It's hard to know what to make of Jacobsen's new history of Area 51. I like conspiracy theories. They're fun, interesting and zany (even if unbelievable) and the idea that a reporter was going to attempt an above-board history of America's most secret installation was a thrilling idea. The first few chapters read really well and the book seems for the most part a great history of the Cold War with special emphasis on espionage programs the US and the USSR were running and how those programs fit into the wider events that we know much more about, like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Throughout, Area 51 and the enigmatic and charismatic people who worked there seem to dot the horizon of the story, inserting themselves in logical places in the narrative to fill gaps in our understanding of the history of the Area. There were large sections of the book where the installation is hardly mentioned at all or is mentioned only in connection with a program or event - and I didn't mind. The narrative was compelling and interesting enough to stand on its own without constant reference to conspiracy or secrets. A lot of the information about the day-to-day operation of the facility, especially its involvement in the development of spy aircraft like the U2 or A12 are well-researched and solidly grounded. Excerpts from Area 51 employee memoirs or recently declassified information makes the first historical parts of this book a worthy addition to the history of the Cold War.
As other reviewers have mentioned, Jacobsen tends to make some rather routine and simple errors in her science that should have been caught by a dutiful editor. And while the historical and biographical aspects of the work tend to be top-notch, the science languishes. In and of itself, this is probably not a problem for the lay reader. I seriously doubt anybody will be using Jacobsen's work as a bibliographic reference for information on aerospace engineering or rocket science, and again, that information is besides the true purpose of the book, which is a revealing look at the role 'The Ranch' played in the Cold War, so I'm willing to overlook this as well.
The problem arises in the latter chapter of the book. Jacobsen's 'new' account of what really happened at Roswell is an interesting idea and a fantastic story, but quite frankly fails several journalistic tests for credibility. After such thorough research for the first part of her book, Jacobsen then relies on the testimony of a single, unnamed and unidentifiable individual as the source for the 'truth' of the Roswell crash; specifically, that the UFO recovered at Roswell was of Soviet design and filled with genetically altered people (by a resurgent Josef Mengele, now in the employ of Stalin) to look like aliens and designed to cause a panic in the US akin to the nationwide panic that followed the War of the Worlds broadcast. -___- Ok. Granted. Stalin was impressed by how ludicrous people behaved and the US government expressed concerns about the susceptibility and gullibility of the American populace when presented with misinformation. The core of the idea does have a ring of truth to it. But the lack of source substantiation for such a wild claim makes it just as far out there and cooky as any of the other explanations for what really happened at Roswell and was extremely disappointing after such a strong start - so disappointing that the rather good experience I had in the first half of the book all but evaporated.
I'd still recommend the work for people with an interest in either conspiracy theories or the Cold War, just remember to take the unattributed statements with a grain of salt and remember that conspiracy theories are meant to be fun.