Initial Thoughts: Connie Willis’ Blackout

Connie Willis' BlackoutI just finished the first half of Connie Willis’ Nebula-award winning duology, Blackout – the second title being All Clear. To write a review of it I suppose I should wait until I finish the second book and review them as a whole, but here are some initial thoughts. Don’t worry, beyond general, initial plot points, there are no spoilers ahead – nothing that you wouldn’t find out in reading the publisher’s synopsis.

The Problem With Time Travel (Plots)

Really it’s the problem with science fiction in general, as Theodore Sturgeon so aptly pointed out: it’s tough to be original. So far as the first book is concerned, there is nothing new or original here in terms of time travel as plot device; it’s kind of ho-hum, in that regard. To be honest, if it hadn’t been a Nebula award winner, I would have passed on these books altogether, just based on the publisher’s blurb.

It also doesn’t help that we never really get to know our three main characters (there is a fourth one, but she disappears completely from the narrative halfway through Blackout; presumably Willis picks up this character’s thread in All Clear). The pacing of the book is quite fast, and Willis employs a limited third person narration for each protagonist. As a result we only get cursory insights into what makes our protagonists tick.

While they do get into some scary situations once all are back in England in 1940 at the beginning of The Blitz and the Battle of Britain – Nazi Germany’s bombing campaign over British cities and its concurrent battle for air superiority, respectively – the fact that we know so little of these people as characters made it difficult to maintain interest in the book. They are not unsympathetic; we just don’t know much about them. It isn’t until the latter third of the book that we get a chance to see the character of three characters, if you will.

Painting Life in Wartime

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutIn fact if it weren’t for Willis’ vivid depictions of wartime London, and the characters our protagonists meet there, I probably would have surrendered altogether and put Blackout down. Life is too short to read books you don’t like (unless you are getting paid to review them, which I am not). However, as one interested in history, this is Blackout’s saving grace, as far as I’m concerned. In fact Willis early on draws some contrast between the specter of terrorism and suicide bombing that we face today (and apparently still do in 2060) with the fears the British – and all of the Allied powers in Europe – had to face in Hitler’s march across the continent.

One might argue that we learn so little of our protagonists because the real heroes of the story are indeed the Londoners of 1940 who maintain that traditional stiff upper lip and carry on in the face of the Nazi’s aerial terror, and that this was be design. If that were the case, however, then why the limited third person narration? We only get glimpses of these other characters through our narrator’s eyes, after all. For that matter, why even place our protagonists bodily back in 1940 at all, if this were the case?

No, I don’t think this was Willis’ intent, just a byproduct, and a fortunate one at that. But before I make any further pronouncements, I’ll wait for the All Clear to sound – i.e., I’ll finish it.

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

A U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany Provide’s a Unique Perspective on Hitler’s Rise to Power In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a look at the rise of Nazi German through the eyes of U.S. diplomat William Dodd.Perhaps for many who look back at World War II, the one that happened after the War to End All Wars, the most obvious lingering question is how Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and how the regime was able to do the terrible things it did, namely the holocaust.

The rise of imperial Japan may seem relatively straightforward, but when we look back on the atrocities of the Third Reich, it begs the question, how? How did we let that happen? Particularly when we consider than only two decades before most of the Western world was swept up in a war dominated by German empire and militarism?

How did we, we being the Allied powers, let that happen?

Erik Larson attempts to answer this question, at least in part, with his book In the Garden of Beasts. Some might find that the book isn’t satisfying, or at least not satisfying enough, as it is limited in its scope. It inevitably touches on these large questions, but Larson doesn’t set out to rewrite William L. Shirer’s seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

So this isn’t necessarily a flaw or a problem with the book per se, but it does leave one hungry to learn more, to delve into the answer to this question more deeply. This is to the book’s credit, however.

As Larson himself says at the beginning of the book:

There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List variety, but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behave with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That’s the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know — now — to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it. These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.

Even those with a casual interest in history will find In the Garden of Beasts a worthy and interesting read. Students of World War II history will no doubt find it compelling reading.

U.S. diplomat William Dodd's family upon their arrival in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. Daughter Martha is on the left.A journalist by trade before he began authoring nonfiction books, In the Garden of Beasts looks at the early years of Nazi Germany, specifically 1933 and 1934, through the eyes of American diplomat William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha – Larson’s two innocents abroad. True to his roots as a journalist, Larson sticks largely to first person accounts – journals and diaries, personal letters, diplomatic communiques and the like – as his source material; anyone quoted in the book is quoted from material that they actually wrote at the time.

So what Larson elaborates is a view of the Third Reich just having come to power with Adolf Hitler as chancellor; at the time Dodd arrives in Berlin Hitler and his allies are moving to consolidate his power and authority over the country. This culminates in the infamous Night of the Long Knives – the bloody purge of the paramilitary Stormtroopers – followed shortly by the death of the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, who represented the last obstacle between Hitler and absolute control over Germany.

We see these events from the two disparate perspectives – disparate initially, although converging in the end – of Dodd, who was 63 at the time of his appointment in June of 1933, and Martha, who was 25 at the time she first arrived in Berlin.

Dodd perhaps has a unique perspective on events; he certainly was an unusual choice on the part of President Roosevelt as U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd was a well-respected professor of history by trade, who happened to have earned a PhD at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1900 – he spoke German and professed a fondness for the Germany of his youth. Although he was active politically – he was good friend of President Woodrow Wilson and described himself as a Jeffersonian democrat – he had never been involved with the U.S. foreign service or its diplomatic corps.

While Dodd was well-to-do by the standards of much of America in the early 1930s – the early years of the Great Depression – having a small farm in Virginia and a residence in Chicago, as well as his own automobile, he was a man of modest means compared to the good-old-boys club of the U.S. diplomatic corps. The fact that he wasn’t part of this so called “Pretty Good Club,” and approached his diplomatic post as an historian with a sober and no-nonsense attitude caused almost immediate conflict with those in the otherwise rarefied world of international diplomacy, including his colleagues in the U.S. State Department.

As Larson notes, Dodd himself suggests before he leaves for his post in Berlin “that his temperament was ill suited to ‘high diplomacy’ and playing the liar on bended knee.” But then this is what makes Dodd’s story compelling; he was much closer to Middle America than what we would perhaps describe now as a beltway insider.

And it is this that brings us to what is so tragic about Hitler’s rise to power: there were people in Germany in the early 1930s that saw what was happening – the consolidation of power, the brutal repression of dissent and civil rights, the subjugation of Jews, the military buildup – and tried to warn the outside world. Dodd was among them.

But as it happened, Dodd’s major task as determined by Roosevelt and his advisers wasn’t necessarily to try and provide a moderating influence on the fascist regime. No, his job was to convince Germany to repay its debts to American business interests. The president did instruct Dodd to provide an example of American ideals while in Berlin in hopes that this might provide some positive influence, but the primary goal was to convince German business to repay that considerable sum.

But it is through Dodd – and Larson – that we begin to see how the world let Hitler happen, so to speak. In a civilized world still weary from the previous World War and in the depths of the Great Depression, it was hard for many to conceive of what was happening in Germany and where it could lead. Dodd was no different. As Larson tells us, “ever a student of history, Dodd had come to believe in the inherent rationality of men and that reason and persuasion would prevail, particularly with regard to halting Nazi persecution of Jews.”

Even when confronted with damning first-hand reports, Dodd doesn’t truly grasp the German situation at first. George Messersmith, the head of the American Consulate in Germany at the time of Dodd’s appointment as ambassador, had already been sending numerous warnings back home to Washington. These communiqués were Dodd’s first real clue about what was happening to Germany under the Third Reich.

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship.

William Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany, at his desk in the U.S. embassy in Berlin, 1933.I would describe myself as probably having a somewhat more avid interest in history than the average person – call me a casual history buff and would-be scholar. But I must admit that I wasn’t aware that by 1933 there were already concentration camps, and the repression of Jews and other groups was commonplace and out in the open, as Larson establishes In the Garden of Beasts. In fact no less than Hitler himself suggests to Dodd that Jews have to be removed from Germany by one means or another.

So it is all the more astonishing in retrospect that nothing was done until it was too late and German troops were sweeping across Europe.

But even after Dodd has been in Germany for some months and saw for himself the brutal repression taking place in the streets – American travelers in Germany were no safer than anyone else, and attacks on foreign travelers by brown-shirted Stormtroopers was not uncommon – his belief in a rational world won’t let him fathom that this sort of behavior could persist for very long. He felt that the Hitler regime would surely either have to moderate its stance or be removed from power; it was apparently a common belief throughout Europe and the Americas.

As Larson elaborates:

Messersmith met with Dodd and asked whether the time had come for the State Department to issue a definitive warning against travel in Germany. Such a warning, both men knew, would have a devastating effect on Nazi prestige. Dodd favored restraint. From the perspective of his role as ambassador, he found these attacks more nuisance than dire emergency and in fact tried whenever possible to limit press attention. He claimed in his diary that he had managed to keep several attacks against Americans out of the newspapers altogether and had “otherwise tried to prevent unfriendly demonstrations.”

Dodd meets with Hitler himself and sees his manic personality first hand – but even Hitler’s evident hysteria isn’t quite enough, unbelievable as it is.

It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe’s great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience.

But as Larson documents, within a year Dodd realizes that Messersmith and others, namely Jews that had already escaped Germany and the foreign press corps stationed there, are right: Hitler and his ilk are madmen, madmen with a firm grip on the German nation. And that they are madmen preparing for war; any declarations of peaceful intent were simply diplomatic smoke and mirrors.

Later, Dodd wrote a description of Hitler in his diary. “He is romantic-minded and half-informed about great historical events and men in Germany.” He had a “semi-criminal” record. “He has definitely said on a number of occasions that a people survives by fighting and dies as a consequence of peaceful policies. His influence is and has been wholly belligerent.”

How, then, could one reconcile this with Hitler’s many declarations of peaceful intent? As before, Dodd believed Hitler was “perfectly sincere” about wanting peace. Now, however, the ambassador had realized, as had Messersmith before him, that Hitler’s real purpose was to buy time to allow Germany to rearm. Hitler wanted peace only to prepare for war. “In the back of his mind,” Dodd wrote, “is the old German idea of dominating Europe through warfare.”

Casual Racism and Perception of the Jewish Problem

In contrast to Dodd we have his daugher, Martha. A Jazz-Age child, Martha is perhaps more representative of the outside world’s attitude toward the warnings coming out of Germany. As Larson shows us early in the book, Hitler is viewed by many as a joke, this silly little man with a goofy mustache – how can he be a threat?

For her, however, the prospect of the adventure ahead soon pushed aside her anxiety. She knew little of international politics and by her own admission did not appreciate the gravity of what was occurring in Germany. She saw Hitler as “a clown who looked like Charlie Chaplin.” Like many others in America at this time and elsewhere in the world, she could not imagine him lasting very long or being taken seriously. She was ambivalent about the Jewish situation.

She clarifies that ambivalence herself:

“I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as Gentiles and were less socially desirable.” She also found herself absorbing a view that Jews, while generally brilliant, were rich and pushy.

In this she reflected the attitude of a surprising proportion of other Americans, as captured in the 1930s by practitioners of the then-emerging art of public-opinion polling. One poll found that 41 percent of those contacted believed Jews had “too much power in the United States;” another found that one-fifth wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States.” (A poll taken decades in the future, in 2009, would find that the total of Americans who believed Jews had too much power had shrunk to 13 percent.)

Indeed, that’s another astonishing thing for us to discover here in 2011 – the casual racism toward the Jews. Not that it existed – that’s hardly surprising; racism must surely rank with prostitution in terms of age and human history. Rather, it’s just astonishing how open and accepting people were about it, including politicians, career politicians that would document their racist views, surely knowing that they would be published. Here in the information age when considerably smaller faux pas can ruin a political career nearly instantly, it is almost unbelievable.

For example, William Phillips was U.S. under secretary of state under Roosevelt at the time of Dodd’s appointment. As Larson notes, Phillips made no effort to hide his racist beliefs:

Phillips loved visiting Atlantic City, but in another diary entry he wrote, “The place is infested with Jews. In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sight – very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered by slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.”

Apparently Jews on the beach in Atlantic City was a big issue for prejudicial folks back then. As Larson notes, Wilbur J. Carr, assistant secretary of state at the time, declared in a memo (!) about his issue with Jews on the boardwalk, among other places:

In a memorandum on Russian and Polish immigrants he wrote, “They are filthy, Un-American and often dangerous in their habits.” After a trip to Detroit, he described the city as being full of “dust, smoke, dirt, Jews.” He too complained of the Jewish presence in Atlantic City. He and his wife spent three days there one February, and for each of the days he made an entry in his diary that disparaged Jews. “In all our day’s journey along the Boardwalk we saw but few Gentiles,” he wrote on the first day. “Jews everywhere, and of the commonest kind.”

OMG! No way! as the kids say today. Again, in this day in age, it’s unbelievable that a politician would write this in a memo – a public document. The overt racism is difficult enough to comprehend, even if we admit that racism is more common today than we might like to admit (easy to say when you’re a white guy, of course). But can you imagine what would happen if someone working for Hilary Clinton, in the Obama administration, were to put such sentiments in a state department memorandum? The public outcry would be immediate and that person would be forced to resign just as quickly.

But as Larson illustrates In the Garden of Beasts as well as in interviews, such as the one with NPR’s Fresh Air, overt racism was much more commonplace in Dodd’s time. Even Dodd himself, while not exhibiting the venomous attitude of Carr and Phillips, had his own prejudices when it came to Jews.

While he is clearly mortified by the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, as a diplomat he does his best to try and sympathize in hopes of providing a moderating influence. In a discussion with Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, the German foreign minister at the time Dodd was ambassador to Germany, Dodd discusses the Jewish “problem:”

Dodd pressed on, now venturing into even more charged territory: the Jewish “problem,” as Dodd and Neurath both termed it. Neurath asked Dodd whether the United States “did not have a Jewish problem” of its own. “You know, of course,” Dodd said, “that we have had difficulty now and then in the United States with Jews who had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life.” He added that some of his peers in Washington had told him confidentially that “they appreciated the difficulties of the Germans in this respect but that they did not for a moment agree with the method of solving the problem which so often ran into utter ruthlessness.”

But for daughter Martha, sympathy for the Nazi’s became more about rebellion than a matter of racism or support for German fascism.

On a personal level, however, Dodd found such [attacks on Jews] repugnant, utterly alien to what his experience as a student in Leipzig had led him to expect [of Germany]. During family meals he condemned the attacks, but if he hoped for a sympathetic expression of outrage from his daughter, he failed to get it.

Martha remained inclined to think the best of the new Germany, partly, as she conceded later, out of the simple perverseness of a daughter trying to define herself. “I was trying to find excuses for their excesses, and my father would look at me a bit stonily if tolerantly, and both in private and in public gently label me a young Nazi,” she wrote. “That put me on the defensive for some time and I became temporarily an ardent defender of everything going on.”

After a year in Germany, however, even Martha comes to realize what is happening in. This is in spite of, or perhaps in some respects, because of, the fact that Martha socializes with high-ranking members of the Nazi regime and the Gestapo. At one point Ernst Hanfstaengl, head of the Nazi’s foreign press bureau in Berlin and a personal associate of Hitlers, even tries to fix up Martha with no less than the Führer himself.

In person, the cult of personality that surrounds Hitler becomes more understandable; he comes across as anything but a clown to Martha.

She walked to Hitler’s table and stood there a moment as Hitler rose to greet her. He took her hand and kissed it and spoke a few quiet words in German. She got a close look at him now: “a weak, soft face, with pouches under the eyes, full lips and very little bony facial structure.” At this vantage, she wrote, the mustache “didn’t seem as ridiculous as it appeared in pictures – in fact, I scarcely noticed it.”

What she did notice were his eyes. She had heard elsewhere that there was something piercing and intense about his gaze, and now, immediately, she understood. “Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable – they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”

While Dodd’s book doesn’t directly address the larger questions that may plague us about World War II, the insights offered by the first-hand experiences of Dodd and his daughter are undoubtedly invaluable, not to mention fascinating.

But What Happens in the End?

If there is anything that In the Garden of Beasts might be criticized for, it might be that Larson seemingly spends an inordinate amount of time on the first year of Dodd’s tenure in Berlin, and little on the three that come after. Indeed, for the casual reader the details of Dodd and Martha’s lives at times might become a bit much. But then, after the Night of the Long Knives, there really isn’t much left to tell.

By the summer of 1934, with the bloody purge and the death of Hindenburg, what comes next is the inevitable stuff of history. The only things that might stand in the way of Hitler and the Nazis are powers outside of Germany’s borders, and we already know at this point that the warnings emanating from Berlin have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Indeed, after Hitler’s purge swept across Germany in June of that year, Dodd considered stepping down.

For Dodd, diplomat by accident, not demeanor, the whole thing was utterly appalling. He was a scholar and Jeffersonian democrat, a farmer who loved history and the old Germany in which he had studied as a young man. Now there was official murder on a terrifying scale. Dodd’s friends and acquaintances, people who had been to his house for dinner and tea, had been shot dead.

Nothing in Dodd’s past had prepared him for this. It brought to the fore with more acuity than ever his doubts about whether he could achieve anything as ambassador. If he could not, what then was the point of remaining in Berlin, when his great love, his Old South, languished on his desk?

Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in the Germany city of Nürnberg, 1935.His Old South was a definitive written history of the southern United States; prior to becoming ambassador, that was Dodd’s primary goal for the remaining years of his life, to complete this grand, scholarly historical work. Ultimately he remained in Germany at his diplomatic post until the end of 1937, having been forced to resign – his enemies, the good old boys of the State Department, finally got their way in the end, as did Hitler and the Nazis, in the short term.

So were Dodd’s efforts in vain? This effort took a huge toll on both him and his wife’s health; she died in May of 1938; he died less than two years later. He never finished his beloved Old South.

I suppose I should leave the answer to that to the reader to discover. While there are perhaps no spoilers in terms of the larger story that serves as a backdrop to In the Garden of Beasts – we know who won World War II, after all, and what happened to Hitler (more or less). But there is still much to learn and much that history can tell us, as Larson’s book illustrates.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s perhaps as important lesson today as it ever was, given not only the geopolitical climate at large today, but the political climate here in the United States. Here in this post 9/11 America, people who tend to get upset about things like the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, torture and the holding of suspects indefinitely without due process of law, are often countered by the argument “it can’t happen here.”

The Germans said the same thing.

Get Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts here. 

Review: Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History

Claims of the Russians Being Behind Roswell Overshadows an Important Work on U.S. Black Ops and Espionage

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseSometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it is not. Of course this hinges upon knowing what the truth is and what the fiction is – where the facts end and the fiction begins. And such is the problem with Area 51.

In one small but significant way, it’s also the problem with Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by journalist Annie Jacobsen. One small foray beyond the realm of established fact threatens to overwhelm potential reader’s perception of an exhaustively researched history of covert U.S. military and other government programs, based on interviews with people directly involved and an apparent trove declassified documents – the stuff of journalism and truth.

This isn’t so much a problem with the book itself – although I question this one small foray’s inclusion at all – as it is with word-of-mouth and the knee-jerk Internet culture in which we live. Perhaps our culture – maybe humans in general – has always been a knee-jerk, reactionary one, but it is seemingly amplified a thousandfold here in the immediate information age.

It’s a shame because Area 51: An Uncensored History is a valuable piece of research and history – military, scientific, cultural, U.S. and human history. After all, one of the things the book illustrates so wonderfully is that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and September 11, 2001 is seemingly a case in point.

The Military and CIA Territorial Hissy Fits: Aren’t You Guys All on The Same Team?

The U.S. Government’s various intelligence agencies and the military all have territorial approaches to spying/espionage and protection of the country; this has lead to lapses in critical intelligence and analysis – sometimes catastrophic. Without those lapses, with an integrated approach to espionage, intelligence and analysis, 9/11 could have been prevented – in hindsight all of the intelligence we needed to do so was there in front of us. It’s particularly sad in a dramatic, Shakespearean-flaw kind of way when one considers that the military and the various spy agencies are all on the same side.

One would hope that these things have been addressed a decade later. But given what Jacobsen shows us in her in-depth history of Area 51 and the corresponding CIA, Department of Energy and military installations deep in the Nevada desert, one wonders if it truly has. This divisiveness and territoriality among U.S. espionage agencies and the military goes back to at least World War II, and time and time again it has caused problems at critical junctures in modern history.

It is fascinating reading, these experiences of the pilots, security guards and government and military leaders directly involved with the creation of Area 51 and its environs, including the Nevada testing range, and the many programs that took place there. Some of these have already been made public in recent years, such as F117 Nighthhawk stealth fighter and some of its forerunners in stealth. One of those of course is Project Oxcart.

Oxcart, incidentally, was the original second-generation stealthy reconnaissance aircraft created at the behest of the CIA; the SR-71 Blackbird variations are follow-on craft based on the Oxcart designs built at the behest of the U.S. Air Force – because the USAF has never been comfortable with the CIA flying manned aircraft, as Jacobsen so deftly documents.

Of course, one could make the case that Oxcart was a third-generation stealth plane, if we include the experimental craft designed and built by Nazi aircraft designers and brothers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers figure in the tale of Area 51; we’ll come back to them later.

Jacobsen details other notable black operations in the Nevada desert in and around Area 51; she also delves into just how U.S. black ops came about – black ops being projects that officially don’t exist and don’t have an official budget (but of course they actually do, and usually big ones), and are managed on a strictly “need-to-know” basis, so much so that the U.S. President and members of Congress frequently don’t know about them. Of course U.S. black ops trace their history – at least in the modern era, at any rate – to the Manhattan Project.

So much so that apparently in the world of black ops, need-to-know is a noun – one that most of us don’t have.

Other not-so well known black ops at the Nevada test site outside of Areas 51 involve various flavors of nuclear testing. In general the knowledge that nuke tests have take place there is well known – it’s kind of hard to hide a nuclear blast when the ground shakes and windows rattle as far away as Las Vegas. But some of the particular programs and specific details have just come to light in recent years, as documents and programs have become declassified years later; Jacobsen does a thorough job of chronicling many of these programs in Area 51: An Uncensored History.

She also explores the lack of oversight that is inherent in the nature of black ops, and how this can sometimes lead to questionable decisions and corresponding actions. Sometimes these might be questionable from a moral or ethical standpoint; other times just from the standpoint of common sense, i.e. they’re just plain stupid.

An excellent example of the latter is Project 57, originally conducted at Area 13, one of the various secret areas adjacent to or nearby Area 51 and Groom Lake. In the late 1950s the Atomic Energy Commission (the forerunner of today’s Department of Energy and the progenitor of many of the covert programs that were and are taking place in the Nevada desert) and its partners decided it needed to study what would happen if an airplane laden with nuclear bombs crashed and nuclear material were released – similar to what would happen if someone detonated a dirty bomb.

As Jacobsen notes, by this time there had been so much nuclear research and atmospheric and underground testing that the results were a foregone conclusion. But the test proceeded anyway, and the one true benefit to be gained from such a test, gathering data on how to clean up such an irradiated mess, never took place – the site wasn’t even cleaned up at all until 1998, in fact.

Why simulate an accident with foregone results, and then not clean it up? The answer to that seems lost to history; ostensibly the Atomic Energy Commission and its partners had other things to worry about at the height of the Cold War. Such is the nature of black ops.

Other interesting projects Jacobsen sheds light on are the various programs involving a nuclear-powered rocket – no, I didn’t learn about this one in school, either. Project Orion was originally conceived in 1958 and was in development for several years, basically until the limited test ban treaty of 1963. Then there was NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application); it was in development until it was canceled in 1972; at the time plans were on the table to build an actual NERVA prototype rocket.

You only get one guess as to where the test bed for this nuclear rocket engine was located and frequently tested.

Pilot Kevin Arnold with a drawing of one of the UFO's he reported seeing in 1947.Little Green Russkies: Was Stalin Behind Roswell and the 1947 UFO Flap?

Back to the Horten brothers. But first, let’s talk about that one small foray beyond the realm of established fact that Area 51: An Uncensored History takes. By now if you’re reading this you probably know what I’m talking about. All of the press involved around the book’s release has centered around this one thing, regardless of its merits as a work of nonfiction and investigative journalism.

That thing is Jacobsen’s allegation that a saucer actually did crash outside Roswell in 1947, perhaps more than one. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft and its occupants to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, to be reverse engineered. So far this is the stuff of standard UFO/conspiracy theory folklore. But Jacobsen provides an interesting twist to the standard tale.

The craft wasn’t of alien origin, but built by the Soviet Union, she claims; it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children altered through some medical means to look as if they were aliens. This was allegedly all part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Well’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938.

The idea behind this is that a flurry of reported sightings would overwhelm America’s air defense and military communications infrastructure, even if most of the sightings were bogus. Jacobsen further alleges that Stalin actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalike and that the vehicles involved were based on aircraft designs by the Horten brothers, if not directly designed by them.

This is far fetched, to say the least. Jacobsen bases these assertions on the words of an EG&G engineer, now elderly, who was intimately involved in the project to reverse engineer the craft. But not only the craft – the alien-looking children were “reverse engineered” as well, because the U.S. government wanted to pursue it’s own similar black ops propaganda program. This last allegation is supposedly why the operation has been black and strictly need-to-know, rather than using the revelation of its existence to call out Stalin out and embarrass the Soviet Union at the time.

EG&G traces its roots as a company back to the Manhattan project, and is even today involved with covert programs based in the desert in Nevada. Still, this is all very hard to swallow, and the fact that this source remains anonymous – the only anonymous source Jacobsen relies on in the entire book – doesn’t exactly help it go down.

In fact it would be rather easy to discount it as the efforts of an intelligent but lonely old man to keep the interest of Jacobsen. As a reader and as a journalist I’m tempted to discount the story altogether, despite the fact that Jacobsen states that as far as she is concerned, there is not doubt as to the veracity of this man’s story, as she elaborates in the Area 51 epilogue. Tempted, that is, but for one thing, and a fact, at that.

The Horten brothers were taken into Allied custody in 1945, shortly before the end of the war in the European theater. Many Nazi scientists were given amnesty in exchange for being brought to America to work for us – Jacobsen elaborates much on this aspect of Project Paperclip, as many of these scientists figure prominently in the black ops at Area 51 and elsewhere. The Horten brothers were soon released, however, and were never part of the Paperclip op, even though some of their experimental aircraft were brought back to the United States. Allied intelligence officials apparently didn’t deem the brothers in the same class as Werner Von Braun, et al.

However, in 1947, as Jacobsen documents, there was a sudden interest in the U.S. intelligence and military community in the Horten brothers. So much interest that there was a large U.S. intelligence operation in Europe to find them once again and question them further – just two years after they had been let go. The Horten brothers themselves were living in plain site by this time, one remaining in Germany and the other in Argentina.

Why the sudden interest? Did it have to do with the crash at Roswell? The UFO flap of 1947?

The Horten Ho 229 powered prototype nearing completion in the Gothaer Waggonfabrik aircraft factory, 1944.A look at a drawing of the craft that pilot Kenneth Arnold claims he saw in 1947 – the report that seemingly ushered in the rash of UFO sitings at that time – is striking. Not in and of itself, but because it looks very similar in shape to aircraft that the Horten brothers were actually building in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. In fact the aircraft pictured here in a hangar, the Horton Ho 229, was actually in the air at the end of the war in 1945, but not yet in military service.

Furthermore, this aircraft was an early and arguably the first attempt at incorporating stealth technology and design into an aircraft — to lessen its radar signature. Was this the reason behind the interest in the Hortens in 1947?

Unfortunately there is much still classified about this operation to find and interrogate the Horten brothers in 1947, including the question of why. The Horten brothers themselves never elaborated on it prior to their deaths; they refused to discuss it in interviews, although they acknowledged that they were indeed questioned by U.S. Intelligence operatives in 1947. This, of course, makes it all the more interesting.

In any event, the timing of the intelligence operation to find the Hortens certainly had some interesting timing, to say the least. With regard to the claim that the Soviet Union was behind the Roswell incident, this interest in the Horten brothers gives one pause for thought. Jacobsen further documents that in the 1950s, U.S. Intelligence officials including CIA director General Walter Bedell Smith, were genuinely concerned that a War of the Worlds broadcast scenario could in fact be used as a cover for a Soviet attack on the Continental U.S. Hmmm …

But Does Area 51 Shoot Itself in the Proverbial Foot?

As for Jacobsen and her EG&G engineer’s allegations about what really happened outside Roswell in 1947, she herself acknowledges in the book and interviews that she’s putting her own credibility on the line by using this anonymous source. This is in spite of the fact that the rest of the book relies on solid information — interviews with dozens of people and reams of government documents, for example. She felt this was important though, that the truth this black ops program involving children and medical experiments for propaganda and espionage purposes needs to be known.

As she herself documents, while it’s a matter of record that what is now the Department of Energy has conducted tests on humans in the past – sometimes unknown to the participants themselves – much of the information about these programs is still classified, still black. In fact there are some six hundred million pages of documents related to the postwar use of Nazi scientists expertise alone that remains classified.

Do we know what we don’t know?

Of course if it is true that the U.S. Government has conducted secret medical tests or something similarly horrific, then it’s almost impossible from a moral standpoint to disagree with her goal of shedding light on something so reprehensible. On the other hand, I think as a journalist I would have been tempted to keep this information to myself and attempt to research if further, not publishing it until I had some sort of corroboration on the record.

Area 51: An Uncensored History easily stands on its own merits without this anonymous assertion. In some ways I’m sure it’s served to drum up interest in the book that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But so many people have keyed in on this one aspect of the book and summarily judged it without actually having read it, I can’t help but think that, true or not, it ultimately does a disservice to what is otherwise a fascinating, important  and exhaustively researched work.

Postscript: I should further note that conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs who aren’t in the skeptics camp will likely be disappointed by Area 51. Aside from the aforementioned explanation for the Roswell incident, Jacobsen doesn’t uncover any little green men or other UFO-related phenomena. As for the claims that the government and NASA faked the moon landing at Area 51, believers in this conspiracy theory will also be disappointed and perhaps even insulted; it’s clear that Jacobsen didn’t find anything in her research to lend this idea any credence.

Get Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History here. 

Area 51: A Preview on the Review

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseI literally just finished Area 51: An Uncensored History about an hour ago, and plan on having a review up tomorrow – well, later today, as it is the wee hours as I write this – Friday at the latest.

But I felt compelled to put down some initial thoughts, as there is a lot of buzz about this book, buzz driven by a relatively small part: the claim that the Roswell UFO crash of 1947 was actually part of a Soviet Russian “black operation.” This claim is actually only one small part of Area 51: An Uncensored History, discussed at the very beginning and very end of the book. But since the Fresh Air interview with author Annie Jacobsen last week, I’ve seen posts on Boing Boing and Io9, among many other sites, about the book and the one thing everybody focuses on is the book’s claims about Roswell and its ties to black ops.

Jacobsen, a journalist, says that the craft recovered at Roswell was actually a craft of Russian build based on designs by Nazi aircraft designers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers – this part is a matter of historical record, by the way – were experimenting with stealth technology and unorthodox jet aircraft designs at the end of World War II. She further states that the bodies of aliens that witnesses claimed to have seen at the crash site were actually disfigured human children, the result of medical procedures or research either performed by or at least based on the work of Josef Mengele on behalf of the Russians.

The goal of this Soviet black op was twofold, according to Jacobsen. First off, the whole thing was designed as part of a psychological warfare effort designed to instill panic in an American civilian populace already jittery about UFOs, communism, nukes and the Cold War, Jacobsen’s source tells her. The military benefit of this was that if the United State’s air defenses and early warning systems were overwhelmed with reports of UFOs, real or imagined, it would provide a window – or cover – for an actual Soviet attack.

Why cover this up? Because American military leaders and scientists wanted not only to reverse engineer the advanced technology found in this craft – something more advanced than jet propulsion. They also wanted to pursue human experiments of their own, ostensibly to reproduce people with a similar alien appearance as the unfortunate Russian child pilots, for our own American black ops.

Sounds pretty far fetched, doesn’t it? Almost as much as the idea that a real extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed in Roswell.

The Horten Ho 229 powered prototype nearing completion in the Gothaer Waggonfabrik aircraft factory, 1944.I will say this: Jacobsen offers up a lot of tangential and circumstantial evidence to back up her claim; she actually makes, if not a compelling case, certainly enough of one to give the reader pause for thought. Furthermore, she separates out this dubious claim from the rest of Area 51: An Uncensored History, which is actually exhaustively researched and documented – some 20 percent of the book is taken up by footnoted source citations. Another big chunk, some 10 percent of the total text, is taken up with acknowledgments, most of which are concerned with the people she interviewed for the book, on the record – many of whom were actually directly involved with the programs at Area 51 in the 1950s through the 1970s, and discuss their work publicly for the first time.

There is a lot of information here that has only recently been declassified and Jacobsen connects the dots and fills in the gaps – some of which would yawn quite large, otherwise. Even students of history will find much that is new to them (I certainly did). In cases where information on former need-to-know black ops have been declassified for some years – or even well known historical events, such as the Cuban missile crisis – Jacobsen has still managed to uncover previously unknown facts and bring them to light.

All of this makes me think that perhaps it was a shame to include the claim about Roswell, as interesting as it may be, regardless of its veracity. There are a lot of revelations here about Area 51, the history of U.S. nuclear testing and the development of overhead surveillance for espionage purposes. This book would be of interest to everyone who has an interest in not just military history, but politics and U.S. history in general.

I’ll save the rest for my review. Let it suffice to say that there is lot more worthy information in Area 51: An Uncensored History, than the fantastic Roswell claim; to judge it solely on this doesn’t do it justice.

Terri Gross Interviews Area 51 Author Annie Jacobsen on Fresh Air

Little Green Aliens Russkies?

Is truth stranger than fiction? And is Area 51: An Uncensored History truth?

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseWhen I was a child, I went through a years long phase where I read everything I could on the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and UFOs. This period commenced in second or third grade not long after the school nurse figured out I was blind as a bat and I got my first pair of glasses; I subsequently discovered the world at large – a world only vaguely, blurrily hinted at before.

I was able to see the board in the class room for the first time, as well, and academic things suddenly began falling into mental place. I went from being in the lowest reading level group to the highest in a matter of weeks. The world of books opened up for me as well.

Anyway, this interest in the paranormal, modern myths, mass hysteria, cryptozoology, complete and utter bullshit – please take your pick of your own preferential term, here – lasted well into adolescence. In fact it never really ended, it just became sublimated to a large degree by other things, namely cars, girls and computers. Needless to say that when the X-Files debuted, I was there glued to the television, and was pretty much every week during the season for the next eight years.

I drifted away to some extent once David Duchovny got too big for Mulder’s britches – but was and am still solidly in the Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade. Did you see her in Last King of Scotland? Did you SEE? Oh. My. Various. Gods. Hurt me. So it’s perhaps also needless to say – in my roundabout sort of way – that when I listened to Terri Gross’ Fresh Air interview with journalist Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base – I knew I would have to read this book.

(I’m in Terri Gross’ brigade too, just like Gene Simmons, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Documentation and Research Overshadowed by OMG Little Gray Russians Revelation

In fact I just listened to the podcast in the wee hours this morning while out for a walk before bed – I’m completely nocturnal these days – and promptly downloaded the book from Amazon when I got home. I read the first several chapters before I drifted off to sleep.

If you have any interest in this sort of thing at all – and by “thing” I don’t so much mean UFOs and little green men and conspiracy theories, although that’s all wrapped up in this, but rather U.S. military history – then this book is probably worth a read. I’ll be able to address the “probably” in the days ahead once I finish the book, naturally. Incidentally I find myself for the first time since college reading two non-fiction books concurrently, so it may take a few days.

In any event, you’ll want to check out the Fresh Air interview; you can read excerpts of both it and Jacobsen’s Area 51 at NPR as well.

My first impression of the book, based on the first few chapters, is that it does seem to be deeply researched and documented, although the style in which it is written I’m finding to be mildly problematic (more on this in the full review). Jacobsen is a professional journalist by trade, a contributing writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine covering national security issues, so she has a vested professional interest in publishing an accurate book.

That being said, the use of anonymous sources can be tricky when it comes to credibility; I’ve been in that boat myself, although that only involved the misuse of public funds in the Sedona (Ariz.) Fire District – not alleged early Cold War-era Russian subterfuge and espionage programs and rival U.S. government-sanctioned programs, both of which involved children – allegedly, I stress.

You can read more about this if you follow the link above to the NPR/Fresh Air interview. Much of what Jacobsen and her sources say – many of whom are on the record – seems quite plausible and indeed is documented: that Area 51 and nearby facilities have been used for nuclear bomb and even nuclear rocket tests, as well as overhead surveillance programs and the development of related aircraft. Some of this, of course, is actually already known, such as the U2 spyplane, the stealth fighter, and Project Oxcart.

So it’s unfortunate that the one thing that everyone in the media is going to focus on almost exclusively will be the tidbit in the back of the book, in which Jacobsen alleges that a saucer actually did crash in Roswell in 1947. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, after it was initially taken to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. And that it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children “altered” to look as if they were aliens. That this was part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Welle’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938. That Stalin had actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalikes.

This admittedly seems farfetched, particularly the Mengele aspect. If being a journalist teaches you nothing else, it teaches one to have a healthy bullshit detector and to believe in Occam’s Razor. You don’t last long without the former; real-life experience leads you to follow the latter intuitively, if not scientifically. Either way, I’m sure that most of my fellow people in the Fourth Estate would agree that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation or answer to a question is usually the correct one.

On the other hand, Jacobsen says she has faith in her source, that she worked closely with him for nearly two years. That she is able to verify the veracity of everything else he has told her, that she has checked and verified his medical, personal and military records – so she personally takes him at his word on this admittedly difficult to believe claim.

He allegedly was one of the engineers called in to reverse engineer the Russian craft that crashed at Roswell and also saw the bodies of the child pilots. Of course, it might be different if we knew the identity of this person, and thus is the slippery slope of anonymous sources – we have to trust the journalist on this one. And she’s going out on a pretty big limb – if it were to come out somehow that this source isn’t reliable or deliberately mislead her – or worse, that she herself has made this up – her career as a journalist is over (although there will still be the talk-show circuit).

I want to believe, but I'm skeptical of the final claim in Jacobsen's Area 51.In any case, the whole Mengele aspect of the story is particularly hard to swallow; his movements at the end of and in the years immediately after the War are seemingly well documented. If he was working with the Russians he was apparently doing so clandestinely and remotely. And the idea that the technology existed in the 1947s to surgically or otherwise alter a human’s appearance to the point that they looked truly alien – like a so-called gray – is, well, admittedly ridiculous.

It’s notable that this revelation comes at the end of the book in an epilogue, although Jacobsen refers to it in an early chapter of the book. I’ll reserve any further comment until I finish the book, but again she addresses these issues following questions from Terri Gross in the NPR interview, so you can read/hear for yourself.

As for me, like Mulder, I Want to Believe. But like Scully, I’m pretty skeptical – at least as far as this Roswell revelation that comes at the end of Jacobsen’s Area 51.

In the Garden of Beasts on Fresh Air

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a look at the rise of Nazi German through the eyes of U.S. diplomat William Dodd.National Public Radio’s Fresh Air had an interesting interview this week with journalist turned author Erik Larson; his book In the Garden of Beasts hit bookstores this week as well. In the Garden of Beasts examines early Nazi Germany, years before World War II began in earnest in the European theater. What makes the book interesting – if Teri Gross’ interview with Larson is any indication – is that it examines Nazi Germany through the eyes of American diplomat William Dodd, who was assigned to Berlin in the early 1930s.

Dodd, an historian and professor by trade and friends with both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, eventually resigned his post after several years, having clashed repeatedly with both Nazi officials and the U.S. State Department. During his tenure he not only had a first hand look at how the Nazi Party consolidated its grip on power within Germany, but saw the beginnings of Hitler’s Final Solution – in one interview with Dodd Hitler even angrily suggested that Germany would have to “put an end” to the so-called Jewish problem, according to Larson.

Even beyond the subject manner – evil and the understanding thereof may not be easy, but it’s certainly never boring — this Fresh Air episode is worth a listen; it provides an interesting look into the process of writing history and nonfiction as well. It sounds as if Larson has exhaustively researched Dodd and the period for In the Garden of Beasts.

In addition to excerpts from the interview, NPR’s site also has an excerpt from the book. I think I’m going to have to add this to my ever-growing pile of books to read. Reading nonfiction, particularly history, can be painfully dry, but Larson’s books have many more good reviews than not, so I’ll soon see if I agree.

Besides, I have to help support a fellow ex-journalist who has turned to writing what he wants for a living, don’t I? You can find out more about Erik Larson at his website; and then there is Larson’s Wikipedia page.