I recently got around to reading the book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen.
Area 51 provides an in-depth look at the famous military base in Nevada, based largely on recently declassified government documents and interviews with members of Roadrunners Internationale, an association for personnel who worked on the development of once secret U-2, YF-12 and A-12 aircraft. When the book is at its best, it is exploring what it takes to develop something like the A-12. Almost a space shuttle, the aircraft was used by the CIA to gather surveillance over the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea in the 1960s. And this isn’t just a history lesson — these programs, as well as the nuclear program (which the book also discusses in detail) are the origins of the current security state.
On the surface the book seems to be pretty solid, which is why it is so odd that Jacobsen interweaves the main narrative with the infamous Roswell UFO conspiracy theory. Then the payoff comes at the end of the book, and it’s so incredible (and non-credible) that it makes reading the whole thing freakishly worthwhile.
According to an anonymous source cited at length by Jacobsen, the Roswell UFO incident of 1947 really happened, as conspiracists claim. That is, there was a downed flying disc, there were pilots recovered, and there was a subsequent coverup. But the origin of the UFO wasn’t extraterrestrial — it was Soviet. More specifically, Jacobsen contends that the incident at Roswell involves a Nazi super weapon, piloted by remote control from the Soviet Union, containing child “pilots” either genetically or surgically modified by Joseph Mengele to look like your classic pop culture space alien. At the very least, this is a slight deviation from what is familiar territory among conspiracy-types, and Jacobsen is easily taken in by the whole thing. Then again, this is the person who famously freaked out when encountering a Syrian musical act on a flight and assumed that they had to be terrorists. That Jacobsen doesn’t seem to have finely-honed journalistic instincts would be pointing out the obvious.
In her book, Jacobsen intones Occam’s Razor when stating her case that mutant CommieNazi child pilots are a more plausible explanation for Roswell than extraterrestrials. But wouldn’t the simplest explanation exclude both Mengele and the Little Green Men? Is it possible that her source was lying, or non compos mentis? Or maybe he just had a great sense of humor.
And what of this source? Jacobsen won’t name him, and neither will ABC News, who tracked him down and asked him about the story. According to Nightline reporter Bill Weir, they declined to out the source because, upon meeting him, he seemed “confused.” (If you’re at all interested in watching a journalist squirm, check out Weir’s televised interview with Jacobsen.)
As for the internet UFO community, they’ve decided that the source is a former nuclear test engineer and Area 51 alum Alfred O’Donnell.
If you’re a true believer, the haunting question is: why does the source claim that the USSR was involved with the Roswell disc when it was clearly extraterrestrial? And if you’re not, the question is: why did the source tell this tale at all? Is he a conspiracy theorist? Is he touched in the head? Or perhaps the source is himself a victim of some sort of disinformation campaign; some sort of Mirage Men situation, where military intelligence encourages UFO beliefs in order to keep people off the trail of top secret military projects.
Setting aside the fact that the whole thing’s absurd on the face, there are more than a few reasons that Jacobsen’s argument in favor of the CommieNazi-Roswell theory won’t work. Perhaps a different journalist would have checked out the technical details and decided that they didn’t add up. And it’s a shame, because when you set aside the UFO nonsense, the (quite literally) hidden history of Area 51 needs to be told.