PANIC ON THE STREETS OF NEW YORK

A fab­ri­cated Mar­tian in­va­sion hit a raw nerve in a coun­try fac­ing the prospect of war

BBC History Magazine - - The Power Of Mars -

Just af­ter 8.30pm on 30 Oc­to­ber 1938, the thou­sands of Amer­i­cans tuned to the ra­dio show ‘Mercury The­ater on the Air’ sud­denly heard an alarm­ing news flash: huge Mar­tian fight­ing-ma­chines were emerg­ing from me­teor-like space­craft that had landed near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. What they were lis­ten­ing to was an adap­ta­tion of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Many, how­ever, mis­took it for an in­va­sion on Amer­i­can soil.

“Some­thing’s wrig­gling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” a des­per­ate voice shouted down the air­waves. “Now it’s another one, and another. They look like ten­ta­cles to me… There’s a jet of flame spring­ing from the mir­ror, and it leaps right at the ad­vanc­ing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turn­ing into flame!… En­emy now turns east…

Ev­i­dent ob­jec­tive is New York City…”

The so- called Panic Broad­cast, di­rected and nar­rated by 23-year- old ra­dio ac­tor and fu­ture film­maker Or­son Welles, caught Amer­ica at a vul­ner­a­ble mo­ment. Still be­sieged by the Great De­pres­sion, which had seen half of its banks close and un­em­ploy­ment soar to 25 per cent, the na­tion was strug­gling, and many peo­ple felt them­selves just a short mis­chance from dis­as­ter.

Adding to the sense of dread was the rise of Ger­man im­pe­ri­al­ism across the At­lantic. Hitler was now the dark colos­sus of Europe, an­nex­ing Aus­tria just a few months be­fore Welles’s broad­cast. Fol­low­ing the Nurem­berg Laws of 1935 (which en­shrined anti- Semitic Nazi doc­trine in law), New York, a city with some 1.7 mil­lion Jews, seemed an ob­vi­ous tar­get for Ger­man ag­gres­sion. An in­va­sion, Mar­tian or oth­er­wise, was no longer un­think­able.

Pa­pers such as The New York Times seized on Welles’s broad­cast (which you can lis­ten to at youtube.com/

watch? v=Xs0K4ApWl4g), spark­ing a pop­u­lar out­cry against fake news. Congress even con­sid­ered lim­it­ing free­dom of speech, while the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to see if any laws had been bro­ken. Ul­ti­mately, the real-life fears of 1938 over­shad­owed the fic­tional, and Welles es­caped with an on-air apol­ogy.

Po­lice dis­trib­ute food to needy New York­ers. Or­son Welles’s Panic Broad­cast preyed on the fears of a frag­ile na­tion

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