Book review: ‘Area 51’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

It’s ironic that a book that looks to pull back the curtain on decades of conspiracy theories about UFOs and Nevada’s infamous Area 51 may, in the end, become best remembered for launching yet another conspiracy theory.

The book is “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base” by journalist Annie Jacobsen (a book that began as a two-part series in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in spring 2009). Jacobsen does as advertised. She had unprecedented access to former workers at the site, who filled her notebooks with details about secret doings (some now unclassified) surrounding everything from atomic bomb blasts to the quest for high-altitude surveillance planes to contemporary stealth technology.

The work is deeply researched and documented through a patchwork of declassified reports that must have been numbing to navigate. Jacobsen converts all that material into a highly readable history that is a dream for aviation and military buffs, packed with anecdotes and characters who built their careers largely among U.S. government “black” operations so secret that even the wives of the participants didn’t know what they did for a living.

There also are chilling depictions of the early atomic blasts, which in the years after World War II became something of a Las Vegas tourist attraction as people flocked to watch the mushroom cloud grow above the horizon. Jacobsen writes compellingly about U.S. government tests on everything from the power of the blasts to the effects on living creatures (humans and animals alike) to the radiation left behind.

But the juiciest — and most problematic — bit in the book comes at the end. For decades, UFO believers and conspiracy theorists have wrestled with the story of a flying machine and humanesque, child-sized life forms found near Roswell, N.M., in 1947. No need to belabor all the theories here, since Jacobsen says she has the answer. (And no need for a spoiler alert; she’s been talking this up in national media appearances.)


Jacobsen contends, based on interviews with the last surviving member of a five-man covert team that worked on the project, that the flying disk bore Cyrillic markings in Russian. The recovered bodies (two were still alive, but in irreversible comas) were those of children, around age 13, who were rumored to have been horribly transfigured by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, whose grotesque medical experiments on Jews, Gypsies, twins, dwarfs, the mentally deficient and other victims at Auschwitz raised both wartime atrocities and nightmares to new levels.

According to the 60-year-old rumor Jacobsen passes along unconfirmed from her single, unidentified source, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had struck a deal with Mengele to provide him with “aliens,” in return for which Mengele would be given a lab and refuge in Russia from postwar prosecutions. Stalin got his aliens but reneged and Mengele famously disappeared into South America.

Jacobsen offers no other supporting material, which is no surprise given how deeply classified the project was. Which, of course, provides the key element of any conspiracy — the inability to find proof proves that a cover-up exists, and there’s no need to cover something up if it doesn’t exist. The circular logic can be dizzying.

So why did Stain want his aliens (left unasked is why he couldn’t compel his blood-thirsty KGB to create their own)? The rumor was that he hoped dropping a flying saucer with aliens aboard in the middle of the American Southwest would spawn a panic to echo that of Orson Welles’ infamous October 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which sent East Coasters screaming into the streets.

“Truman would see how easily a totalitarian dictator could control the masses using black propaganda,” Jacobsen writes. “When it came to manipulating the people’s perception, Stalin was the leader with the upper hand.”

As far as explanations go, it’s not quite as far-fetched as visitors from outer space, but it does stretch credulity. Lord knows, Stalin — who sent millions of his own people to death in spasms of personal paranoia — was capable of the ludicrous. Jacobsen also quotes her source as saying that the U.S. government conducted its own immoral human experiments at Area 51.

But the problem with Jacobsen’s presentation is that it is just too thin, relying on a single source nearing his own death passing along what he claims he and his four colleagues had been told about the background to their assignment, which was to figure out how the disk flew (it’s unclear whether they succeeded).

Ultimately, Jacobsen presents us with yet another theory, one that feels as questionable as those that preceded it. It’s an unfortunate ending to a book that otherwise is an engaging look at the secret world in the Nevada desert.

Martelle is the author of “The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial.”