“This book is a work of non-fiction”, journalist Annie Jacobsen declared. “The stories I tell in this narrative are real”, she added, and it would appear that “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base” would therefore – with the promise of secrets concerning Area 51, the secret domestic military facility in the United States, further backed by over 100 pages of notes referencing her interviews with pilots, scientists and engineers who worked on the base – provide groundbreaking revelations.
Yet the narrative is underwhelming. Jacobsen provides a fair, chronological account of the nuclear testing and spy-plane research which happened in Area 51 (or within the broader Nevada Test and Training Range) – which is the bulk of the book, and not quite as explosive as promised – but her hypothesis that the Roswell UFO incident was an elaborate Soviet plot to create hysteria in the country is hard to believe. Describing it as [Joseph] Stalin’s “black propaganda hoax”, with a “flying disc peopled with alien look-alikes (who, according to Jacobsen, were subjects of human experiments by notorious Nazi physician Josef Mengele)”, the book starts and concludes on eccentric notes.
It is hard not to dismiss her UFO account as another conspiracy theory, especially when it seems to be premised upon a single source (even if Jacobsen is ready to defend its veracity), and unfortunately it does discredit her earlier investigation – in the book – to trace and explain the different covert weaponry and espionage programmes. The average reader like me, without relevant contextual knowledge of the military-industrial-congressional complex in the country, will find the research and development in Area 51 interesting in the initial chapters (in particular, the parallels with geopolitical events related to the Cold War), and the going can be tedious at times.
Which is a shame, because Jacobsen eventually raised good questions about the area and its implications towards the end. As she stressed, “Does the public have a right to know? Does Congress?”, and in this vein raises the perennial tension between confidentiality and national security. Another interesting perspective is the hiring and protection of Nazi scientists after the Second World War, and whether more information should be released by the American government. “Approximately six hundred million pages of information about the government’s post-war use of Nazi criminals’ expertise remains classified as of 2011. Many documents about Area 51 exist in that pile”, Jacobsen noted. Perhaps more attention should have been paid to these themes, beyond mere mentions towards the end of the book.