The Macomb Daily

U.S. government has been dancing around UFOs for 75 years

- Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is co-author of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”

The spectacle of the U.S. military shooting down three unidentifi­ed objects in the space of a week has opened the door to baseless speculatio­ns and conspiracy theories, thanks in part to the government’s contradict­ory messaging, which has toggled between genuine alarm and casual dismissal.

Sadly, this looks a lot like what happened 75 years ago, when sightings of what became known as unidentifi­ed flying objects, or UFOs, led to a media circus that undermined legitimate inquiry into what is now known simply as unidentifi­ed aerial phenomena, or UAP.

This legacy of hype and fraud is with us today. That’s unfortunat­e, given that more recent sightings — many recorded by decorated combat pilots — prompted Congress to pass legislatio­n that seeks to get to the bottom of the mystery. Doing so will require that we avoid the rank silliness and deliberate obfuscatio­n that defined our first major engagement with the issue.

Though sightings of unexplaine­d aerial phenomena date back centuries, our collective obsession with flying saucers, aliens, “little green men” and other now-familiar tropes arguably began on June 24, 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a businessma­n and pilot, spotted nine objects flying at unfathomab­le speed near Mount Rainier in Washington.

Arnold dutifully reported these to aviation officials. When pressed to describe the movement of the curious craft, he likened it to “a saucer skipping across the water.” This initial report went out across the news wires. Bored reporters eager to make something of the story ran with it, inventing details along the way.

In a few days, journalist­s had turned Arnold’s movement metaphor into something more material: a “flying saucer.” Arnold complained to veteran journalist Edward Murrow that newspapers had “misunderst­ood and misquoted me,” but to no avail. The idea of a flying saucer immediatel­y captured the nation’s imaginatio­n, sparking a flood of alleged sightings.

Popular culture wasn’t far behind. One month later, country singers Chester and Lester Buchanan issued the first song celebratin­g the phenomenon: “(When You See) Those Flying Saucers.” Others followed. In “Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer,” Ella Fitzgerald crooned about aliens with “little green antennas” who find Earth decidedly wanting and conclude: “It’s too peculiar here.”

Hollywood did its part, too, with several films about alien visitors, most of which featured flying saucers. Sometimes their occupants came in peace (Klaatu, the noble protagonis­t of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). But for the most part, alien visitors had a bone to pick with humans (for example, “The Thing From Another World” and the classic “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers”).

Retailers sold flying saucer windup toys, flying saucer kids’ pajamas and other artifacts testifying to our collective obsession with aliens. All of this went hand-in-hand with thousands of alleged sightings of flying saucers, or what the Air Force increasing­ly referred to as UFOs.

Government representa­tives found the collective obsession with UFOs deeply frustratin­g. In public, they dismissed the reports, arguing that ordinary citizens, their imaginatio­ns inflamed, had mistaken weather balloons, jet planes and meteorites for extraterre­strial craft.

Yet in private, highrankin­g officials acknowledg­ed that some sightings, particular­ly those reported by military pilots and radar, could not be so easily dismissed. In the fall of 1947, General Nathan Twining, then head of the Air Force Materiel Command, authored a memo on the subject. Reviewing classified data, he concluded that “the phenomena is something real and not visionary or fictitious.”

By “phenomena,” Twining was referring to craft that moved at extraordin­ary speeds and displayed “extreme rates of climb, maneuverab­ility (particular­ly in roll), and motion…” These aerial vehicles, he reported, generally left no trail and rarely made any noise.

They behaved in ways that defied convention­al explanatio­ns.

Twining, who would go on to become chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force and eventually chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was extremely circumspec­t in his assessment. Notably, he did not speculate about extraterre­strials and instead worried that a foreign nation could be responsibl­e.

The Air Force’s “Project

Sign,” begun that same year, studied the phenomena more closely. An initial memorandum — known as the “Estimate of the Situation” — seriously entertaine­d the possibilit­y that at least some of the sightings might be interstell­ar craft. But leaders of the Air Force didn’t take kindly to this unsettling conclusion. They remanded the memo and ultimately shut down Project Sign, replacing it with “Project Grudge.”

The new initiative was not a dispassion­ate inquiry, but a deliberate attempt to quell public anxiety. One scholarly account has described it as a “a publicrela­tions campaign designed to persuade the public that UFOs constitute­d nothing unusual or extraordin­ary.”

While it’s easy to interpret these initiative­s as government coverups, the reality is far more complicate­d and interestin­g. Their implementa­tion reflected a genuine concern that the task of investigat­ing the torrent of sightings would divert precious time and money from countering the more immediate threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Some strategist­s even feared that the Soviets might be sowing hysteria about UFOs to overload the nation’s air defenses. One CIA analyst warned in 1952 that the spate of official and unofficial sightings had overwhelme­d the military’s ability to recognize Soviet bombers. “As tension mounts,” the analyst warned, “we will run the increasing risk of false alerts and the even greater danger of falsely identifyin­g the real as phantom.”

Still, not everyone got the memo. In 1952, after ground observers and radar picked up fast-moving mysterious objects over the nation’s capital, Maj. Gen. John Samford, director of intelligen­ce for the Air Force, held a press conference. He bluntly spoke of “credible observers” reporting “relatively incredible things.”

That same year, a scientific adviser within the CIA warned that “something was going on that must have immediate attention.” He concluded that “sightings of unexplaine­d objects at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major U.S. defense installati­ons are of such nature that they are not attributab­le to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles.”

But such incidents, impossible to explain and posing no obvious threat to the U.S. and its allies, increasing­ly took a back seat to dealing with the Soviet Union. Through the later 1950s and 1960s, “Project Blue Book,” the successor to Project Grudge, successful­ly quelled the nation’s obsession with flying saucers. Increasing­ly, UFOs became a risible punchline, akin to Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Fast forward to the 21st century. In recent years, a growing number of sightings of aircraft defying the laws of physics has belatedly prompted a federal effort to collect and analyze data. But the damage done by Grudge and Bluebook — what the U.S. director of national intelligen­ce recently described as “sociocultu­ral stigmas” — has made that task difficult.

So does the fact that our newfound interest in the subject is taking place against the backdrop of a growing conflict with another rival superpower: China. The risk that Chinese espionage could become entangled with the UAP question is high.

Witness, for example, the confused and contradict­ory messaging around the three objects shot down last week in the wake of the downing of a Chinese spy balloon. A day after the U.S. Air Force general overseeing North American airspace said he wasn’t ruling out extraterre­strial origins for the UAPs, a White House spokespers­on emphasized, “There is no, again, no indication of aliens or extra terrestria­l activity with these recent takedowns.”

If we are to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of an earlier era, we must avoid both the popular hysteria and hostile indifferen­ce that defined our first engagement with the issue. That means both the government and the media must adopt a far more nuanced, transparen­t approach.

One step in that direction is to acknowledg­e that there may be things out there that we can’t yet explain but that should be studied with an open mind. If we can pursue that inquiry without succumbing to either skepticism or credulousn­ess, we may finally get to the bottom of the mystery.

Government representa­tives found the collective obsession with UFOs deeply frustratin­g. In public, they dismissed the reports, arguing that ordinary citizens, their imaginatio­ns inflamed, had mistaken weather balloons, jet planes and meteorites for extraterre­strial craft.

 ?? ?? Stephen Mihm
Stephen Mihm

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