Area 51: An Uncensored History – A Book Review


This book review actually appeared here in 2011 (almost to the day, incidentally). Well, “here” is a bit of a misnomer; it originally appeared on Barking Book Reviews (BBR), one of several sites I operated once upon a time. Some years later, I moved all of the reviews and whatnot to a subdomain of my main site:, where they resided for a year or so before I nuked everything, reviews included, in order to start with a clean slate.

I wanted to revive some of the better reviews here, though, just ’cause. I was in between teaching gigs at the time, and had plenty of time on my hands, hence the launch of BBR. And, quite frankly, I wrote some good ones, if I do say so myself. At times I even left the field of review and transcended into the realm of criticism.

Actually the first part of this isn’t a review of Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base; that review is actually in the second part. This first part is just a brief commentary based on Jacobsen’s interview with NPR’s Terri Gross. …

Little Green Aliens? Russkies?

Is truth stranger than fiction? And is Area 51: An Uncensored History truth?

Originally appeared May 18, 2011

When I was a child, I went through a years-long phase where I read everything I could on the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and UFOs. This period commenced in second or third grade not long after the school nurse figured out I was blind as a bat and I got my first pair of glasses; I subsequently discovered the world at large – a world only vaguely, blurrily hinted at before. I was able to see the board in the classroom for the first time as well, and academic things suddenly began falling into mental place; I went from being in the lowest reading level group to the highest in a matter of weeks — the world of books had opened up for me.

Anyway, this interest in the paranormal, modern myths, folklore, mass hysteria, cryptozoology, complete and utter bullshit – please take your pick of your own preferential term, here – lasted well into adolescence. In fact it never really ended; it just became sublimated to a large degree by other things, namely cars, girls and computers. Needless to say, however, that when the X-Files debuted, I was there, glued to the television, and was pretty much every week during the television season for the next eight years. I drifted away to some extent once David Duchovny got too big for Mulder’s britches – but was and am still solidly in the Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade (did you see her in Last King of Scotland? Oh. My. Various. Gods). So it’s perhaps also needless to say – in my roundabout sort of way – that when I listened to Terri Gross’ Fresh Air interview with journalist Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base – I knew I would have to read this book.

Incidentally I’m in Terri Gross’ brigade too, just like Gene Simmons, but that’s neither here nor there.

Documentation and Research Overshadowed by Little Gray Russians

In fact I just listened to the podcast in the wee hours this morning while out for a walk before bed – I’m completely nocturnal these days – and promptly downloaded the book from Amazon when I got home. I read the first several chapters before I drifted off to sleep. If you have any interest in this sort of thing at all – and by “thing” I don’t so much mean UFOs and little green men and conspiracy theories (although that’s all wrapped up in this), but rather U.S. military history – then this book is probably worth a read. I’ll be able to address the “probably” in the days ahead once I finish the book, naturally.

You’ll want to check out the Fresh Air interview; you can read excerpts of both it and Jacobsen’s Area 51 at NPR as well. My first impression of the book, based on the first few chapters, is that it does seem to be deeply researched and documented, although the style in which it is written I’m finding to be mildly problematic (more on this in the full review). Jacobsen is a professional journalist by trade, a contributing writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine covering national security issues, so she has a vested professional interest in publishing an accurate book.

That being said, the use of anonymous sources can be tricky when it comes to credibility; I’ve been in that boat myself, although that only involved the misuse of public funds in the Sedona (Ariz.) Fire District – not alleged early Cold War-era Russian subterfuge and espionage programs and rival U.S. government-sanctioned programs, both of which involved children – allegedly, I stress. You can read more about this if you follow the link above to the NPR/Fresh Air interview. Much of what Jacobsen and her sources say – many of whom are on the record – seems quite plausible and indeed are well documented: that Area 51 and nearby facilities have been used for nuclear bomb and even nuclear rocket tests, as well as overhead surveillance programs and the development of related aircraft.

Some of this, of course, is actually already known, such as the U2 spyplane, the stealth fighter, and Project Oxcart. So it’s unfortunate that the one thing that everyone in the media is going to focus on almost exclusively will be the tidbit in the back of the book, in which Jacobsen alleges that a saucer actually did crash in Roswell in 1947. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, after it was initially taken to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. And that it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children “altered” to look as if they were aliens. That this was part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938. That Stalin had actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalikes.

This admittedly seems farfetched, particularly the Mengele aspect. If being a journalist teaches you nothing else, it teaches one to have a healthy bullshit detector and to believe in Occam’s Razor. You don’t last long without the former; real-life experience leads you to follow the latter intuitively, if not scientifically. Either way, I’m sure that most of my fellow people in the Fourth Estate would agree that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation or an answer to a question is usually the correct one.

On the other hand, Jacobsen says she has faith in her source, that she worked closely with him for nearly two years. That she is able to verify the veracity of everything else he has told her, that she has checked and verified his medical, personal and military records – so she personally takes him at his word on this admittedly difficult-to-believe claim. He allegedly was one of the engineers called in to reverse engineer the Russian craft that crashed at Roswell and also saw the bodies of the child pilots.

Of course, it might be different if we knew the identity of this person, and thus is the slippery slope of anonymous sources – we have to trust the journalist on this one. And she’s going out on a pretty big limb: if it were to come out somehow that this source isn’t reliable or deliberately mislead her – or worse, that she herself has made this up – her career as a journalist is over (although there will still be the talk-show circuit).

In any case, the whole Mengele aspect of the story is particularly hard to swallow; his movements at the end of and in the years immediately after the War are seemingly well documented. If he was working with the Russians he was apparently doing so clandestinely and remotely. And the idea that the technology existed in 1947 to surgically or otherwise alter a human’s appearance to the point that they looked truly alien – like a so-called gray – is, well, admittedly seemingly ridiculous.

It’s notable that this revelation comes at the end of the book in an epilogue, although Jacobsen refers to it in an early chapter of the book. I’ll reserve any further comment until I finish the book, but again she addresses these issues following questions from Terri Gross in the NPR interview, so you can read/hear for yourself. As for me, like Mulder, I want to believe. But like Scully, I’m pretty skeptical – at least as far as this Roswell revelation that comes at the end of Jacobsen’s Area 51.

Claims of the Russians Being Behind Roswell Overshadows an Important Work on U.S. Black Ops and Espionage

Originally appeared on May 31, 2011

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it is not.

Of course this hinges upon knowing what the truth is and what is fiction – where the facts end and the fiction begins. And such is the problem with Area 51. In one small but significant way, it’s also the problem with Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by journalist Annie Jacobsen. One small foray beyond the realm of established fact threatens to overwhelm potential readers’ perception of an exhaustively researched history of covert U.S. military and other government programs, based on interviews with people directly involved and an apparent trove declassified documents – the stuff of journalism and truth.

This isn’t so much a problem with the book itself – although I question this one small foray’s inclusion at all – as it is with word-of-mouth and the knee-jerk Internet culture in which we live. Perhaps our culture – and maybe humans in general – has always been a knee-jerk, reactionary one, but it is seemingly amplified a thousandfold here in the immediate information age.

It’s a shame because Area 51: An Uncensored History is a valuable piece of research and history — military, scientific, cultural, U.S. and human history. After all, one of the things the book illustrates so wonderfully is that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and September 11, 2001 is seemingly a case in point.

The Military, the CIA and Territorial Hissy Fits: Aren’t You Guys All on The Same Team?

The U.S. Government’s various intelligence agencies and the military all have their own territorial approaches to spying/espionage and protection of the country; this has lead to lapses in critical intelligence and analysis – sometimes catastrophic. Without those lapses, with an integrated approach to espionage, intelligence and analysis, 9/11 could have been prevented – in hindsight all of the intelligence we needed to do so was there in front of us. It’s particularly sad in a dramatic, Shakespearean-flaw kind of way when one considers that the military and the various spy agencies are all on the same side.

One would hope that these things have been addressed a decade later. But given what Jacobsen shows us in her in-depth history of Area 51 and the corresponding CIA, Department of Energy and military installations deep in the Nevada desert, one wonders if it truly has. This divisiveness and territoriality among U.S. espionage agencies and the military goes back to at least World War II, and time and time again it has caused problems at critical junctures in modern history.

The CIA’s all-titanium A-12 Oxcart

It is fascinating reading, these experiences of the pilots, security guards and government and military leaders directly involved with the creation of Area 51 and its environs, including the Nevada testing range, and the many programs that took place there. Some of these have already been made public in recent years, such as F-117 Nighthhawk stealth fighter and some of its forerunners in stealth. One of those of course is Project Oxcart. Oxcart, incidentally, was the original second-generation stealthy reconnaissance aircraft created at the behest of the CIA; the SR-71 Blackbird variations are follow-on craft based on the Oxcart designs built at the behest of the U.S. Air Force – because the USAF has never been comfortable with the CIA flying manned aircraft, as Jacobsen so deftly documents.

Walter and Reimar Horten

Of course, one could make the case that Oxcart was a third-generation stealth plane, if we include the experimental craft designed and built by Nazi aircraft designers and brothers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers figure in the tale of Area 51; we’ll circle back to them later.

Jacobsen details other notable black operations in the Nevada desert in and around Area 51; she also delves into just how U.S. black ops came about – black ops being projects that officially don’t exist and don’t have an official budget (but of course they actually do, and usually big ones), and are managed on a strictly “need-to-know” basis, so much so that the U.S. President and members of Congress frequently don’t know about them. Of course U.S. black ops trace their history – at least in the modern era, at any rate – to the Manhattan Project.

So much so that apparently in the world of black ops, need-to-know is a noun – one that most of us don’t have.

Other not-so well known black ops at the Nevada test site outside of Areas 51 involve various flavors of nuclear testing. In general the knowledge that nuke tests have take place there is well known – it’s kind of hard to hide a nuclear blast when the ground shakes and windows rattle as far away as Las Vegas. But some of the particular programs and specific details have just come to light in recent years, as documents and programs have become declassified; Jacobsen does a thorough job of chronicling many of these programs in Area 51: An Uncensored History.

She also explores the lack of oversight that is inherent in the nature of black ops, and how this can sometimes lead to questionable decisions and corresponding actions. Sometimes these might be questionable from a moral or ethical standpoint; other times just from the standpoint of common sense, i.e. they’re just plain stupid.

An excellent example of the latter is Project 57, originally conducted at Area 13, one of the various secret areas adjacent to or nearby Area 51 and Groom Lake. In the late 1950s the Atomic Energy Commission (the forerunner of today’s Department of Energy and the progenitor of many of the covert programs that were and are taking place in the Nevada desert) and its partners decided it needed to study what would happen if an airplane laden with nuclear bombs crashed and nuclear material were released – similar to what would happen if someone detonated a dirty bomb.

As Jacobsen notes, by this time there had been so much nuclear research and atmospheric and underground testing that the results were a foregone conclusion. But the test proceeded anyway, and the one true benefit to be gained from such a test, gathering data on how to clean up such an irradiated mess, never took place – the site wasn’t even cleaned up at all until 1998, in fact.

Why simulate an accident with foregone results, and then not clean it up? The answer to that seems lost to history; ostensibly the Atomic Energy Commission and its partners had other things to worry about at the height of the Cold War. Such is the nature of black ops.

Other interesting projects Jacobsen sheds light on are the various programs involving a nuclear-powered rocket – no, I didn’t learn about this one in school, either. Project Orion was originally conceived in 1958 and was in development for several years, basically until the limited test ban treaty of 1963. Then there was NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application); it was in development until it was canceled in 1972; at the time plans were on the table to build an actual NERVA prototype rocket.

You only get one guess as to where the test bed for this nuclear rocket engine was located and frequently tested.

Little Green Russkies: Was Stalin Behind Roswell and the 1947 UFO Flap?

An artist’s rendering of the Horten Ho 229.

Back to the Horten brothers. But first, let’s talk about that one small foray beyond the realm of established fact that Area 51: An Uncensored History takes. By now if you’re reading this you probably know what I’m talking about. All of the press involved around the book’s release has centered around this one thing, regardless of its merits as a work of nonfiction and investigative journalism.

That thing is Jacobsen’s allegation that a saucer actually did crash outside Roswell in 1947, perhaps more than one. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft and its occupants to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, to be reverse engineered. So far this is the stuff of standard UFO/conspiracy theory folklore. But Jacobsen provides an interesting twist to the standard tale.

The craft wasn’t of alien origin, but built by the Soviet Union, she claims; it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children altered through some medical means to look as if they were aliens. This was allegedly all part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938.

The idea behind this is that a flurry of reported sightings would overwhelm America’s air defense and military communications infrastructure, even if most of the sightings were bogus. Jacobsen further alleges that Stalin actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalikes and that the vehicles involved were based on aircraft designs by the Horten brothers, if not directly designed by them.

This is far fetched, to say the least. Jacobsen bases these assertions on the words of an EG&G engineer, now elderly, who was intimately involved in the project to reverse engineer the craft. But not only the craft – the alien-looking children were “reverse engineered” as well, because the U.S. government wanted to pursue its own similar black ops propaganda program. This last allegation is supposedly why the operation has been black and strictly need-to-know, rather than using the revelation of its existence to call Stalin out and embarrass the Soviet Union at the time.

EG&G traces its roots as a company back to the Manhattan project, and is even today involved with covert programs based in the desert in Nevada. Still, this is all very hard to swallow, and the fact that this source remains anonymous – the only anonymous source Jacobsen relies on in the entire book – doesn’t exactly help it go down. In fact it would be rather easy to discount it as the efforts of an intelligent but lonely old man to keep the interest of Jacobsen. As a reader and as a journalist I’m tempted to discount the story altogether, despite the fact that Jacobsen states that as far as she is concerned, there is not doubt as to the veracity of this man’s story, as she elaborates in the Area 51 epilogue.

I’m tempted, that is, but for one thing, and a fact, at that. The Horten brothers were taken into Allied custody in 1945, shortly before the end of the war in the European theater. Many Nazi scientists were given amnesty in exchange for being brought to America to work for us – Jacobsen elaborates much on this aspect of Operation Paperclip, as many of these scientists figure prominently in the black ops at Area 51 and elsewhere.

The Horten brothers were soon released, however, and were never part of the Paperclip op, even though some of their experimental aircraft were brought back to the United States. Allied intelligence officials apparently didn’t deem the brothers in the same class as Werner Von Braun, et al. However, in 1947, as Jacobsen documents, there was a sudden interest in the U.S. intelligence and military communities in the Horten brothers. So much interest that there was a large U.S. intelligence operation in Europe to find them once again and question them further – just two years after they had been let go.

The second prototype of the Ho 229 made its first flight on February 2, 1945

The Horten brothers themselves were living in plain site by this time, one remaining in Germany and the other in Argentina. Why the sudden interest? Did it have to do with the crash at Roswell? The UFO flap of 1947? A look at a drawing of the craft that pilot Kenneth Arnold claims he saw in 1947 – the report that seemingly ushered in the rash of UFO sitings at that time – is striking. Not in and of itself, but because it looks very similar in shape to aircraft that the Horten brothers were actually building in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. In fact the aircraft pictured here, a prototype Horten Ho 229, was actually in the air at the end of the war in 1945, but not yet in military service. Furthermore, this aircraft was an early and arguably the first attempt at incorporating stealth technology and design into an aircraft — to lessen its radar signature (or was it? See more in the afterword below).

Was this the reason behind the interest in the Hortens in 1947? Unfortunately there is much still classified about this operation to find and interrogate the Horten brothers in 1947, including the question of why. The Horten brothers themselves never elaborated on it prior to their deaths; they refused to discuss it in interviews, although they acknowledged that they were indeed questioned by U.S. Intelligence operatives in 1947.

In any event, the intelligence operation to find them certainly had some interesting timing, to say the least. With regard to the claim that the Soviet Union was behind the Roswell incident, this interest in the Horten brothers gives one pause for thought. Jacobsen further documents that in the 1950s, U.S. Intelligence officials including CIA director General Walter Bedell Smith, were genuinely concerned that a War of the Worlds broadcast scenario could in fact be used as a cover for a Soviet attack on the continental U.S. Hmmm …

But Does Area 51 Shoot Itself in the Proverbial Foot?

As for Jacobsen and her EG&G engineer’s allegations about what really happened outside Roswell in 1947, she herself acknowledges in the book and interviews that she’s putting her own credibility on the line by using this anonymous source. This is in spite of the fact that the rest of the book relies on solid information — interviews with dozens of people and reams of government documents, for example. She felt this was important though, that the truth this black ops program involving children and medical experiments for propaganda and espionage purposes needs to be known.

As she herself documents, while its a matter of record that what is now the Department of Energy has conducted tests on humans in the past – sometimes unknown to the participants themselves – much of the information about these programs is still classified, still black. In fact there are some six hundred million pages of documents related to the postwar use of Nazi scientists expertise alone that remains classified. Do we know what we don’t know?

Of course if it is true that the U.S. Government has conducted secret medical tests or something similarly horrific, then it’s almost impossible from a moral standpoint to disagree with her goal of shedding light on something so reprehensible. On the other hand, I think as a journalist I would have been tempted to keep this information to myself and attempt to research it further, not publishing it until I had some sort of corroboration on the record. Area 51: An Uncensored History easily stands on its own merits without this anonymous assertion. In some ways I’m sure it has served to drum up interest in the book that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But so many people have keyed in on this one aspect of the book and summarily judged it without actually having read it, I can’t help but think that, true or not, it ultimately does a disservice to what is otherwise a fascinating, important  and exhaustively researched work.

Postscript: I should further note that conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs who aren’t in the skeptics camp will likely be disappointed by Area 51. Aside from the aforementioned explanation for the Roswell incident, Jacobsen doesn’t uncover any little green men or other UFO-related phenomena. As for the claims that the government and NASA faked the moon landing at Area 51, believers in this conspiracy theory will also be disappointed and perhaps even insulted; it’s clear that Jacobsen didn’t find anything in her research to lend this idea any credence.

Afterword: Operation Paperclip and the Ho 229

While I’m not sure anything has really changed over the years since Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base first came out vis-à-vis black ops or Roswell, I should note she has gone on to publish several more books, all related in one way or another to subjects and topics covered in Area 51. While none have perhaps garnered quite as much press attention as Area 51, her next book nevertheless arose directly out research she did for Area 51, namely: Operation Paperclip, the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America.

Jacobsen herself explained as much while researching the Horten brothers for the first book. When she first saw a photograph of the all-wing Horton V airplane — a forerunner of the Horten Ho 229 jet — next to a modern B2 stealth bomber, there was little doubt in her mind that the two craft shared a common technological history, despite some 40 some years separating them. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the Horten brothers weren’t part of Operation Paperclip, but their boss in the Nazi regime, Siegfried Knemeyer, actually was, and the seeds were planted for what became Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip.

Innovative Design? Undoubtedly. Decades Ahead of Its Time? Yep. Stealthy? Er …

I should mention, however that while the Horten Ho 229 bears an astonishing similarity to the B2 and similar modern stealth aircraft, whether its design and materials were intended from the beginning to be “stealthy” — i.e. have a lessened radar signature — that may have more to do with a retcon that historical reality.

The Hortens were originally involved in the 1930s with improving Germany’s gliders; the Treaty of Versailles following WW I forbid the country to develop military or even civilian motorized aircraft. That’s where the Horten flying wing came in; that design removed the need for a tail assembly and related control surfaces, and offered ostensibly the lowest weight of any competing design, since it had no fuselage to deal with.

That’s how the Ho 229 and all that came about: low weight.

Fast forward to 1943: the Ho 229 was the Horten brothers’ answer to Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring’s demand for light bomber designs. Göring wanted aircraft capable of carrying 1,000-kilogram (2,200 lb) bombs a distance of 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) while maintaining a speed of 1,000 kilometres per hour (620 mph) — the so called 3×1000 requirement. The newly-created jet engines of that time were theoretically capable of this, but were fuel hungry, especially when placed in conventional aircraft; the Hortens believed their low-drag flying all-wing design — with jet engines mounted inside the wing — would solve these problems and so did Göring.

A Horten Ho 229 prototype as it exists today. (without the wings attached).

However, WW II ended two years later — before the Ho 229 entered production.

Notice that no one said anything about stealth and radar in the 1930s and ’40s. While several different nations were developing technology that would become radar as we know it today — the term “radar” was coined in 1940 by the U.S. Navy — it was British tech that allowed the creation of relatively small systems that could detect objects with sub-meter resolution just before WW II.

Now in 1983 — 40 years after Göring’s 3×1000 directive — Reimar Horten first said in the book Nurflugel that the Horten Ho 229 would have been built as a stealth-styled aircraft. He said that he planned to add charcoal to the adhesive layers of the plywood skin of production aircraft; this would diffuse radar beams and make it invisible to radar. Unfortunately no records of this exist beyond the claims of the book.

Hmm …

In 1983 radar invisibility was all the rage. In the U.S. it had been discussed and developed in clandestine and military circles for years; the B2 stealth bomber was “publicly” unveiled in 1988, along with the F-117 Nighthawk. So was it possible that Reimar Horten wanted to develop radar-absorbent materials some 40 years prior, at a time when radar technology itself was still in its adolescence? Perhaps it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, but it seems doubtful at best — and impossible to prove.

The Northrup Grumman mock-up of he Horten HO 229

The Smithsonian houses the only existing Horten Ho 229; researchers did extensive work on that 229 prototype and the materials involved, but found no evidence of radar-absorbent charcoal. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, there are no production aircraft around to test, so there is nothing to back up Reimar Horten’s claim. Furthermore, Northrup Grumman built a life-sized mock-up of the Ho 229 in 2008 — with reasonably historically accurate materials — and placed it upon a pole five stories high to test its stealth characteristics. Against radar of the time it lessened its footprint by about 20 percent — nowhere near enough to be considered stealthy, even by 1945 standards.

While claims of radar stealthiness are iffy at best, I nevertheless don’t mean to take anything away from the Horten brothers or their all-wing Ho 229. They were flying aircraft eerily similar to the B2 stealth bomber some 40 years before it came into existence, and that is nothing short of brilliant. Furthermore, I may not put much stock in the Ho 229’s claims of stealth — or its supposedly clandestine role in the 1947 Roswell incident — but I sure wish they were true.

The Horton Ho 229 prototype can be seen on display inside the Smithsonian’s Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA; preservation efforts are ongoing. The Northrup Grumman-built mock-up of the Ho 229 can be seen in the San Diego Air and Space Museum (although its marketing team could stand to use a little fact checking with regard to the Ho 229).