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Review: Dreamland

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Dreamland: The Secret History of Area 51
by Peter W. Merlin
Schiffer Military History, 2023
hardcover, 560 pages, illus.
ISBN 978-0-7643-6709-0

Area 51 has been a mythological place for decades now. It is a remote, secure, government-owned area in the Nevada desert that includes Groom Lake, a dry lakebed that has since the 1950s been the site of classified aircraft research. But during the 1970s a myth developed that Area 51 was where the US government examined extraterrestrial spacecraft, and maybe even kept deceased aliens. Various other myths soon accrued to the place—weather control, high-energy weapons, and even time travel research were all alleged to take place there. None of this, of course, was substantiated in any way. Now, with UFOs, rebranded as UAPs, back in the zeitgeist, Area 51 is getting more attention.

The primary space connection for Groom has been that for many years, low resolution satellite photos were the only clues to the substantial facilities there.

Aviation researcher and historian Peter Merlin has just published Dreamland, the definitive book on Area 51, more specifically, the Groom Lake complex. The book gets its title from the radio call sign for that segment of airspace. Merlin’s book is not about aliens or exotic conspiracy theories. It’s about the facility and its long association with classified aircraft research, the well-known subjects like the U-2 Dragon Lady and A-12 OXCART (and later SR-71 Blackbird) reconnaissance aircraft, the F-117 stealth fighter, and many lesser-known test projects such as reconnaissance drones. It is a serious, grounded history of the place and the activities that have occurred there, based upon the best available evidence. Groom is so remote that many of its workers are flown in daily from Las Vegas on passenger planes using the callsign “Janet” that can be seen taking off and returning from Vegas’s airport; they even have their own terminal. Most of the people who worked at Groom have simply called it “the Ranch.” Originally primarily a CIA-led facility, by the 1970s it was turned over to the Air Force.

The book is organized into ten chapters. They cover the establishment of the Groom Lake facility, early U-2 testing in the mid-1950s, the A-12 OXCART and SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 aircraft testing, the predecessor to the F-117 and follow-on stealth programs, the expansion of the restricted area around the base and controversies during the 1990s over the burial of toxic materials at the site, and some of the recent rumored research there. A lot of things have occurred at Groom Lake over seven decades, and Merlin covers all the ones we know about. What is clear is that a major facility exists far from prying eyes with numerous buildings and several large hangars, and we only know a limited amount of information about what has happened there. But given the size—and weight—of this book, readers will be surprised that a lot more is known about Groom Lake than they think.

I have been told that, when the last HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite was destroyed during a launch accident at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in April 1986, the wreckage was collected and transported to Groom Lake, where it was buried. But I have no confirmation of that information. Although there were aerial tests of satellite reconnaissance equipment in the 1960s, these appear to have taken place at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and I have not found any information pointing to spacecraft hardware testing at Groom. The primary space connection for Groom has been that for many years, low resolution satellite photos were the only clues to the substantial facilities there. (See “Not-so ancient astronauts and Area 51: the Skylab Incident,” The Space Review, January 23, 2023.) Dreamland is heavily illustrated, including many photos that have not been published before. It used to be that publicly available satellite photos of the facility were few and far between, but now that so many commercial satellites are in operation, that is not the case. Most flight operations occur at night or on the increasingly rare occasions when no satellites are overhead.

Peter Merlin is a meticulous researcher with prior history working in flight testing, giving him a good understanding of the subject. Well over a decade ago he compiled a list of all the times that the United States government had acknowledged having a facility at Groom Lake. Despite numerous media articles about the government “finally confirming” that the Groom Lake facility existed, Merlin demonstrated that for decades the government had released statements concerning Groom. They were simply overlooked by journalists who either hadn’t done detailed research or hadn’t contacted somebody—like Merlin—who had.

The other Area 51 book

Many years ago, a colleague taught me about the difference between history books written by journalists and those written by specialists such as academics and historians. The journalists tended to get better book contracts, with bigger publishers and more promotion. They were often better writers. But they also usually parachuted into a new topic for a year or two, wrote a book, and then moved on to other topics. Without the long baseline of knowledge of a specialist, their biggest weakness was that they did not know what they did not know—unaware of how knowledge of a subject had improved over time, unable to differentiate between information that was genuinely new versus new to them, and ignorant of the remaining gaps of information that deserved further research. Even if they were great researchers, they might have no knowledge that some important subjects had been previously unexplored, and they might be unaware of key sources.

As Merlin demonstrates by including several unclassified documents dating back to 1955, the biggest secret about Groom was that it was never secret.

In 2011, to great publicity, journalist Annie Jacobsen published Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, claiming that it was the first comprehensive look at the subject. Jacobsen’s book quickly made the New York Times bestseller list and was reviewed in that publication and other prominent media. Many of the reviews noted her extensive research. Jacobsen devoted a lot of attention to nuclear history, given that atomic testing also took place in the Nevada desert, and paid less attention to classified aircraft research, mostly ignoring anything beyond the U-2 and OXCART programs. However, she received criticism, and even ridicule, for a bizarre story about a Soviet aircraft piloted by genetically modified children that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947—the so-called “Roswell Incident.” (See “Roswell that ends well,” The Space Review, May 31, 2011.) Jacobsen’s defense of the wacky account in her book was not very solid or convincing. In retrospect, the whole story seemed like something she added as a hook to sell books, but one that discredited her other work.

Robert S. Norris and Jeffrey T. Richelson also wrote a critique of Jacobsen’s research, pointing out that she had completely overlooked many major sources on nuclear weapons history and classified aircraft research, including a massive two-volume Air Force report on the Roswell event. They also recounted numerous errors throughout the book, many of which were reported accurately in the sources that she did cite. Jacobsen demonstrated the classic problem of not knowing what she didn’t know—in citing some sources, like one of Chris Pocock’s early books on the U-2, she didn’t cite his later and more comprehensive books. She also wrote that the U-2 was declassified in 1998 and the OXCART in 2007, apparently unaware that the U-2 had been declassified by President Eisenhower in 1960 when he acknowledged that it flew reconnaissance missions and one had been hanging in the Smithsonian since 1982, or that an official history on the OXCART had been released in the early 2000s. A researcher who had spent more than a year or two addressing the subject would have known these things.

Merlin’s book is much more solidly sourced, and his interest is focused more on the development of aircraft than nuclear weapons testing. He has even unearthed information on aircraft projects unknown to people who have written dedicated books on those topics. The book includes appendices with government documents on the establishment of Groom Lake, aircraft accidents that have occurred there, and other information. As Merlin demonstrates by including several unclassified documents dating back to 1955, the biggest secret about Groom was that it was never secret. But until the government declassifies more information on what has been happening way out there in the desert, Merlin’s book will stand as the definitive source on this subject for many years.

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