“Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base”

Annie Jacobsen

Structurally, I think the only descriptor I can come up with for this book is “inverse shit-sandwich.” Which is a disgusting mental image, but it fits—the first and last chapter of the book don’t fit with the rest of it, and are undoubtedly the worst parts. They make for an interesting conspiracy theory, and the first chapter actually sticks mostly into the realm of believability, but the last chapter comes back, swipes away that believability, and tacks on a whole lot more conspiracy theory energy. She had one source—who may well have been messing with her—and upon finding that it was impossible to verify anything he told her, instead of throwing it out or putting it in a single chapter with some very big caveats wrapping around it, she went “well, this’ll work as a hook” and made it the start and end of the book.

With all that said, it’s the inverse shit sandwich for a reason—everything else in the book is well-researched, well-cited, and absolutely fascinating to read. So perfectly up my alley, as I just love these histories of the completely wild things going on during the Cold War. The sheer amount of UFO sightings, and conspiracy theories, that came about because the CIA was testing spy aircraft out in the desert is just incredible. And the storytelling as she leads the reader to the reveal that the CIA was leaning in to the UFO theories because it kept people from trying to figure out what was actually happening? Impeccable.

There’s also some great stories from the larger Nevada test site. I had a great moment of realizing that the NERVA research being done involved a whole lot of underground facility—that kind of thing immediately makes me want to go explore an abandoned research site!1 And, beyond that, there’s a great story of someone who invented a whole new level of screwup.

So, set the scene. It’s 1980something, and today’s the day of a nuclear test, with another one coming up in a few days—meaning, there’s a live nuclear warhead, and materials to assemble at least one more, on-site at the Nevada test site. You’re a security contractor for the Department of Energy, and you’re going to do a penetration test of the security at the site—take a helicopter and a couple guys with guns full of rubber bullets, and see how well they’re able to handle it. But first, pop quiz, what’s step zero of a security test like that?

If you answered “call the Department of Energy and let them know you’re doing a security test,” congratulations, you’re smarter than the people who actually did the test that day.

And, as I was reading this story, my thought was “wow, this is a whole new level of screwup I can aspire never to achieve—‘they had to scramble fighter jets about me’”

Except, as I found a page later, I was wrong. It was worse than that—the phone tree made it to the White House, who put the Navy on alert—Tomahawk missiles targeted at the site. Which, all told, is actually quite sensible, in an obscene way: there’s already a nuclear test scheduled, so it’s nearly evacuated. If the Mystery Bad Guys manage to take the nuke-and-a-half that’s there, well, the people on-site are already dead. And “the Mystery Bad Guys have a nuke or two” is pretty much the end of the How Bad Can It Get scale. So, here we are with the actual brand new level of screwup: “the White House decided the best option for containing what I did was a nuclear strike.”


So, seriously, with the weirdness of the first and last chapters aside, this book was really, really good, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I heartily recommend it. Check it out.2

  1. That said, it would be an Extremely Bad Idea! Firstly, it was full of spiders when it was being actively maintained, so it’s probably not gotten less full of spiders since then. Second, it’s officially decommission and was, y’know, a tunnel under a mountain, so it’s very possible it’s caved in. Thirdly, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Department of Energy’s test site, which means if you actually get they’re you’re technically either a terrorist or doing a treason, just by being there. And fourthly, it was the site of two distinct nuclear reactor meltdowns, so it’s not exactly the healthiest of environments.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.