Annie Jacobsen’s recent bestseller is a curiously unbalanced book: on one hand it reads as a sober historical account of one of America’s most prevailing twentieth-century mysteries; on the other hand it relishes in the intrigue and mythology surrounding Area 51 to such an extent that one isn’t sure by the end if they are closer or further away from the truth. The book, whose full title is Area 51: An Uncensored history of America’s Top Secret Military Base, certainly invited a lot of controversy when it was published earlier this year, something which has no doubt helped its sales.
The main cause of the controversy is a thread of argument running through Jacobsen’s book, in which she tries to connect the secret aircraft activities carried out at Area 51 with the famous crash of an alleged UFO near Roswell New Mexico in 1947. Somehow, Jacobsen manages to offend two opposing camps of readers: the dedicated band of UFO believers who subscribe to the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) to explain the events at Roswell, and the more skeptical community of aviation enthusiasts and historians who likewise find Jacobsen’s argument to be ludicrous. Jacobsen’s take, gathered almost exclusively from witness testimony provided by one retired EG&G engineer, is that the craft recovered at Roswell was built by Russians with help from Nazi aircraft designers the Horten Brothers. The purpose of this, her source speculates, was to sow fear into the hearts of Americans by making it appear that an Alien invasion was underway, similar to the panic caused by the 1938 broadcast of Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. It gets worse. On page 231 Jacobsen really lets fly with the crazy theories, suggesting that evil Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele was also in on the plot:
The EG&G engineers were told that part of Joseph Stalin’s offer to Josef Mengele stated that if he could create a crew of grotesque, child-size aviators for Stalin, he would be given a laboratory in which to continue his work. According to what the engineers were told, Mengele held up his side of the Faustian bargain and provided Stalin with the child-size crew. [...] When Joseph Stalin sent the biologically and/or surgically reengineered children in the craft over New Mexico hoping it would land there, the engineers were told, Stalin’s plan was for the children to climb out and be mistaken for visitors from Mars.
The grounds on which these claims can be rejected are obvious and have already been pointed out by reviewers, but I’ll quickly recap them here. In order to accept Jacobsen’s story as valid, one would also have to affirm that (i) Soviet airframe design made a rapid and unparalleled leap in capability immediately following World War 2, but was never subsequently used again; (ii) Stalin believed hoaxing the American public was a strategic objective worthy of vast expenditures and the risk of military conflict with the United States; and (iii) that the Soviets would hand over the most advanced aircraft ever designed by crashing it on US soil on purpose. And these points don’t even address the fantastical nonsense about the craft being piloted by deformed genetic experiments of Dr. Mengele. Children who, as one NPR interviewer pointed out, wouldn’t have had time to age the 13 years by 1947, as claimed by Jacobsen in her book. Insulting our intelligence still further, Jacobsen makes several references in her book to Ockham’s razor, suggesting that her theory for the Roswell crash is somehow the least contrived. In the popular UK slang, it’s almost as if she’s taking the piss.
The extent of the lunacy is such that we actually need to take a step down from the dizzying heights of Jacobsen’s theory, to get back to the more believable scenario of extraterrestrials. One Roswell researcher, Anthony Bragalia, has suggested that we need to read between the lines of Jacobsen’s account: perhaps the EG&G source himself was deceived about the true origin of the wreckage he claimed to have examined. On Bragalia’s blog he explains:
[O'Donnel] was told that it was of Soviet origin. But “exotic technology” that has been recovered by military are often studied by using the subterfuge or cover of being told that they are of “Russian origin.” And this holds especially true for the Roswell crash. There are numerous times when the “Soviets” or the “Russians” were used to describe where such artifacts came from. They were a convenient and ideal excuse or reason for the study of such things.
Even if we take Bragalia’s position, and we generously give Jacobsen the benefit of the doubt, there’s no denying that she dealt the rest of her sources (patriotic men who fought to defend their country no matter the cost) a tremendous slap in the face by associating them with unsubstantiated UFO lore and Nazi war criminals. Her book about Area 51 would have been interesting enough on its own, without having to go near the Roswell incident. As one reviewer over on Amazon unkindly puts it, the result is ‘absolute trash, riddled with mistakes and outright lunacy’.