Covert Capital

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Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of the U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia Berkley, University of California Press, 2013. 432 pages. $29.95.


In his work Covert Capital Andrew Freidman provides a complicated look at the suburbanization of Northern Virginia between 1945 and the end of the Cold War. Freidman places these suburbs into international and geopolitical context by arguing that American imperialists ruled the world from the the suburbs, more specifically the suburbs of Northern Virginia. This area known as the Dulles Corridor, situated between CIA offices at Langley and Dulles airport, became what Friedman calls the covert capital of imperialist America following WWII. Friedman argues that the corridor was a “permanent, physical space of imperial governance” (298). He argues that the physical space was shaped by the agents of covert imperialism that lived and worked there and that American imperialism was in turn shaped by the suburban space of Northern Virginia. He provides a transnational history of Northern Virginia, connecting the suburban life to foreign policy. He points out that this covert capital exhibited common themes of midcentury suburban life, but in its own unique way. For example, Allen Dulles caused white flight by building Langley bringing CIA agents out to live and work in the suburbs, CIA wives experienced domesticity and discontent similar to their non CIA counterparts, and husbands, the breadwinners, measured and some would argue demonstrated their manhood (even if only to themselves) through both the overthrow of foreign governments as well as through backyard barbeques. Freidman also argues that not only was the Vietnam War fought from the suburbs of Northern Virginia but that the culture of those suburbs were reflected in the way the war was waged. As a result of American involvement in Vietnam there was an influx of Southeast Asian in Northern Virginia. Interestingly migrants from other countries came to Northern Virginia as a result of American covert or even overt involvement in foreign affairs. Freidman attempts to explain his subtitle “landscapes of denial” by arguing that the unassuming nature of Northern Virginia was perfect for these agents of foreign change and their agencies. He argues that these imperial agents used the normal suburbs as a cover for their actions- that normality was crucial to the landscape of denial that Freidman argues characterized Northern Virginia. His most concise and interesting assertion seems to be “imperial projects did not corrupt American norms. They produced them” (299). This argument for the impact of imperialism on local space and vice versa, although somewhat convoluted and hard to believe, is an unique and interesting argument that cannot be ignored as the field trends toward transnational approaches to histories of local areas as well as foreign affairs.


Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

In a way Freidman provides both a history of suburbanization as well as a Cold War history by focusing on the suburbanization of Northern Virginia as result of the establishment of CIA headquarters at Langley and the building of Dulles airport. As government agents and employees of all different levels established homes in Northern Virginia Freidman argues that this area became the covert or secret capital of the United States, unlike DC, which was openly the capital. He argues, not always convincingly, that these “normal” suburbs, populated by imperialists and their families, provided the perfect cover for their subversive activities. Although Friedman provides a unique argument, his emphasis on Northern Virginia as the hub of US imperialism tends to overlook what was going on inside the real capital. It seems ill advised to say that the majority of the decisions concerning US imperialism took place in NOVA without sufficiently examining such decisions made inside Washington DC.

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