National Security Sites in Washington, D.C.
From atop the Washington Monument, in the heart of the "federal city" of the District of Columbia, a visitor can see numerous locations associated with the Cold War, the national security state, and past and present intelligence activities. Familiar sights include the White House, the Pentagon, both houses of Congress, and moving memorials to those who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. With guidance, the viewer can pick out the FBI building, the State Department, and Embassy Row.
These public buildings are familiar stops for Washington tourists and have plenty to interest a professional historian. They are certainly great places to visit, especially if your family accompanies you to the annual meeting. (Information on guided tours, which often require advance reservations, is readily available on the Internet.) This article will focus on less obvious sites associated with political and diplomatic history. Most are accessible by public transportation; access to others requires a car.
Visitors can still see one of the buildings that housed the nation’s security officials before the construction of the Pentagon after World War II. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a truly impressive Victorian ediface next door to the White House, once held the headquarters of the State, War, and Navy departments. Worker bees in the nascent military establishment also occupied two buildings that stood on Constitution Avenue from 1918 to 1970, the Navy Building (at 17th Street) and the Munitions Building (at 19th Street). Small Navy and Army code breaking units, which, after many changes and some expansion morphed into today’s National Security Agency, also occupied the buildings.
The Watergate complex along the Potomac River is a well-known political landmark. A White House burglary team ran a clandestine operation against the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the complex from the former Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge across Virginia Avenue (now a George Washington University dorm). Their arrest in June 1972 sparked an investigation that ultimately toppled a president. For the record, the burglars’ lookout stayed in Room 723.
More unassuming landmarks include the mailbox on the corner of 37th and R streets that replaced the mailbox that CIA officer Aldridge Ames, who sold American secrets to the Soviet Union until caught in 1994, marked with chalk to signal his Soviet handlers. (The original is in the International Spy Museum.) Give your postcards home a touch of intrigue by dropping them off here.
If you pause from touring at midday for a meal, consider eating lunch where the nation’s top G-Men often ate—the Mayflower Hotel at 1127 Connecticut Avenue NW. The Café Promenade is the current name for the Rib Room frequented by J. Edgar Hoover and his number two man, Clyde Tolson.
The International Spy Museum, across the street from Metro’s Chinatown station, has artifacts reflecting at least three centuries of espionage, videos explaining intelligence activities today, and mementos from espionage film and fiction. Where else could you crawl through the Berlin Tunnel and dodge bullets from James Bond’s Aston Martin in the same afternoon? For those who may not share J. Edgar Hoover’s tastes, the Spy City Café attached to the museum is a nice place for a light lunch. The museum has an admission charge of $16 (866-779-6873, www.spymuseum.org).
Those with a getaway car may want to visit the National Cryptologic Museum, about 15 miles north of Washington, adjacent to the Fort Meade headquarters of the National Security Agency. Exhibits at the only government-sponsored intelligence museum in the D.C. area show how defensive and offensive use of cryptology changed the world. Items on display include the first book on codes in the western world (from 1517), a 1937 German ENIGMA machine that visitors can use to encipher or decipher messages, and a couple of garden-variety supercomputers. Admission is free, and groups of six or more can arrange for a guided tour in advance (301-688-5849).
Visitors who want a visceral understanding of U.S. national security issues should not miss Arlington National Cemetery. Here lie many of America’s senior military and civilian leaders from the Civil War to the present, as well as the Unknown Soldiers who symbolize the fallen from three of the country’s wars. More than any other single place in the country, Arlington, with its miles of graves, reveals the extent of the national security endeavors of the United States and the terrible cost of keeping the nation’s people free.
The Washington area is rich in sites associated with the military, diplomatic, and intelligence history of the United States. I have listed only a selected few of them, hoping that this "starter kit" will inspire visiting historians to look around for these historic places.
—David A. Hatch is the National Security Agency historian.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.