Reading List: Exposing Military Secrets
The Pentagon’s Brain was the first Annie Jacobsen book I have read. It won’t be the last. I’ve seldom encountered a more masterful mix of investigative reporting and writing. She must be a bulldog researcher, because all three of her books have required a great deal of digging to get at long and very well buried secrets.
Her first book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, came out in 2011. If you are a conspiracy theorist or were an X-Files fan (I was), you remember Area 51 as the secret government spot in Nevada where there was a rumored UFO crash in 1947, one covered up by the government, which of course resulted in all kinds of wild and crazy hypothetical explanations.
Jacobsen comes up with the truth about at least some of what has transpired in Area 51. It was a base for the development of secret stealth technology, including the secret U-2 spy planes flown over the Soviet Union during the Cold War – until the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers got shot down, creating an international Cold War incident.
The U-2 plane was one early aspect of the secret stealth technology that has been developed at Area 51. At one point, a captured Soviet a MiG aircraft was hidden inside a cargo plane and flown to Nevada, so scientists and engineers could take it apart.
And what about the supposed UFO crash, where bodies of space aliens may have been discovered? Jacobsen doesn’t get to the bottom of that, but she does have a severely disturbing theory.
Her next book, Operation Paperclip, tells the story of a post-World War II phenomenon that many of our viewers have heard of, either through their reading of history or espionage novels (more fun). The full story is here, in this book.
In the waning days of World War II, America decided to track down and capture some of the brilliant German scientists who had worked for the Nazis. Bear in mind that many of these scientists had worked on the development of biological and chemical weapons, and in designing the V-2 rockets that shattered London. They were complicit in the deaths of countless concentration camp inmates who fell victim to medical experiments performed throughout Germany.
They were indeed tracked down; one was the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who shows up in The Pentagon’s Brain. They worked on all kinds of secret weapons programs, including programs for biological and chemical warfare.
One of the most disturbing passages of Operation Paperclip is about the discovery of a very toxic gas produced by the Germans. It was captured in the closing days of the war, shipped to America and tested on unknowing U.S. soldiers in small amounts. It didn’t kill them, but it made them pretty darn sick. This brings to mind areas of DARPA-connected research chronicled in The Pentagon’s Brain, such as the development of Agent Orange, the herbicide that sickened and killed Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers. There was actually a plan to spray Agent Orange in quantities that would have defoliated half of Vietnam.
Speaking of Vietnam – Much of the shocking material in The Pentagon’s Brain concerns the work of DARPA in the Vietnam War. Some DARPA proposals included the use of disabling technologies on student protestors in America. And DARPA officials refused to accept the evidence of researchers showing that the North Vietnamese were fearlessly dedicated to their cause.
There was also the “fence,” an unsuccessful effort to drop sensors along the Ho Chi Minh trail that could sense troop movements of the North Vietnamese. The “fence” was developed under the direction of Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense during Vietnam.
McNamara is a fascinating figure – an enormously bright man who helped lead America into an unwinnable war.
A few years ago McNamara penned his own account of events, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. It’s McNamara’s take on why he supported and led the war effort and why it went so wrong. McNamara grew to believe that Vietnam was an enormous mistake, and this book reveals his anguish at what the country when through. If you want to get part of the Vietnam story from the horse’s mouth, this is the book for you.
On the other side of the political fence, there is Daniel Ellsberg’s book, 2002’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
Ellsberg was a military analyst. He started out as a war booster but eventually became so enraged at the way the war was proceeding, and the secrets about the war being kept from the American people, that he released a multi-volume Pentagon internal history of the war to the New York Times and other newspapers. His actions turned American public opinion about the war on its head. Today, Ellsberg is still a crusader for government transparency in all things, and Secrets is a revealing look into what makes such a man tick.
Finally, if you want to immerse yourself in Vietnam through fiction, you couldn’t do better than Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. Marlantes, a former Well Read guest, served in Vietnam as the leader of a Marine platoon. He wrote and re-wrote Matterhorn for thirty years before finally getting it published, and it became a classic, staying atop the New York Times best-seller list for many weeks. Many people say it’s the best account of on-the-ground fighting in Vietnam they have ever read. I’ve interviewed Marlantes, and I still get e-mails from veterans seeking to connect with him, because his book spoke to them so strongly