Yes, I’m very late on this. I don’t like being beaten by the Oscars for timeliness. That said, here are my two best non-fiction reads of last year:
Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of President Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber. I remember the day when the news came in that President Reagan had been shot. On March 30, 1981, a gunman opened fire on Reagan with explosive bullets, one of which ricocheted off the presidential limousine and entered Reagan’s chest. Fortunately, it didn’t explode.
Reagan survived, but did you know:
-The Secret Service did not have professional training until relatively recently. That’s why during the Kennedy shooting the driver slowed down after the first shot, the way anyone would.
-When Reagan was in the OR, he took the oxygen mask off his face and quipped, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” This assured the nation that he was all right. In reality he was in great pain at that moment, and he had almost died.
-A doctor in the hospital responded to the call, looked the patient over, then was shocked when he saw the face. The patient was President Reagan. Then he realized there were all these men in suits standing around.
-Another doctor was operating on the president. He looked up and asked if anyone else had been shot. What was going on outside? Had World War III started? The men in suits stared back at him, saying nothing.
-Nurses stayed with Reagan around the clock, often after their shifts were done. He passed funny notes to them, endless jokes and quips written in weak handwriting.
This is a fantastic book on a crucial moment in history. Wilber notes how professional the Secret Service was: In all the transcripts of their radio calls that day, they never said that the president was shot, or that Reagan was down. He had to be referred to by his code name of Rawhide.
My other choice is Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen. A number of the men who worked there have retired, and no longer feel bound by their secrecy oaths.
Do you remember those stories of some unknown craft crashing at Roswell, and how the wreckage was whisked away by the Air Force? It really happened. And those sightings of UFOs by credible pilots—objects flying higher and faster than any known jet? Those are pretty much true.
The crash at Roswell was of a circular spy craft, designed by Germans in World War II and used by Soviets during the Cold War. It really was like nothing else flying at the time, and yes, the wreckage was taken away to Area 51 for study.
Concerning the UFOs, a number of experimental jets took off from Area 51. Experienced pilots and even high-ranking generals knew nothing about them. So of course some generals and reputable pilots called on the government to investigate these UFOs. And of course the government kept them secret—even from most of the rest of the government.
Jacobsen’s book focuses too much on the infighting that went on among the different leadership groups—important, but not the most gripping read. She should have focused on the impossibly funny stories she briefly mentions, such as:
Some pilots would violate Area 51 airspace, though it was off limits. So one of the Area 51 pilots put on a gorilla mask, went up in his impossibly fast aircraft, and buzzed a plane that had come too close. The pilot of that plane went to a bar after he landed and claimed he had seen a UFO piloted by an ape. What a great moment in disinformation!
One of the Area 51 test pilots would routinely fly over the area. On a regular basis, he would see a new crater in the ground. He knew that meant another secret underground nuclear test had gone off.
So you can now read in great detail of spy flights over the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba, with ancillary material about nuclear tests in the Pacific thrown in. I suppose one day we’ll have a sleeker volume that hits all the highlights, but for now Jacobsen’s Area 51 is the book that unlocks so many secrets of the twentieth century.