Why name an airport ‘Dulles’?


Dulles International Airport was first referred to as “Chantilly Airport,” since it was based in Chantilly. But four days after Dulles’s death, a bill was introduced to name the airport in honor of the late secretary of state. He’s been there ever since. (Photo by Federal Aviation Agency)
John Kelly
Columnist December 1, 2012

All Washingto-nians know that Dulles Airport is named after John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But I’ve always wondered why it is named after him. Of all the prominent people in our nation’s (and city’s) history, why is there a major airport named after Dulles? What other candidates were there for the airport’s name?

— Evan Benoit, Arlington

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

As far as Answer Man can tell, there was only one other serious candidate, though he was considered nearly 30 years after the airport opened. His name? Dwight Eisenhower.

More on that later, but first let’s go back to 1950, when Congress first decided that National Airport was in danger of being maxed out. Two Northern Virginia sites were finalists for a new airport: Burke, about 15 miles southwest of National in Fairfax County, and Chantilly, about 30 miles northwest of National in Loudoun County. Congress chose the Burke location and started buying land.


John Foster Dulles steps out of a plane at Washington Aiport, which was destroyed in 1941 to make way for the Pentagon and replaced by what is now Reagan National Airport — his namesake’s competitor. (The Washington Post)

If you’ve been to Dulles, you know it isn’t in Burke. Nearby residents opposed the airport. And Virginia politicians said devoting all that acreage to runways was a waste of valuable property. Better to build homes and businesses in fast-growing Fairfax. (Maryland politicians didn’t want an airport in Virginia at all. They fought to have Friendship Airport — what we today call BWI — officially proclaimed Washington’s second airport.)

In the end, it was decided that Chantilly — on a site straddling Loudoun and Fairfax — would be a better home.

Early news reports actually refer to “Chantilly Airport.” Would that name have stuck? Hard to say. But on May 28, 1959, only four days after the death of John Foster Dulles, Sen. Homer E. Capehart (R-Ind.) introduced a bill to name the airport in honor of the late secretary of state.

Dulles was a formidable figure. He felt his duty as secretary of state was to formulate and execute his policies, not merely follow the president’s. He was staunchly anti-Communist and assembled many of the treaties that knitted the United States with its allies during the Cold War.

His detractors called him inflexible. His supporters called him brilliant. Eisenhower said, “He is one of the truly great men of our time.”

Dulles had fought a long, painful and public battle against the cancer that eventually killed him, keeping up a punishing work schedule that involved long-distance air travel. When he died, sentiment was in favor of naming the capital’s new airport in his honor.

Virginians were not happy. They liked “Chantilly,” saying it harked back to the state’s Colonial days. (Chantilly was the name of Richard Henry Lee’s Westmoreland County, Va., home. His granddaughter Cornelia took it for the name of her mansion, near where the runways were later built.) There was even talk of naming the airport after a different secretary of state: the late Edward Stettinius Jr., who had served under Harry S. Truman and had links to Virginia.

By January 1962, the airport was nearing completion and a new president was in the White House. John F. Kennedy’s FAA administrator, Najeeb E. Halaby, announced that the name would be changed to something more straightforward, like Washington International Airport.

Critics said the move was politically motivated, but Halaby insisted it was to help international travelers, who might wonder where exactly “Dulles” was. But after a meeting with members of the Dulles family, Halaby backed down. The Dulles clan thought changing the name would slight their patriarch.

In 1984, “Washington” was added to the name, partially so travelers wouldn’t confuse it with Dallas. And then in 1990 Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) introduced a resolution urging that the name be changed to Eisenhower International Airport. It was the centennial of Eisenhower’s birth and Dole thought the 34th president should be honored.

The Dulles family was none too pleased. Dulles’s sister Eleanor said the name change “is an attempt to honor somebody by demeaning someone else.”

The Eisenhower family kept mum, but biographer Stephen Ambrose weighed in: “I think Eisenhower named the airport for Dulles because he was the most prominent recently dead Republican. Who else was there? He sure couldn’t name it after Thomas Dewey or Herbert Hoover.”

The airport — which just marked its 50th birthday — stayed named after John Foster Dulles.

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Thank you.

Send your D.C. area questions to answermanj@washpost.com. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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