Book Review: Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen

I’ve never been a fan of the idea that the government is hiding space aliens from us. Partly it’s because the people who espouse this particular brand of paranoia always strike me as two hairs away from batshit insane. Mostly though it’s because I’ve never seen any good evidence for it. I haven’t seen good evidence that any U.F.O. is alien in origin. The locus of most of these theories is the mythical military base Area 51, a place I’ve wanted to know more about, but without having to wade through five-hundred pages of paranoid rambling.

So when I heard that Area 51 was less a book about alien ships and cigarette smoking government agents hording alien corpses in the basement of the White House and more about the actual history of the base, I decided to give it a chance. I was hoping for a grounded, well researched book based on history and not just baseless conjecture and that’s exactly what I got.

Jacobsen does a great job of tying together the multiple points in history that led to the creation of Area 51 and following its role in the American government throughout the years. It’s where the Blackbird and drones were developed. It’s where they reverse engineered the MiG and finally figured out how to beat the Ruskies’ plane. During the later half of the 20th century, Area 51 lurked in the background of history, quietly doing its part. It’s a very levelheaded book. It’s as if Jacobsen wanted to counteract the hysterical paranoid tone that usually surrounds Area 51. She manages to strip a top secret military base of most of its mystique and does it methodically, piece by piece.

Throughout the book, Jacobsen raises several points about the scariness of the lack of government accountability for black ops projects, such as when government scientists nearly blew a hole in our atmosphere with nuclear tests that accomplished nothing scientifically. She acknowledges that the government most certainly does not need to tell the public everything, but that there’s a problem when even the president doesn’t have access to records.

My one problem with the book is toward the very end. After teasing the reader for the entire book with the secret about what really happened at Roswell, she reveals what happened with a flourish of melodramatic camp that is better suited for The X-Files than for what was a very reasoned and grounded book. She talks about secret Soviet plans to undermine the United States, which involves a devil’s pact between Mengele and Stalin. She talks of an anonymous man who speaks in cryptic comments and refuses to reveal everything he knows. It’s such an abrupt departure from the rest of the book that I have trouble believing what she’s saying. The whole chapter feels like she’s inserted herself into a Tom Clancy novel.

Aside from that one brief departure, Area 51 is a great history of the most talked about secret in modern U.S. history and I recommend it to any modern history buffs.

Dylan Charles

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