Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base
By Annie Jacobsen
Little, Brown and Company. 523 pp. $27.99
By Robert S. Norris and Jeffrey T. Richelson
Annie Jacobsen has written a book that purports to explain what has transpired at Area 51, 575-square miles of Nevada also referred to as “Dreamland,” where top secret experimental aircraft, including the U-2, OXCART, and the F-117 stealth fighter, were first flight-tested. Jacobsen also claims to reveal the actual events behind the 1947 Roswell incident—and comes up with an explanation that is even more bizarre than the standard conspiracy theories involving UFOs and dead aliens.
Hers is a deeply flawed book—and not only because she has added new, outlandish tales to the story of a top-secret military facility. All too often, Jacobsen’s history of the activities that did occur at the facility is filled with errors of commission and omission. One has to wonder what role her editors played in overseeing this book, and why so many mistakes and preposterous claims survived editorial review.
Jacobsen’s command of nuclear history and science is almost non-existent. There are so many mistakes that it is hard to know where to begin.
For Jacobsen, Vannevar Bush is the grey eminence behind all sorts of secret projects. She depicts Bush as the head of the Manhattan Project on three occasions. While Bush was instrumental in helping launch the atomic bomb program, it was General Leslie R. Groves who was the actual head of the Manhattan Project—which is why histories of the project without exception name Groves and Robert Oppenheimer as its central figures. Bush was science adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, and as such was chairman of a three-member oversight committee, known as the Military Policy Committee, that usually rubber-stamped decisions that Groves had already made.
She writes, “President Truman authorized [General Curtis] LeMay to lead the 509th Operations Group, based on Tinian Island, to drop the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.” The actual head of the 509th Composite Group was Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. She claims LeMay was at the 1946 Crossroads tests in the Pacific. He was not. She says, with reference to the Bay of Pigs operation [April 1961] that Richard Bissell, the CIA deputy director for plans, “lamented that if LeMay had provided adequate air cover as he had promised, the mission would most likely have been a success.” This creates the inference that LeMay was derelict. Yet anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the Bay of Pigs episode knows that it was President John F. Kennedy who made the crucial decision to withhold direct US air support—a decision that has often been debated but whose origin has never been disputed.