guests at the Leiter estate, "the scene of brilliant social functions and...a favorite gathering place for those members of society who like 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 attending parties there with his wife Clover in Coolidge's Washington, when other ambassadors also 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 senator 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 only 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 was a crucial setting for them.13

Most critically, McLean by the fifties 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, 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.14

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. Even in her autobiography, written nearly forty 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 D.C., 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 State] 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..."15 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 gendered masculine regimes of capital foreign policy. 

She had bought the land, what was then an acre and a half of cornfield on a former plantation, by 1950 from a Labor Department official and friend, Clara Beyer. She moved out from her house on Chain Bridge Road opposite Kemble Park in D.C., into the new bungalow, on Spring Hill Road in McLean, on Washington's Birthday, 1951. Almost immediately political D.C. followed her. As if to lure them, the swimming pool was completed and used first. Eleanor hired young modernist architect Nicholas Satterlee for the house, because she "expected to have a lot to say about the design," and had balked at the expertise of Jackson Place architect Gertrude Sawyer, who had designed her house in the city. Undoubtedly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and the American modern interpenetrated by nature, she wanted the house "embracing" the pool, creating a social flow between the two spaces. When she signed the contract, anticipating wartime shortages of the Korean War, she immediately directed Satterlee to buy all the materials, down to the kitchen fixtures, which she then stored in Beyer's barn. She regularly drove out dusty Chain Bridge Road to check the progress. From start to finish the work was hers, intentionally created for its final use. "It was the house I had designed," she marveled as it came along, "one floor, open to the sun, a simple structure...There was a space for a garden and some three hundred small trees and bushes, many of which I dug up in the woods and replanted myself."16

Over the next two decades, more than a dozen ambassadors from France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and elsewhere dined there, their motorcycle escorts rattling the quiet suburb. "A principal pleasure in these years came from entertaining," she wrote. She would later claim that John Foster and Republican Senator Jim Duff engineered Eisenhower's presidential campaign poolside in early 1952. Richard Nixon, future CIA clandestine service chief Richard Bissell, Barbara and Covey Oliver (the future ambassador to Colombia) and assistant secretary of state Bob Bowie appeared at the parties, and the Dulles family celebrated Thanksgiving at the house-even while managing the fate of Berlin in 1958-waited on by her "adoring" Austrian servants, Trudy and Relly Rotter, in a dining room divided from the garden by sliding glass panels. The Rotters lived in a detached bedroom on the property, and prepared the Mai Bowle cocktail of white wine and strawberries the ambassadors loved.17

Powerful guests would drift in the swimming pool, mirth fueled by the Scotch, Bourbon and gin Eleanor bought by the gallon, and consume the rolling pastoral view, still uninterrupted by settlement. The secluded house didn't even have an address until 1965, which added a discrete portion of its power-the sense that the Langley-McLean area, unlike almost any other section of Virginia (or Maryland) that close to Washington, remained unlocatable by the fixed grids and circles of D.C. But while the inspiring backdrop, elevated by Eleanor's good graces, could lubricate the intimacies of power and the tasks of decision-making and mutual affirmation, the content of conversations could be quite dark. Eleanor recalled one early visit just after the Korean War began, before the house had been raised. Covey Oliver was just leaving a job with the State Department when Eleanor invited him and his wife Barbara to the pool. They undressed in the car, took a dip and picnicked on a beautiful day. Then the talk turned apocalyptic. Sitting at the pool's edge, they asked, "Is this World War III? Is this going to be the great catastrophe to civilization?" "Everything was so bright...," Eleanor recalled later. "And there was a sharp contrast between this dramatic danger hanging over us and the beauty of the countryside."18

The exurban land beyond the edge of the pool worked as a symbol of a precarious good life that needed defending and could slip away at any moment. It was also a metonym for world-building, for all the underdeveloped landscapes, taking form at home as developable property, that could only be protected and cajoled along under their own wise supervision. The American modernist house alone in the countryside was the nascent first step in a process at times optimistic, at times fearfully possessive, which spread out from its own backyard. At the same time, the isolated social authority of the landscape, like an expanded, outdoor version of what had only formerly been possible in one of Georgetown's elite drawing rooms (and poised in the northeast section of Fairfax County that directly bordered Georgetown and Allen Dulles's house at 2723 Q Street) provided the incubative context for world policy-the pleasant distance from the traditional power centers of D.C. mirroring an ethical distance from the democratic presumptions of American government.

In this regard, the Eleanor Dulles house indicated the wider pattern. At elite CIA homes and dinner parties, "social life and politics were inextricable and indistinguishable." Agents coaxed tipsy political elites to reveal useful information. Their wives did the same at gender-segregated gatherings after dinner. For this reason, the CIA even financed some parties, at $100 a guest, and, at times, staffed them with a "stud detail" charged with "making sure no one was left unattached or was bored or in need of a drink." Fifties McLean added something new to the equation: a break with the proximities and accountabilities of the capital. The strategic move dovetailed with an invigorating social one. At this time, the Georgetown parties were migrating to McLean for a greater novelty and rustic chic, one that, usefully, kept the parties well-attended. CIA "fun couples" like Tom and Joan Braden rented houses in the rural surroundings to tantalize day-trippers with the riches of the countryside, drawing guests like CIA covert action enthusiast Frank Wisner and his wife Polly and Pentagon Cold Warrior Paul Nitze and his wife Phyllis.19

Many attendees arrived from their own Northern Virginia retreats. Desmond FitzGerald, the CIA's millionaire Far East chief, who ran guerrilla operations against communist China, steered attempted coups against Sukarno in Indonesia, and later directed the CIA's sabotage missions against Cuba and attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro, had a farmhouse in Virginia at this time. Lyman Kirkpatrick, Jr., CIA executive director, who had in 1956 trained Fulgencio Batista's political police, the Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities, and helped Batista evaluate the political and military state of the country in 1958, lived in a well-regarded "delightful pink house" in Fairfax, near OSS training center Station S that had first brought many of these people to Northern Virginia in the 1940s.20 Sidney Gottlieb, of the CIA's Technical Services Staff, chief of its brainwashing research, who devised the biotoxins meant to assassinate many postcolonial leaders, including Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Abdel Karim Qasim in Iraq, and Castro, lived in a cabin on a Vienna farm, where he kept goats, sold Christmas trees at the holidays and rose to prominence in the local folk-dancing culture, hollering into the microphone as a square dance caller. J.C. King, the clandestine officer who directed the agency's Western Hemisphere division and ran many CIA anti-government operations in Guatemala leading up to the 1954 coup, hunted game and socialized with Latin American ambassadors, State Department officials, and fellow coup plotter and Allen Dulles friend William D. Pawley (former ambassador to Peru and Brazil) on Pawley's 800-acre estate, Belvoir, a regular stop on local garden tours.21

James Jesus Angleton, soon the CIA's chief of counterintelligence, lived in a white house that he built in 1949 in North Arlington, near the Langley site. His dinner parties drew Allen Dulles and other CIA neighbors like Alexandria resident Win Scott, Mexico City station chief, and his wife, Paula, and McLean resident Cord Meyer, who ran operations penetrating student groups and the labor movement in Brazil, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, and his wife, Mary.22 Kim Roosevelt, the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, who directed the coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, had a house in the McLean area with his wife Polly, and helped found the local ski club. Roosevelt boasted longtime family connections to the county, as his grandparents on his mother's side, the Willards, owned one of the most famous estates in Fairfax, Layton Hall, which they had loaned to the OSS for their Virginia training site. Before serving as Wilson's ambassador to Spain, his mother's father, Col. Joseph E. Willard, the son of a Confederate intelligence agent, fought in the Spanish American War, commanding a company of Fairfax troops, and pointing to the understudied imperial family connections that, for individual actors in the CIA like Roosevelt, quite logically and intimately linked the period of U.S. empire at the turn of the 20th century to the one after World War II as a single, sentimental project, one with deep connections to Northern Virginia. "Easily the most influential political figure in Fairfax County," in the words of one history, Willard then played a crucial role in developing the built landscape, financing its roads and first trolleys, and extending the trolley to Fairfax, which generated the foundations of the suburbs CIA officers then came to inhabit.23 President Eisenhower, who encouraged the CIA's move outside D.C., himself knew the area in the earlier period, when he stayed in his brother Milton's Colonial Revival house in Falls Church during World War II, when Milton was designing the national program for Japanese internment.24 This was the social history that hovered behind Dulles's banal pronouncement that Langley was "more accessible to most Agency employees" than other possible sites.25

Like these soirees, but elevated in stature by the family connection to the Dulleses, parties at Spring Hill stirred foreign officials, State Department, military, CIA and international figures in unpredictable combinations, flouting capital protocol. For at least one party, Eleanor pre-circulated typed sheets so the guests could prepare in order to draw the most from their social engagements. A list annotated with capsule biographies of each guest explained breezily: "this information is to make your afternoon more pleasant-Hope you come early and park on the grass."26 Why knowing that Clare Timberlake had been U.S. ambassador to the Congo, or that Seymour Bolton worked for the CIA would make an afternoon more pleasant was not self-evident until one recognized that the ensembles were the entertainment. Slipping into borrowed swimming trunks, undressing in a car, parking on the grass, meeting strangers-these titillating promises that the color-within-the lines norms of the overt capital could be gently violated in an accessible and slightly wild McLean with erotic overtones increased the excitement. But the American officials and "determined interventionists" joining the parade were the most powerful in U.S. government. Leisure and work braided at events meant to be both leisure and work, shared sensory experiences at home providing the setting for the sharing and reaffirming of geopolitical experiences abroad-from tours of duty just ended, or those about to begin.

Brief, alluring violations of social rules in exurban McLean, meanwhile, rehearsed and reflected the brief, alluring violations of political rules that defined the work of the attendees bolstering covert action as a tool of U.S. foreign policy in this same period-their biographies testifying to the degree to which their efforts concentrated against the decolonizing world, rather than the Soviet Union per se. Allen Dulles himself affirmed this view of their work as not relating to proxy wars and communist subversion alone, writing: "Sometimes, I am inclined to believe that a century from now historians will view the Soviet revolution as merely another episode in European history, and find in the emergence of these new states the truly significant development of our age." The Spring Hill house was one powerful space where the Dulleses formulated their attempts to control the fate of those "new states," amidst what one historian describes as the mood of "light-hearted romantic activism" that became the clandestine service's "trademark."27

It is no small thing to say that Dulles liked Langley as home for his headquarters because it, through his sister's powerful intervention, made him feel socially comfortable and allowed him a broad, un-mowed field to explore his social seeding of policy, intelligence and political change. In moving the CIA there, close to D.C. but not in the capital, he was able to spur a redesign of the landscape of power of the capital in his own image, along a countrified suburban axis. Th