“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.

“The Last Thing He Wanted”

Joan Didion

This book took a while to really capture my attention, in terms of time. In terms of how far into the book it took, I suspect it was about the usual amount of time it takes a book to grab me. The distinction being, usually I read books like I’ve got a grudge, like I’m trying to see how fast I can cram all these words into my brain. Not so, with this one — I’d read a chapter or two, and put it down. Sometimes for a couple minutes, so I could sit and process a bit, and then pick it up and continue; other times, it’d be a day or two before I tried again.

All in all, this isn’t the kind of book I tend to go for. It feels much more Literary than my default — which is largely the writing style, but something about the paper and the typesetting makes it feel like the kind of book I’d read for English class in high school, filling it with notes and highlights and a ridiculous amount of sticky notes.

By the end, it feels… semi-coherent. Which, by then, you’ve grown used to, because at the beginning it’s entirely incoherent. The writing style is “first draft of a book by somebody who got a doctorate on a specific week of history and has no grasp of the concept of expert blind spot.”

At the end, though, I liked the book. Apparently it’s been developed into a Netflix film, the cover tells me; I may watch it, because I can’t imagine the film adaptation at all feeling like the book.

In writing this, I can also tell just how much Didion’s writing style has influenced mine, at least at the moment. Consider this a cheap knock-off of a demo. And then go read the real thing, instead.


A Short History of Nuclear Folly

So, ever since I heard about this book, I’ve wanted to read it. I’m a sucker for all this Cold War history stuff, okay? This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the books I’ve read on the subject.1
Anyhow, I’ve reached a point where very little of what I read in this book was actually new to me. Which is weird, because I hardly feel like an expert on the subject, but apparently I’m getting close. How strange.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it, or that I didn’t get anything new – quite the contrary, there were a couple really interesting bits in there that I found fascinating, and some things that I’d either never heard of or never explored in depth.
For example, while I knew about Project Plowshare, I hadn’t looked into some of the frankly ridiculous things they were trying to do.

Plowshare kicked off with the relatively small “Gnome” test near Carlsbad, New Mexico, on December 10, 1961. It was aimed, among other things, at investigating whether a nuclear explosion could be harnessed to produce energy. But the detonation destroyed the machinery that was supposed to convert the blast into power.

Hold up. They were trying to use a nuclear bomb as a generator? Had… had nobody told them about nuclear reactors? We already had those, folks.
But no, it’s more ridiculous than that, because if you dig into the full reports from the Gnome and Sedan tests, you find this:

GNOME was developed with the idea that a nuclear detonation in a salt deposit would create a large volume of hot melted salt from which heat might be extracted. The possibilities to be investigated for the production of power were the tapping of the steam created by the detonation itself and the generation of high-density, high-pressure steam by the circulation of some heat-absorbing fluid, like water, over the heated salt.
Defense Nuclear Agency, Projects Gnome and Sedan: The Plowshare Program, (Washington D.C.: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1983): 38.

tl;dr: they were going to build a geothermal power plant somewhere with no geothermal activity, and then set off a nuke to create the underground heat.
Gotta love the cold war. Other idiotic things that Plowshare wanted to try, but fortunately, was stopped from doing:

using nuclear bombs to melt the ice from polar ports, to re-channel rivers or to desalinate salt water from the ocean.

That said, the Soviets did even dumber stuff, including my single favorite sentence from the whole book:

Between 1965 and 1989, [the Soviets] carried out 116 civilian explosions . . . five were used to combat fires at oil fields.

“Hey boss, we’ve got a bit of a fire going over here.”
“Alright, we’re just gonna nuke it.”
“Seems reasonable.”

I’m going to stop here, because I can’t give away all of the fun parts of the book.2 I quite enjoyed it, so I’m quite happy to recommend it. Have a read.

  1. Fun story: Chase is trying to convince me to write a book about this stuff, because he’s a history nerd and thinks other people should be too. 
  2. And the long-winded blog post on the subject that I might wind up writing in the future, if Chase gets his way. 

“Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”

“When veterans get together, it doesn’t matter who won or lost,” [Makarov] said through his translator. “It’s enough that both survived.”

Oh boy, do I love me some Cold War history. It’s easily my favorite time period to read about, and the one that I keep coming back to whenever my education requires I learn something about the past, lest I repeat it.1 The craziness of the whole period fascinates me – the Space Race happened in such a short time, people were cramming nuclear reactors into anything they could think of, Freeman Dyson was wandering around spitting out ideas that will probably remain the basis of science fiction giga-structures for the rest of human history, and the military was determinedly ensuring that they could wipe out the entire human race before the Commies could, dammit! It was insane! And a bit of a miracle that we all survived, really.
This book dove2 into an aspect of the Cold War that I hadn’t actually thought about very much. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about submarines, but never really as elements for espionage, always in either their key role as an element of the US nuclear triad3 or in the sort of crazy things I’d do with them if I had the sort of ridiculous budget that both Navies had during the War.
But they actually make a lot of sense in that context – nearly impossible to spot from orbit, invisible from the surface; their only real weakness to detection is sonar, and from the standpoint of a submarine or other stealth craft, active sonar is a big no-no when you’re trying to stay hidden. They’re basically the perfect stealth vehicle. So why not use them to do a bit of listening in?
And boy oh boy did they do some cool stuff with that. The one that takes the cake is actually how I found this book: Operation Ivy Bells. A specially-modified nuclear submarine wandered in past Soviet naval defenses and settled down on top of a key underwater communications line. Divers went out, divers affixed a wiretap, divers went back in. Wait a day or two, pick the wiretap back up, and then sneak back home to deliver the tapes to the spooks at the NSA.4 Between them and the people listening in on the sub itself, they found that the line was a treasure trove: the Soviets assumed it was safe, as it ran entirely within Soviet territorial waters, and part of the time they didn’t even bother to encrypt their communications. It was an intelligence coup, one that would be repeated on multiple other undersea cables, bringing in massive amounts of information. (At first, the wiretap could only run for a week at most before being replaced; the NSA and the Navy called in engineers from telecoms companies, and wound up building one with some rudimentary computational capabilities and an onboard nuclear power plant;56 the new device could be left in place for a year or more, require far less frequent invasions-of-territory by US subs.)
I’m going to stop there, having given away one of the biggest success stories told in the book, but that’s hardly all of it – the book, a beautiful work of non-fiction, weaves several interesting tales, ranging from political intrigue to scientific success stories to on-the-edge-of-your-seat adventure novel in places. I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who’s at all interested in Cold War history.7

  1. What, exactly, I’m personally in danger of repeating from the Cold War, I don’t really know. 
  2. Pun absolutely intended. 
  3. Land-based missiles, SAC bombers constantly in the air, and submarines packed to the rafters with SLBMs. 
  4. This was back in the good old days, when our nation’s spies were looking outside the country. Mostly. Unless you were a Communist. Or Communist-adjacent. Or, y’know, vaguely suspicious.
    That said, the NSA didn’t do the “watching our own,” that was mostly handled (very illegally) by the CIA. 
  5. It wasn’t stated in the book, but I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that it was a radio-thermal generator, better known as an RTG; both sides in the Cold War used them to power space-based devices, and the Soviets also used them to power a grid of remote lighthouses along their long, long coastline. 
  6. The “nuclear-powered lighthouses” thing would turn out to be a horrible idea, though only after the Soviet Union had already collapsed; the lighthouses these days have been stripped for materials, leading, presumably, to a spate of heavily-irradiated thieves around the country. 
  7. Or just people who’re interested in submarines, a stance which I totally respect – submarines are cool!