Part III (of IV) in our ongoing guide to the Great UFO Disclosure Flap of 2021. Prepare for imminent First Contact, if you haven’t already, with Part I and Part I, as well as our suggested soundtrack for the Arrival.
The date of birth for the “modern UFO phenomenon” is appropriately contested for such a truly strange, confounding subject.
The contemporary gestalt of seemingly impossible nighttime lights and daytime objects in the sky formed around the experience of Kenneth Arnold, a firefighting gear salesman and experienced private pilot from Boise, Idaho, near Washington’s Mount Rainier, just before 3 PM on June 24, 1947. Arnold reported seeing nine objects – eight discs, “flat like a pie-pan, and somewhat bat-shaped,” centered on a darker, more crescent-shaped ninth object – in a modified echelon formation stretching across his view across a span he later estimated at five miles.
Arnold later stipulated that it was their motion – “erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water” – and not their shape that was saucer-like. “They said that I said that they were saucer-like,” he told CBS’ Edward Murrow in April, 1950. “I said that they flew in a saucer-like fashion.”
There were similar reports from the region on June 24th, and from even earlier in June. Still, Arnold’s case was definitively designated in mass media shorthand as The Original UFO Sighting. This may be true, arguably, precisely because it was the first event to “break” in a sensational manner in US mass media. UFOs are inextricably linked in mass consciousness – perhaps the phenomenon’s real center – to the way they were interpreted and popularized by the dominant, psychological Post-WWII trinity of television, print media and movies.
The *perception* of the phenomena, as a psychic event in the mass media and in the minds of millions, was a key element of its “reality” from the start. The concept of a relation between psychic and physical reality began gestating in the UFO narrative as soon as it was formed.
Before “flying saucers,” there were the “ghost rockets” of 1946, seen across Sweden, Norway and Finland. The New York Times reported on US General James Doolittle’s visit, as Vice President of Shell Oil, to examine Swedish radar capabilities for tracking the suspected Soviet weapons. “I have no real idea of what they are,” Doolittle told Swedish press, “But it would be very interesting to observe one.”
Near the end of World War II, Allied pilots saw “Foo Fighters” – glowing, colored, roughly volleyball-sized objects, trailing, pacing, or harassing them. But the earliest reports of this type are from September of 1941, from two sailors on the SS Pulaski, a Polish ship appropriated by the UK, in the Indian Ocean.
In turn, before the Foo Fighters, there was the airship sensation of 1897, reported in many regional and national newspapers across wide swaths of the middle of the United States at the time. The reports of an “airship” – essentially a blimp with what we might today call steampunk-style machinery attached – foreshadowed reports of metallic spacecraft in the USA’s “Space Race” years of rocket building.
The airship stories also seem to refract concepts from primordial science fiction. They emerged in the wake of Jules Verne’s popular works, two years after H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and one before his War of the Worlds. The airships were a type of technology conceivable to the mass mind of the time, with an added element of imagination that enabled dreams of technological advancement so fantastic that it appeared magical (per Isaac Asimov).
UFOs would be theorized in the next century as a mirror and projection of the human imagination, and even the full psyche, reflecting the viewer’s very concept of the alien and anomalous in a given time or culture, a protean Rorschach test in which the imagination of the viewer and their society is projected outward.
Still, the airship reports faded into obscurity. But 72 years later, author Jacques Vallee would formulate a question posed by the airships that challenges UFO theoreticians to the present day: “If the appearance and behavior of the objects are functions of our interpretation at any particular time in the development of our culture, then what chances can we have of ever knowing the truth?”
Vallee’s seminal 1969 book, Passport to Magonia, emphatically placed contemporary reports of airborne lights piloted by unknown creatures alongside much older “folklore” accounts, many resembling our contemporary category of “alien abduction.” Vallee cited tales of years-long disappearances – children and adults – followed by baffling returns from a realm where time passed at a different rate or scale, foreshadowing modern “missing time” experiences.
Vallee insisted that reports of spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrial scientists could not be understood apart a whole archive stretching from Celtic lore about faeries, or the Scots on the “Good People,” (Slaegh Maith) to the Irish on “the “Gentry,” as well as changelings, kobolds, and many other fantastical taxonomies. Vallee had apprenticed with seminal UFO researcher Dr. J. Allen Hynek and he added computerized report catalogs to UFOlogical methods. That allowed production of some of the first valid statistical analyses, deliberately demanded an accounting of apparent thematic resemblances, at the very least, between “modern” UFO reports and fairy lore, when many earnest UFOlogists, and almost all of the serious ones besides Vallee, were frantic to shake associations with “little green men.”
To distinguish their investigations from stereotypical 1950’s crackpot and con man “contactee” accounts, these researchers often edited their witness reports for imagined believability in the mass public mind, abridging mentions of UFO occupants and even stranger elements, effectively distorting general views of the experience.
In the late 1980’s, author Whitley Streiber would re-center these “high strangeness” aspects of UFO reports that had been excised by most supposedly scientific researchers, to avoid taxing public credulousness so severely that the entire discipline would be dismissed. In his groundbreaking bestseller and personal account, 1986’s Communion, Strieber would try to apply Vallee’s theories and methods to his own bizarre memories of apparent non-human intelligence, framing his own work as an extension of Vallee’s project in Passport to Magonia. [More on this in Part IV.]
Finally, reaching back to mythical, prehistorical eras of humanity, a vast range of ancient and biblical accounts have been reexamined through the lens of modern reports of UFOs and their alien occupants. The story of “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” memorialized in song and other folk culture, recounts the biblical seer’s encounter with a kind of airborne, swiveling gyroscope: “Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel.” The object moved in tandem with four luminous, four-faced beings. The account also foreshadows reports from UFO observers of seeing something *conscious,* a machine that returned its observer’s gaze.
After Leslie Kean’s journalistic breakthroughs, and a tentative step away from a Pentagon policy of denial with the ONDI report, I see an inarguable increment of progress. Suddenly, perhaps, a decades-deep archive of credible reports and serious investigations can and will be used as very rudimentary foundation for a new scientific discipline, built by researchers who are both more “mainstream” than past UFOlogists and more curious than their academic predecessors and peers.
But first, back to 1947.
After the Kenneth Arnold sighting in late June, the famed Roswell incident followed in early July. An initial press release famously went out from Roswell AFB flatly declaring that a flying disc had been recovered in the New Mexico desert. Major Jesse Marcel, who reported the finding, was forced to retract the statement and pose with a weather balloon that he would later say looked nothing like the metallic debris he discovered. He would remain bitter about having been ordered to deny his own words and stipulate to claims he knew were untrue.
The building sensation eventually forced the Air Force to respond to apparent violations of US airspace, and the non-trivial chance that the Soviets had created some dramatically advanced weapon. We also know that US military leaders were concerned that a spectacular UFO event – or even a rumor – could spark mass panic capable of threatening national security by sheer domestic frenzy.
In 1948, Air Force General Nathan Twining, head of the Air Technical Service Command, established a program for evaluating UFO reports and any corresponding military implications. It was initially called Project SAUCER, then Project Sign, later Project Grudge and finally Project Blue Book. The unit’s first working hypothesis was that UFOs were secret Soviet weapons.
Twining would famously take two different positions on UFOs as a subject of military concern. He wrote on September 23, 1947, in a letter ordering the formation of Project Sign, that strange objects seen in US skies were “real and not visionary or fictitious.” Twining also wrote that the climb rates and maneuvers of the objects “lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically, or remotely.”
Twining’s letter would be vehemently rejected and then suppressed by General Hoyt Vandenberg, Deputy Commander in Chief of the Air Staff, and Project Sign would release a dismissive report on UFOs in 1949 This was the first official dismissal attempt of the subject.
The phenomenon, however, would not cooperate with the Air Force’s efforts to calm the US public. Over two weekends in July, 1952, UFOs were seen across the Washington, DC area, including passes over the White House and US Capitol building. Multiple radar reports tracked the objects and confirmed their apparent physical reality.
The resulting sensation forced US officialdom to attempt a second debunking. President Harry Truman assigned the task to the newly-created Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA would convene a group called the Robertson Panel, supposedly to review the best available UFO evidence over several days.The CIA conveners were dismissive in their presentation, and clearly determined to produce a dismissive report, no matter the evidence. The Panel report directly advocated a policy of debunking, to achieve a stated goal of “reduction of public interest in ‘Flying Saucers’ which today evokes a strong psychological reaction. The education could be accomplished by mass media such as television, motion pictures, and popular articles.”
This would indeed happen. But the US public, like the UFOs, would not cooperate and public interest could not be extinguished, even once a serious, proper debunking policy has been set and assigned for implementation.
There is a period between the Robertson Panel and the infamous Condon Report of 1968, in which UFOs were a popular topic, discussed in the major magazines of the time including the Saturday Evening Post and Look.
Radio host Frank Edwards was not a careful UFO scholar, but he did host a popular national talk show on the Mutual Broadcasting Network. Edwards was rated one of three top broadcasters in the US – Edward R. Murrow was another – in a 1953 poll by a radio trade paper.
Edwards read early UFO author Donald Keyhoe’s article in True magazine, “Flying Saucers Are Real,” and made them a regular topic on his show, with an audience of 13 million. The show, however, also was sponsored by the American Federation of Labor.
The AFL at that time was very receptive to US government requests on any issue that could be tagged “National Security,” and the Pentagon urgently wanted Edwards’ agitations of public opinion for official UFO answers to end. Edwards was fired, AFL President George Meany would later say, “Because he talked too much about flying saucers!” After his firing, the Pentagon offered Edwards a job with a salary of $18,500, but only if he would stop talking about his old show’s most popular topic.
“Flying Saucers” were psychologically present in mainstream US culture and lingered near science’s outer boundaries in the 1950’s and 60’s to a degree that is hard to understand today.
In March, 1966, Republican House Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan, a member of the Armed Services committee, and a remarkably unimaginative politician even for his time, demanded an apology to his constituents after founding figure of UFOlogy Dr, J. Allen Hynek, pressured by the US Air Force, tossed out “swamp gas” in a press conference as a potential explanation for sensational reports of glowing nighttime UFOs from Ford’s constituents in Hillsdale and Dexter.
With almost biblical injustice, Dr. Hynek, who was open to the the ET hypothesis and was the most important advocate for official transparency on UFO reports, became the target of wrath for Ford’s constituents. Many felt insulted by the swamp gas explanation, which the Egghead Class was suggesting they were too ignorant to even understand.
Congressional Hearings were held in early April 1966, featuring the freshly humiliated Hynek. He was now a pariah, sitting like a mascot or hostage alongside Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown and the last USAF director for Project Blue Book, Hector Quintinilla, as the only other witnesses.
The resulting recommendation from the Armed Services Chairman, for an independent, civilian review of available evidence, would become the bureaucratic instrument for the Air Force to effectively bury the UFO issue for more than 50 years.
The Air Force pursued Ivy League colleges to host this civilian, but settled in October of 1966 for the University of Colorado, and physicist Dr. Edward Condon. Condon was, by all accounts, openly and belligerently dismissive of the study he was supposed to conduct, ridiculing witnesses and firing staff who tried to do their jobs. Robert Low, who Condon would eventually make the project leader, had written to Condon in August, well before the study officially started:
The trick would be, I think, to describe the project so that, to the public, it would appear a totally objective study but, to the scientific community, would present the image of a group of nonbelievers trying their best to be objective but having an almost zero expectation of finding a saucer.
The infamous Low Memo would surface and make it clear the fix was already in. However, this Big Lie, like many others about UFOs, was highly effective at making anyone, even reputable scientists, who took the topic seriously to be labelled a crackpot.
Coming next, Part IV: From Communion to Arrival.