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Secrets from the Black Vault by John Greenewald Jr.
Dwayne A. Day
Quest Volume: 28 #1 (2021)
Every few years or so, some reporter suddenly discovers “the secret plan to nuke the Moon.” You can search through media articles and see how often this story has been reported, with the writer usually acting like they are the first to reveal this information which has been known for decades. Whether they do not realize that the information has been public for a long time, or do not care and are simply going for hype doesn’t really matter—the cycle will repeat itself.
John Greenewald’s concept for Secrets from the Black Vault, now available in paperback, is not a bad one. Greenewald has selected a number of odd and unusual stories mostly about technology programs during the Cold War. These include truth serums, mind control programs, remote viewing efforts (i.e., having a person try to use their mind to “view” some activity in another country), the recruitment of former Nazi scientists and engineers after the end of World War II, “the UFO phenomenon,” and undersea spying. The connections between the topics are at times tenuous—some are technologies, whereas others, like remote viewing and recruiting Nazis, involved no technology at all. But one gets the impression that a lot of the material in this book has been public for a long time and is simply being repackaged here and portrayed as a shocking reveal when it isn’t.
Greenewald started researching these topics in the 1990s as a teenager, submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to various government agencies, and posting the documents he received to his website The Black Vault. Sometimes he obtained new and interesting documents, but other times he appears to have provided wider distribution to material that subject matter researchers had unearthed years earlier. The somewhat unfocused topics can be explained as the pseudo-scientific interests of a teenager, not an academic historian, but at least he did not seek out material on Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.
The book has three chapters on space topics: military Moon colonization, nuclear bombs on the Moon, and satellite reconnaissance. Of these three, the first two were simply paper studies whereas the latter was a major Cold War intelligence program that continues today in the form of dozens of American intelligence satellites orbiting the Earth.
Although the chapters are mildly entertaining, they contain nothing that is truly new or revelatory. The “Moon colonization” chapter focuses on the US.. Army’s late 1950s Project Horizon study, which has appeared in books and articles for decades. Greenewald fails to connect that work to some Air Force studies that were underway in the 1950s and 1960s and that are still obscured by classification. The chapter on various proposals for detonating nuclear devices on the Moon is also familiar. Although the subjects are somewhat tantalizing, these were minor footnotes in the history of the space program.
The chapter on satellite intelligence briefly covers the major photographic reconnaissance programs such as CORONA, GAMBIT, and HEXAGON. It spends more text on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, which was canceled in 1969 before it could ever fly. For a reader who does not know the subject, this chapter on satellite reconnaissance is a decent overview, although it is by no means comprehensive. Numerous satellite intelligence projects are not mentioned at all.
I share Greenewald’s affinity for documentary research, and there are some neat little stories in here. The chapter on submarine accidents during the Cold War has some fun revelations. But this is a book that hops around from topic to topic without developing any detailed knowledge of any of them. And like any researcher or journalist who does not spend years immersing him or herself in a subject, Greenewald does not know what he does not know. For instance, he cites a declassified history called “The CORONA Story,” which he says was released in 2010, but which had actually been declassified in the 1990s. Similarly, some of these subjects had been declassified and discussed in books years earlier, and there are some other topics—like the Air Force’s late 1950s studies of putting nuclear weapons in space—that remain unexplored and could use attention. But while the highly knowledgeable reader on the subjects in this book will not find anything new, there are a lot of readers who will be exposed to these topics for the first time. Hopefully some of them will be inspired to start doing their own research on some of the government’s space secrets and filing their own FOIA requests.
About the Book
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Title: Secrets from the Black Vault
Author: John Greenewald Jr.
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
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