Although the modern UFO era dates from Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting in Washington State, the first mass sighting of UFOs in the United States took place between November 1896 and May 1897.
Described as “airships” by the people who witnessed them, these early UFOs were usually characterized as silent with white and colored lights, and, like modern UFOs, were said sometimes to land and, rarely, to carry occupants. Unlike twentieth-century UFOs, however, the occupants of nineteenth-century airships were, with very few exceptions, described as human.
While some theories of the time speculated that the airships were Martian in origin, in general the public believed that they were invented and operated by humans, despite the fact that the modern dirigible was not developed until several years later.
There was no sense that the government had any additional information about the phenomenon or that facts were being withheld from the public—the idea that there is a government conspiracy to hide the truth about UFOs did not emerge until the twentieth century.
During World War II anomalous lights and aircraft sighted by military pilots as early as 1941 came to be known as “foo fighters.” The Allies speculated at the time that they were of German or Japanese origin, and later discovered that German and Japanese pilots had reported the same phenomena and had assumed they were Allied craft. In 1946–1948 sightings of what were called “ghost rockets” began in Sweden.
These “rockets” were said to crash on land and water, and the U.S. and Swedish governments erroneously believed that the Soviets were firing V-2 rockets taken from the Germans during the war. The “foo fighters” and “ghost rockets” have never been fully explained to the satisfaction of some UFO believers, but the only conspiracies they suggested were those of enemy countries.
Conspiracy theories about UFOs were born in the twentieth century, but were not a part of the controversy surrounding the next appearance of spacecraft on 24 June 1947. Kenneth Arnold, a Boise, Idaho, businessman and private pilot, saw nine bright objects traveling at a speed he estimated at 1,700 miles per hour in the area of Mount Rainier, Washington.
The term “flying saucer” was not used by Arnold to describe what he saw; rather, it was created by a newspaper writer who adapted it from Arnold’s description of the crafts’ movements as resembling “a saucer skipping over water.” The opinion of both Arnold and the press was that he had seen guided missiles, and there was no hint of a governmental effort to deceive the public.
On 8 July 1947, the Roswell, New Mexico, newspaper the Roswell Daily Record carried the headline “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region,” but the air force quickly denied the claim and insisted on 9 July that what had been found was “the crushed remains of a ray wind target used to determine the direction and velocity of winds at a high altitude.”
The “Roswell Incident,” as it became known when the story reemerged as a conspiracy narrative in the late 1970s, later included the assumption that the air force had captured the remnants of alien spacecraft and alien bodies, but at the time it received little publicity after the air force’s denial. An August 1947 Gallup Poll revealed that while 90 percent of the American public was familiar with “flying saucers,” most people believed that they were in actuality secret weapons or hoaxes.
In December 1947 the United States Air Force began its first formal inquiry into UFOs. Called Project Sign, it was located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, then known as Wright Field, and had as its scientific consultant Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer from Ohio State University who headed the McMillan Observatory.
Hynek, who was early on a skeptic, later became an advocate of the extraterrestrial theory of UFOs, and at the time of Project Sign the air force contained both terrestrial and extraterrestrial factions.
The two most important cases investigated by Project Sign were the 7 January 1948 crash of Kentucky Air National Guard captain Thomas Mantell, whose F-51 crashed as he chased what he described as a large metallic object (the air force first claimed he had seen the planet Venus and later explained the object was a Skyhook balloon), and the sighting on 24 July 1948, by Clarence Chiles and John Whitted, who were piloting a DC-3 over Alabama. Both men, a passenger, and a witness on the ground reported a cigar-shaped UFO. The Chiles-Whitted case, as it became known, has never been explained.
By September 1948 the Project Sign team had written a top secret “Estimate of the Situation,” which determined that UFOs were probably extraterrestrial. When the report reached air force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vanderberg, he claimed it had not proven its case, declassified the report, and ordered all copies burned. No copy of the document has survived. Later, Project Sign admitted that it could not explain 20 percent of the cases it chose to investigate.
When on 16 December 1948 Project Sign was reorganized and renamed Project Grudge, those supporting the nonterrestrial explanations of UFOs were in ascendancy, and the air force, which increasingly considered UFOs a public relations problem, characterized sightings and reports as hoaxes, hysterical responses, or misidentifications.
One of the first known attempts by the air force to manipulate media coverage of UFOs came in 1949, when it cooperated with Sidney Shallett of the Saturday Evening Post to produce a two-part article that appeared on 30 April and 7 May 1949.
The article, which assumed a very skeptical stance toward its subject, was meant to discourage public interest in the phenomenon; instead, days after the articles appeared, UFO reports increased significantly and Shallett’s piece aroused the interest of retired marine major Donald Keyhoe, who became a wellknown and aggressive advocate of the extraterrestrial theory of UFOs and a spokesperson for government conspiracy theories. His January 1950 article in True magazine titled “The Flying Saucers Are Real” asserted that “living, intelligent observers” from another planet had been watching the earth for 175 years.
The article received a great deal of attention and was followed in March by a second article arguing for the extraterrestrial explanation of UFOs written by navy commander Robert McLaughlin. The release in 1951 of two major motion pictures, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing, reflected Hollywood’s understanding of increased public interest in UFOs.
Both films, which did well at the box office, provide the future models for attitudes toward alien involvement in human life: in The Day the Earth Stood Still the UFO occupant is concerned with eliminating violence, particularly nuclear war, on earth, while the creature who crashes to earth in The Thing is a dangerous and predatory entity that must be eliminated.
In 1951 Project Grudge was reorganized with Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, who was less hostile to UFO research, at its head. Because of increased sightings in early 1952, the air force changed Project Grudge’s name to Project Blue Book, and under Ruppelt’s direction Blue Book began actively investigating UFO reports.
During the summer of 1952 one of the most famous UFO events took place over the Washington, D.C., area from 10 to 26 July. Objects reported by commercial pilots, ground observers, and air force pilots were picked up on radarscopes at Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base, and air force jets were sent in pursuit of the objects, which eluded the aircraft.
During a 29 July air force press conference, Major General John Samford stated that the air force believed the incidents were a result of temperature inversions, an explanation that for the most part satisfied the public and the media.
However, the increased media attention to UFO reports led to the formation of the first two civilian UFO research groups, the Civilian Saucer Investigation group (CSI) of Los Angeles and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), headed by Jim and Coral Lorenzen.
By the end of 1952 sightings had decreased, but the CIA had become involved in UFO reports because it feared that the phenomenon might be dangerous for national security. The Robertson Panel, which took its name after Dr. H. P. Robertson, was formed to determine if UFOs posed such a threat.
On 14 January 1953, the panel convened for twelve hours of study and determined that while UFOs posed no military threat, they could cause mass hysteria and were taking up too much time to investigate. The panel advised the air force to “debunk” UFOs in order to reduce public interest and to begin “education” by the mass media.
The panel concluded that UFOs could “cultivate a morbid national psychology in which skillful hostile propaganda could induce hysterical behavior and harmful distrust of duly constituted authority,” and civilian UFO groups “should be watched because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking.”
The conclusions of the Robertson Panel, which were later made public incrementally, created an attitude of distrust in those who began to suspect the U.S. government of attempting to hide information about UFOs.
Edward Ruppelt’s departure from Project Blue Book in 1953 and the proposals of the Robertson Panel meant that serious investigation of UFOs by the air force effectively ended. Until Blue Book’s demise in 1969, the air force treated UFO sightings, for the most part, as a public relations problem.
Several books published in 1953 illustrate the wide spectrum of opinion about UFOs that was present at the time. Donald Keyhoe’s Flying Saucers from Outer Space sold a half million copies; as in his earlier The Flying Saucers Are Real (1950), he maintained that the air force knew that UFOs were extraterrestrial, and he continued to voice this opinion until his death in 1988.
Dr. Donald Menzel, Harvard astronomer and head of the Harvard Observatory from 1954 to 1966, published Flying Saucers in 1953, the first of several books that attacked the extraterrestrial theory of UFOs. Menzel, who explained UFOs as hoaxes, practical jokes, and interactions between light and atmospheric conditions, would remain the most vocal and respected UFO debunker until his death in 1976.
Also published in 1953 was “Professor” George Adamski’s Flying Saucers Have Landed. Adamski was the most famous member of the contactee movement in the 1950s. The contactees claimed to have had direct contact with aliens, who were usually described as tall, blond, and beautiful, and several contactees insisted that they had traveled to other planets, usually Venus, with their intergalactic friends.
These aliens were said to live on utopian planets and to have come to Earth to spread their message of peace and love to less evolved human beings. The publicity that surrounded contactees continued to be a problem for more serious UFO researchers and led to resistance on the part of UFO civilian research groups to investigate cases that involved UFO occupants.
In 1955 Project Blue Book released Special Report Number 14, which stated that there was no reason to believe that UFOs were interplanetary craft and that most UFOs sightings had mundane explanations. This was a controversial report that elicited much criticism from UFO proponents.
One year later the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), a civilian investigative group, was formed, and in January 1957 Donald Keyhoe became its director. Public interest and UFO sightings had declined by 1958, but the number of reports to Project Blue Book remained between 500 and 600 per year.
One of the most famous and well-documented UFO sighting cases occurred on 24 April 1964, in Socorro, New Mexico. Lonnie Zamora, a policeman, was pursuing a speeding car when he witnessed a landed oval-shaped metallic object from which two small figures in white coveralls had emerged. He reported that the craft later elevated with a roaring sound and disappeared, but left behind four trapezoid-shaped imprints.
The case was investigated by J. Allen Hynek for Project Blue Book and was important in changing his former skeptical attitudes toward UFOs. The head of Blue Book at the time, Major Hector Quintanilla, endorsed Zamora’s reliability as a witness and characterized the incident as “the best documented case on record” in an article for the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence.
The Zamora case is the only Blue Book case categorized as “unidentified” that combined a landing, trace evidence, and sighting of occupants. One result of Zamora’s experience was that NICAP, like APRO, began to investigate more seriously reports that involved UFO occupants.
The increased number of sightings from 1965 to 1967 led to a renewed public interest in UFOs. In August 1965 many sightings in Texas were reported, and the air force received criticism from a number of newspapers when it dismissed the objects as stars and the planet Jupiter.
Hynek suggested that the air force create a panel of nonmilitary scientists to look into the UFO problem and to recommend a course of action. The six-member “Ad Hoc Committee to Review Project Blue Book,” headed by Dr. Brian O’Brien, met on 3 February 1966. It recommended strengthening Project Blue Book and that the air force should begin discussing contracts with universities to investigate UFOs.
Reports from eighty-seven students at Hillsdale College in Michigan on 20 March 1966 that they had seen a football-shaped UFO, and a subsequent sighting in the nearby town of Dexter by five individuals, including two policemen, led to a Blue Book investigation in which Hynek told a press conference that what was seen was probably “marsh gas.” This explanation was mocked by the media, particularly by Life magazine and the New Yorker.
Republican congressman and minority leader Gerald R. Ford demanded hearings by the House Armed Services Committee on the subject of UFOs, which were held on 5 April. Hynek testified that the data on UFOs accumulated since 1948 “deserves close scrutiny by a civilian panel of physical and social scientists.”
Mendel Rivers, who chaired the committee, and the air force agreed. Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of North Carolina, and the University of California refused the assignment, but on 6 October 1966, the University of Colorado agreed to undertake the study, with the respected physicist Dr. Edward U. Condon at its head.
The Condon Report, as it became known, was given $525,000 to study the UFO phenomenon. It experienced serious difficulties from the beginning because it contained warring factions of believers and nonbelievers, and Condon was criticized for his attitudes toward UFOs.
Unabashedly skeptical, he tended to focus on contactee claims and made speeches that ridiculed the subject of UFOs. Released on 9 January 1969, the 963-page report concluded that “nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge .... further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”
The result was the termination of Project Blue Book, announced by Air Force Secretary Robert C. Seamans on 17 December 1969, who, citing the Condon Report, informed the public that UFOs were not a threat to national security, that they did not represent a technology beyond the abilities of present-day science, and that there was no evidence that they were extraterrestrial.
While most scientists agreed with Condon’s findings, J. Allen Hynek wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the report could be compared with “Mozart producing an uninspiring pot-boiler, unworthy of his talents.” The end of air force involvement in UFO research was paralleled by the sharp decline in UFO sightings in the late 1960s and the worsening fortunes of NICAP, which after a series of financial fiascoes dismissed Donald Keyhoe as its head in December 1969.
In the 1970s, public interest in UFOs once again lessened, as did membership in civilian UFO groups; in particular, NICAP’s membership continued to decline. During this decade the focus shifted from unexplained spacecraft to other anomalous phenomena such as the Bermuda Triangle, cattle mutilations, and alien abductions, all of which believers claimed to be implicated in UFO phenomena.
Some speculated an extraterrestrial involvement in missing aircraft in the Bermuda Triangle and that aliens were responsible for livestock found missing blood and body parts; other theories espoused that the U.S. government was killing cattle as part of an ongoing secret experiment with biological weapons or that the animals were victims of satanic cults.
The original alien abduction story is that of Barney and Betty Hill, who under hypnosis in 1964 related being taken aboard a spacecraft on 19 September 1961, so that small, gray extraterrestrial entities could perform medical experiments upon them.
John Fuller’s book The Interrupted Journey, published in 1966, made the Hills’ story public, but it was not until the 1970s that abduction stories became more common. Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker insisted that on 11 October 1973, they were taken aboard a UFO while fishing in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Travis Walton claimed that he was abducted by aliens on 5 November 1975, in the Sitgreaves National Forest near Snowflake, Arizona, and was returned six days later. Skeptics noted that Walton’s alleged abduction occurred days after the made-for-television film of the Hills’ abduction, The UFO Incident, aired on NBC on 20 October 1975.
While early abduction stories contained references to UFOs, as abduction became more prominent, spacecraft became less important and in some cases disappeared completely from stories of interactions with aliens.
In 1981 New York artist Budd Hopkins published Missing Time, a book that proposed that Americans were being regularly abducted by aliens who erased memories of the encounters, but that these could be retrieved through hypnosis. This book was followed in 1987 by his Intruders: The Incredible Visitations at Copley Woods, the story of a woman named “Kathie Davis” who described being used by aliens for reproductive purposes.
Dr. David Jacobs, a history professor at Temple University, published Secret Life: Firsthand Accounts of UFO Abductions in 1992, a book that continued Hopkins’s speculations into the connections between alien abduction and the creation of an alien-human hybrid race; the aliens, Jacobs argued, were harvesting human DNA and using human women as breeders.
In 1987, horror novelist Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story, a rendering of his experiences with unearthly “visitors,” became a best-seller that established the now-stereotypical narrative of alien activity. The short, large-eyed, large-headed, emotionless gray extraterrestrial was later joined by other common alien types, including the more predatory insectoid and reptilian aliens and the tall, benevolent Nordic types.
In the 1990s Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Mack’s involvement in alien abduction research garnered even more publicity for the phenomenon; his 1994 Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens and more recent Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformations and Alien Encounters (1999) explored the abduction phenomenon as a spiritual quest in which abductees are instead “experiencers” whose encounters with alien beings are enlightening and beneficial.
Mack found himself at odds with Hopkins and Jacobs, who continued to insist that alien beings were conspiring to breed a new species from human DNA. Mack, along with award-winning MIT physicist David Pritchard, organized the five-day 1992 Abduction Study Conference at MIT, which resulted in the publication of C. D. B. Bryan’s Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: A Reporter’s Notebook on Alien Abduction, UFOs, and the Conference at MIT (1995).
Although conspiracy theories of governmental knowledge of the phenomena had some mention at this conference, the bulk of the papers and lectures approached abduction from a psychological and physiological perspective.
The 1980s also saw the reemergence of the Roswell story in Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore’s The Roswell Incident (1980), which claimed alien spacecraft had indeed crashed and been retrieved by the U.S. military.
The release of the MJ-12 document in the spring of 1987, which purported that on 24 September 1947 President Truman set up a secret group of twelve well-known scientists and military and governmental experts to deal with crashed UFOs and the bodies of extraterrestrials, became the focus of an ever-increasing number of conspiracy theories about governmental knowledge of and involvement with extraterrestrials. Two of the most outrageous theories were those of John Lear, son of William P. Lear, the aviation expert who invented the Lear jet, and Milton William Cooper.
John Lear claimed that he had knowledge of crashed saucers and that the U.S. military had attempted to learn how to operate these crafts at secret military installations outside Las Vegas, Nevada (known as Area 51), and another near Dulce, New Mexico.
The government, according to Lear’s scenario, cooperated with the aliens in an exchange of alien technology for permitted abductions of humans; the aliens needed human and cattle DNA both to create android creatures at secret bases in Nevada and New Mexico and to rejuvenate their own dying species.
One of Lear’s sources was Robert Lazar, who stated that he saw documents and photographs of UFOs and alien autopsies while working at Area 51; Lazar also said that he saw nine extraterrestrial craft and witnessed some of them in flight.
Cooper’s imagination exceeded even Lear’s. He claimed to have seen secret documents that confirmed the existence of crashed spacecraft and alien corpses, and in his 23 May 1989 document titled “The Secret Government: The Origin, Identity, and Purpose of MJ-12” he described a secret government of CIA agents who actually run the U.S. government, unknown even to various presidents of the United States.
A global international group called the Bilderbergers controls all of the earth and, according to Cooper, Eisenhower signed a treaty with aliens from the planet of Betelgeuse that allowed the Betelgeusians to abduct humans for their own purposes; the treaty also established secret underground bases in the Southwest that house thousands of humans and aliens.
Cooper theorized that Secretary of Defense James Forrestal had been murdered and his death made to appear to be a suicide by the secret government when he threatened to go public with his knowledge of U.S. involvement with the aliens.
Cooper’s story, a complex and mind-boggling combination of science-fiction fantasies, fears of global takeovers by secret organizations, and speculations about the birth in 1992 of the Antichrist, together with John Lear’s tales, were as embarrassing to the more mainstream UFO community as had been the contactee claims of the 1950s.
These “Darkside” theories, as they came to be called, became the basis for the continuing conspiracy narrative of alien abduction and governmental involvement in the Fox Network’s very successful television series The X-Files.
Reported sightings of UFOs and accusations of governmental cover-ups continued in the 1990s, with the most famous example being the Arizona sightings on 13 March 1997, when a large V-shaped formation of lights was said to have flown silently over 300 miles from the Nevada state line through Phoenix to the north of Tucson.
Later that night, a series of bright lights that hung over Phoenix’s southern horizon were videotaped by a number of witnesses. The military explanation was that the V-formation was a squadron of military planes and that the balls of light were high-intensity flares. As in so many cases in the past, UFO believers accused the government of a cover-up and mocked the military explanation of the events.
The 1990s also saw an increase in the activities of the Citizens Against UFO Secrecy (CAUS), a group that was formed in the 1980s by Executive Director Peter A. Gersten. Gersten, a former New York criminal defense attorney, has represented CAUS as the plaintiff in two legal actions under the Freedom of Information Act, the first a lawsuit against the National Security Agency for 135 UFO-related documents and the second against the CIA for 57 documents.
On their website CAUS states that the earth is in contact with a “non-human form of intelligence” and that the judicial process is the only effective way to establish governmental knowledge of this fact.
CAUS has attempted to retrieve documents on the subject of “flying triangles” from the Department of Defense, which insists that no such documents exist. After the dissolution of citizen research groups such as APRO and NICAP, the remaining citizen group that investigates UFO and alien reports and to some degree discusses conspiracy theories is the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).
Formerly the Midwest UFO Network, MUFON’s membership has been declining in recent years as the Internet and talk-radio shows such as those of Jeff Rense and Art Bell have become the forum for discussions of alien activity and governmental cover-ups.
A return to scientific inquiry into UFO activity occurred in the fall of 1997 when Dr. Peter Sturrock, a plasma physicist and former director of the Center for Space Science and Astrophysics at Stanford University, organized a panel of scientists to study the physical evidence of UFOs. The committee included a number of well-known scientists who met over a four-day period to hear reports from eight respected UFO investigators.
The panel concluded that the UFO problem is complex and probably will not yield a simple answer, that scientists can learn from unexplained observations and should concentrate on cases that include strong physical evidence and reputable witness testimony, and that there should be regular contact between scientists and the UFO community with institutional support for research into the UFO phenomenon.
The report received much media attention. At the present time only pornographic websites are more visited than UFO/abduction sites on the Internet, and radio, television, and films focusing on the subject attest to the enduring public interest in UFOs and the conspiracy theories that have always surrounded this phenomenon.