Why is it that when we watch the television series Homeland, we understand immediately that the story takes place in northern Virginia—and we know just as surely that it has not been filmed there? By most reckonings, Fairfax County, Virginia, is a typical suburb, an iteration of America’s endlessly reproducible landscape of shopping and sprawl. But then again it isn’t, and all the reasons we intuit that Homeland is filmed near Charlotte, North Carolina, also help us understand that the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have a distinctive history intimately bound up in the global power that is exercised in them. In Andrew Friedman’s masterful new history, Covert Capital, he systematically untangles the logic of this landscape: if in the second half of the twentieth century, most Americans came to live in suburbs and, in that same period, the United States came to dominate the international system, then it follows that the United States ruled the world from the suburbs. And, Friedman suggests, they ruled the world in a suburban way.
Covert Capital insists on the material history of U.S. power, connecting foreign policy to the built environment: “If America has an empire … it can’t just be a concept. … U.S. empire must … take place somewhere—and possibly in places not commonly associated with obvious militarization and imperial warfare” (299–300). That place is the northern half of Fairfax County between the Potomac River and Dulles International Airport, “a permanent, physical space of imperial governance” (298). That the region doesn’t generally look like an imperial capital is, for Friedman, precisely the point: its integration into its suburban surroundings is what enables the “landscape of denial” in the book’s title.
Andrew Friedman traces this history through a series of densely interwoven chapters that stretch from 1945 to the last days of the Cold War. The story begins in the unincorporated village of Langley, Virginia, where architect Wallace K. Harrison and Central Intelligence Agency director Allen Dulles collaborated between 1959 and 1961 to design and build the new agency’s offices. CIA headquarters at Langley mirrored the boom in suburban office park construction; “The Company,” like other companies, would have a corporate campus. Its built environment also matched the exercise of U.S. power during the Cold War. Dulles, notes Friedman, “made himself a physical capital loosed from the bounds of the old one, immersed in a social and architectural network … where the everyday imbrications of social life with activist geopolitics and often violent international action was the norm, rather than the exception” (42).
A landscape premised on secrecy and situated in the material contexts of postwar suburbanization and midcentury modernism generated a logic of building use that persisted for several decades. Friedman traces the men and women who lived with the CIA in the 1950s, tapping the shadow network of real estate agents in McLean, Virginia, who offered security-enhanced homes off the books of public property markets. Many moved to plots laid out by Mark Merrell, a cold warrior who returned from a government posting in South Vietnam to build a subdivision in McLean called Saigon Road. McLean wasn’t your average suburb, but then again, it was. The main themes of midcentury suburban life are well documented here: Allen Dulles enacted white flight by building Langley and noting that cities like Washington did “not constitute nowadays an ideal environment for an enterprise that employs office workers any more than they do for one’s own family” (46). “CIA wives” carved out Feminine Mystique–era lives of domesticity and discontent. Children learned early about family secrecy and schoolyard double-talk. And fathers measured their manhood not only by supporting the overthrowing of governments in Guatemala and Iran but through backyard barbecues. They governed the world, but they lived in Fairfax, “beholden to and bearing complex emotional...