Annie Jacobsen is obsessed with secrecy. Her other book, Operation Paperclip, deals with the hidden machinations of the US government after WW II to find and import Nazi scientists who had special expertise in rocketry and chemical weapons.
This book details the hidden history of Area 51, an ultra-secret location (officially it doesn’t exist) in the Nevada desert just next to the atomic weapons testing area. Supposedly created by the CIA in 1955 for U-2 flights, Jacobsen discovered it had been set up by the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct tests some might consider to be unethical on animal subjects. The secrecy of the Manhattan Project, an effort unknown to Congress and even the Vice-President --Truman was briefed on it only after he assumed the presidency, -- was adopted as SOP by the CIA, NSA, and AEC to the point where one might argue the United States had a shadow government run by the military.
Jacobsen’s entry into this world came by chance when she met Edward Lovick, an 88-year-old physicist, who suggested he might have an interesting story for her and connected her with other elderly pilots, engineers and scientists regarding the plane known as Oxcart (the A-12) which had been created half a century earlier.
Some of the secrecy was arguably quite necessary since it related to aerial surveillance that ostensibly helped keep the world from nuclear holocaust. Whether even in hindsight this kind of secrecy justified keeping the president (President Clinton was not privy to Area 51 affairs) out of the loop is problematic and certainly undemocratic.
The UFO conspiracy theories emanating from Area 51 she attributes to some seriously awful human research being done there during the early cold war and the whole UFO nonsense became useful for the Air Force as a cover for its own nefarious activities. Who needs nasty aliens when we have the Air Force?
Area 51 was where the U-2 was developed. Richard Bissell (of later Bay of Pigs fame) was put in charge and everything was so secret and control of the money providing so much power that Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general and SAC commander, was royally pissed off and he was not someone to mess with. Eisenhower insisted that the pilot be CIA so as to avoid charges of military complicity should one of the pilots ever be captured. The last thing he wanted was to risk charges of hostile action. Yet hundreds of Air Force personnel were assigned to the program (by Bissell) since they had all the expertise. Eisenhower, when pushed by LeMay, insisted it remain under CIA control so he could have plausible deniability.
Secrecy could cause problems. Since they wanted no one to drive to Area 51 or live in Las Vegas, the closest town, a shuttle between Burbank and the area was initiated and workers lived in Burbank. No flight plan was listed nor any record of the flights kept. So when, inevitably, the C-54 became lost in a snowstorm, and asks for help finding their position, controllers were completely flummoxed; they had no record of any plane being in that area. The plane crashed on the top of Mount Charleston north of Las Vegas killing some all on board. Several interesting side-effects resulted from the crash. It was the first time the U-2 was used on a mission (to help pinpoint the exact location so they could retrieve briefcases and classified documents), and the CIA learned how easy it was to use the public’s preconceptions and the media’s desire for a story - any story -- to manipulate publicity. The press, denied access to the site, made up a story that those killed on board were working on a secret nuclear weapons program, hence all the security.
It’s no wonder UFO sightings proliferated. The U-2 was originally silver in color, had an extraordinary wing span, and flew at 70,000 feet during a time when commercial aircraft flew between 10,000 and 20,000 feet. The sun glinting off the plane made it look like some kind of fiery cross. You have to remember this was a time of great paranoia. Americans were terrified of nuclear holocaust and a Russian induced Armageddon. I remember being on my uncle’s farm in Wisconsin in the late fifties scanning the sky every time we heard a plane, jotting down the characteristics and its direction of flight, so the information (my uncle volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol) could be phoned in and checked to make sure it wasn’t some Russian bomber. (Even then we thought it odd that a Russian bomber would make it all the way to Wisconsin without dropping any bombs, but logic never plays much of a role in paranoia.)
Politics. money and the media all symbiotically created the perfect storm of paranoia in the fifties. Time Magazine was terrifying readers with stories of Soviet ICBMs crashing down on American cities; Curtis LeMay was locked in a battle with the Defense Department over whether manned bombers were better than ICBMs (they could be recalled, missiles could not while he called for a pre-emptive strike on Russia and even ordered massive test launches of B-47s** from Alaska and Greenland taking them just to Russian airspace risking a Russian missile launch.) He disdained the overflight research being done at Area 51 but continued to lose officers to both that program and the missile initiative promoted by the Paperclip scientists imported from Germany.
Those wanting a specific focus on Area 51 will be disappointed as Jacobsen uses it more for a springboard to discuss the history and background of such things as the U-2 flights, etc. Personally, I loved those details and once again was amazed that we survived the twenty years after WW II without descending into WW III. Our arrogance and self-righteous behavior was on display over and over. Can you imagine the Congressional reaction had the Soviets flown a U-2-like plane over the U.S.?
One interesting, if scary, tidbit is that the physical experiments for the U-2 pilots were designed by Paperclip doctors, i.e., German doctors who had conducted experiments on concentration camp victims. Many of those tests buggered the imagination.
Project 57 involved another kind of test. Assuming that someday an Air Force plane would crash in the United States carrying a nuclear bomb, the scientists wanted to see what would happen. (Today we would call that a dirty bomb.) The only area that could guarantee secrecy, was outside the area normally allocated for open air nuclear testing, and wouldn’t be used for 25,000 years (the half-life of plutonium) was in Area 51.
The book abounds with scientists, who, had they conducted the experiments they did for the other side, would have been labeled evil. James Killian, for example. Former president of MIT, Kennedy asked him to be head of a super-secret internal agency that was hidden even from Congress. Killian authorized two extremely dangerous atmospheric 3.2 megaton hydrogen bomb tests, one at a height of 140,000 feet, over the Pacific, i.e. in the midst of the ozone layer. In order to see what the effects would be on eyesight, hundreds of monkeys were flown, their heads locked into a position where they would have to look at the explosion. Their retinas were burned, blinding them painfully. The effect on the ozone layer wasn’t recorded (although I suspect it was far more deleterious than aerosol chloroflourocarbons) and damage was observed 250 miles away.
I could go on. Let’s just say Jacobsen uses Area 51 discuss a wide range of topics and people related to work done at Area 51. to I won’t spoil anything by discussing the flying disc that crashed in 1947, but will whet your curiosity only by suggesting you research the Horton Brothers and Operation Paperclip. Or, you could read the book. It’s a depressing page-turner. I won’t ever believe again anything coming out of Washington or the media. I’ve always said that if you really want to find out what happened, forget the daily news and wait a decade for the book, or, in this case wait fifty years for some things to be declassified..
**LeMay sent some flights over Russia to test their radar defense. Some of these were shot down and those pilots who survived spent the rest of their lives in the Gulag. When asked about the provocative nature of the flights, he replied, “With a little more luck we could have started WW III.” The CIA was not happy and reported his clandestine activities to Eisenhower in 1956. LeMay’s actions, ironically, provided an extra boost to the push for the U-2 as the CIA argued it could provide necessary intelligence about Russian capabilities at far less risk. Still Eisenhower worried that one might be shot down triggering a nuclear holocaust. Bissell assured the president that could not happen. Well, we all remember Gary Powers. The CIA, as I note from recent headlines, has a long history of continuing to lie to the president (and probably itself.)