After mysterious events in 1947, a small town in New Mexico became synonymous with visitors from outer space, UFOs, alien autopsies, and government cover-ups. The “Roswell Crash” and ensuing “government cover-up” have become a staple in modern conspiracy theories and have moved almost to the level of a modern myth.

Several movies have made reference to Roswell—most recently Independence Day (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1996)—and a television show, Roswell, has been developed around the events that allegedly took place that summer. While there is some agreement on the general details, even the specific dates, locations, and comments by the major participants are a matter of hot debate.

The “Roswell Incident” has not only pitted UFO “believers” against “skeptics,” but has generated charges and countercharges by various writers within the UFO “believer” community itself, and has resulted in no fewer than three major theories (and several sub-theories) of what happened at Roswell.

At the time leading up to the alleged incident, Americans had already started to report flying objects at an increasing rate. In early June 1947 a private pilot flying west from Boise, Idaho, radioed that he had spotted dish- or saucer-shaped aircraft, and a rash of UFO sightings ensued. But the events at Roswell added an entirely new perspective on the sightings—physical evidence of a crash.

On 14 June, a local New Mexico rancher, William W. “Mac” Brazel, who was making the rounds of the J. B. Foster Ranch (which he operated), found debris, but thought it was unimportant. It had odd writing on it, almost like hieroglyphics. The debris was strewn over several hundred yards. Brazel and his son both saw it, but Brazel, who “did not pay much attention to it,” did not deal with it for about three weeks.

When he returned, on 4 July, Brazel loaded some of the debris in his truck, and upon a visit to the nearby town of Corona, he heard of several sightings of “flying discs.” (Apparently, he heard about these discs on Saturday 5 July, although again any date in the timeline poses difficulties for ufologists.)

He did not report the findings to authorities, and did not immediately go to Roswell—some 75 miles away—but waited until his regular trip to the town on Monday. Versions differ on whom he showed the wreckage to, and who was allowed to handle it. When he finally arrived in Roswell, Brazel told the sheriff, George Wilcox, about the debris.

Wilcox contacted the authorities at Roswell Army Air Field, where Major Jesse A. Marcel (the 509th Bomb Group’s intelligence officer) and a captain accompanied Brazel back to his home. Brazel showed the officers the debris, which filled a few feed sacks and did not weigh more than five pounds. The major tried briefly to fit some of the pieces together into a kite.

On 8 July, after Marcel had returned, Walter G. Haut, the public information officer at the airfield, provided a press release in which he used the terms “flying disc” and “flying object,” but not “flying saucer.” Meanwhile, the debris was boxed up and flown to Fort Worth, Texas, where Brigadier General Roger M. Ramey of the Eighth Army Air Force took authority over it.

The same evening as Haut issued his press release, Ramey gave an interview to a radio station in which he stated that the wreckage was the remains of a radar reflector and a special weather balloon used to carry it aloft. He even invited reporters to inspect the debris. The following day, newspapers had headlines proclaiming, “Flying Disc Explained.”

Unknown to Brazel, Marcel, Haut, and probably even Ramey, in 1946 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved a secret project (MOGUL) to use high-altitude balloons to carry radar and other measurement equipment aloft so as to determine the behavior of atomic fallout over the U.S. mainland. Charles B. Moore, the Balloon Group’s project engineer, in 1993 began to speak publicly about the previously classified government program.

Moore and his group had used radar reflectors that they had attached to the balloons by “scotch-like tape that had ... flower-like designs” on the back. The group released a balloon train on 4 June 1947 and lost contact with several balloons, one of which was on a direct line for Mac Brazel’s ranch. (Indeed, on 10 July, the Alamogordo News carried an article on these tests, though not the specifics of them.)

Reports of new “UFO” sightings soared in the wake of the news articles—some 800 reports of UFOs were received by the government in June and July of 1947 alone—but no reporters claimed any “stonewalling” or cover-up.

Nevertheless, fifty years after the “crash,” Philip Corso in The Day after Roswell alleged that the Army Air Force engaged in “suppression” as early as 8 July. One problem with Corso’s claim is that FBI documents showed that the FBI had already been informed that the wreckage was from a balloon.

In 1948, a newspaper editor in Aztec, New Mexico, wrote a fictional column about a crashed saucer involving “little green men,” and the myth was born. Two years later, a Denver disc jockey at radio station KMYR claimed to have seen the men from “Venus.”

That was followed by a best-selling book, Behind the Flying Saucers, the same year. Nevertheless, the lack of physical evidence led UFO “believers” to drop the Roswell incident from their regular discussions for more than two decades.

It resurfaced near the end of the 1970s when Leonard H. Stringfield published a number of articles claiming that the wreckage and alien bodies were recovered by the military.

Stringfield also provided, as anthropologist Charles Ziegler points out, a remarkable paradox of the UFO “true-believers”: the stories were essentially impossible to “prove” as untrue, and thus, if not discredited they were true, and if discredited, they were also true because they “proved” a government cover-up. But the first real revival of the Roswell story appeared in 1980 when occult writer Charles Berlitz joined ufologist William L. Moore to write The Roswell Incident.

This version had the spaceship getting hit by lightning and traveling to the Plains of San Agustin before it crashed. At that point, the military showed up and sanitized the site, taking the bodies. But the military missed the initial parts of the ship, discarded 100 miles back because of the lightning, forcing a cover story.

The Berlitz-Moore version had gained widespread approval from the UFO community because of the cover-up aspects, and in 1984, Moore and television producer Jaime Shandera received an anonymous report supposedly outlining the existence of a secret government committee, “Majestic 12” or MJ-12. However, the MJ-12 document painted a much different picture of the events at Roswell than Berlitz and Moore suggested.

As a result, a second version of the Roswell myth evolved. In this version, the saucer malfunctioned and exploded on its own, but north of Roswell Army Air Field. The crash left four alien bodies that had ejected, and the army removed all evidence and spread it to different locations.

Meanwhile, the authenticity of the MJ-12 documents had come into question, not only by skeptics such as Philip Klass, but also some within the UFO community itself. Perhaps coincidentally, a new book, UFO Crash at Roswell (1991), by Kevin D. Randle and Donald R. Schmitt, had a scenario that mirrored that of the disputed MJ-12 documents, even though Randle and Schmitt tried to distance themselves from that report.

In their version, the UFO touched down on Brazel’s ranch, then took off before bouncing along the New Mexico landscape to its final resting place. The significance of this story is that it added crash sites, and complicated the story, but brought in a group of archeologists who claimed to have seen the bodies.

In 1991, an article exposed as a fraud the MJ-12 document and a subsequent “memo” supposedly “corroborating” it. The article, written by researchers who specialized in forensic analysis of documents and sponsored by a UFO journal, claimed that William L. Moore was likely the forger of the documents.

But while some ufologists abandoned the MJ-12 documents, many others claimed that the forgeries only “proved” the government was conspiring to discredit the entire movement, and claimed that Moore was a “plant.”

No sooner had the dust settled on the MJ-12 scandal than Stanton Friedman and Don Berliner published Crash at Corona (1992), which argued that two crashed saucers were recovered, along with one alien who was still alive.

An internal struggle between conflicting versions of what happened led Randle and Schmitt to amend some details in yet another book in 1994, although the basics of their new story still resembled earlier versions. A significant variation did appear that year, though, by Karl Pflock, who had learned of the MOGUL balloon tests, and incorporated them into a crashed saucer story.

When the U.S. Air Force released its Roswell report a few months later—with photos of humanlike dolls hung from balloons and parachutes to test wind drift—the UFO community rejected it out of hand. Some ufologists wrote articles in UFO journals analyzing the report.

The most recent work, and the one least likely to be accepted by the UFO believers, is one issued by the U.S. government by author James McAndrew, The Roswell Report: Case Closed (1997). McAndrew produced the evidence on MOGUL and the parachute-drop dummies, as well as a review of other government space-related programs of the era. No doubt, however, other Roswell books are being prepared at this time.

Writing about the Roswell “crash” has become a cottage industry, supported in no small part by the town of Roswell, which has an economic stake in visitors coming to see the site. With the advent of cable television and inexpensive videotapes, Roswell writers sought to get their stories on screen, spinning off television exposés such as Alien Autopsy, a “documentary” film that purported to show doctors conducting an autopsy on an extraterrestrial creature.

The classified nature of the balloon trials in MOGUL, combined with the subscale lifelike dolls, provided the necessary props for a “cover-up” by the army: soldiers immediately cordoned off areas and removed debris and “evidence,” while “bodies” were taken away. It was not until Curtis Peebles wrote Watch the Skies! in 1994 that anyone had attempted to conduct a serious study of the UFO phenomena and of Roswell.

The Roswell “incident,” which did not emerge as a hot conspiracy topic until the 1980s, was covered by the press fairly and objectively at the time, despite a spate of UFO stories in the major national papers, when reporters examined the possible phenomenon with inquisitive, but skeptical eyes.

Indeed, the government had contributed to the UFO craze by establishing an office to review and catalog all “sightings,” and even when incidents were clearly shown to be natural phenomena, the presence of such a government office itself seemed to ufologists to indicate a “cover-up” was in progress.

Since the 1980s, when the UFO community embraced the Roswell incident as a possible visitation of extraterrestrials, it has evolved into a modern myth. Roswell scholars Benson Saler, Charles Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore note that three images of Roswell have emerged.

The first is the public image, which they label “a case of mistaken identity.” Emerging mostly through television and the tabloids, the public image is one of an exposé that reinforces the reality of UFOs and thus results in a view that extraterrestrial visitations are real.

A second image, the scholarly image, is necessarily more critical. Scholars have pointed out that the Roswell stories display a series of substantive changes involving key events that are modified or abandoned in later stories. Thus, many of the major Roswell proponents do not even agree on the location of the crash or the numbers of “saucers.”

Equally important to scholars is the fact that many of the pieces of evidence exist in the already public record under the perfectly logical explanations of the U.S. Air Force, and thus Ockham’s razor is brought to bear (i.e., explaining something in the simplest hypothesis needed to explain that thing).

Not unexpectedly, with the “real” evidence of the balloons and radar reflectors available, the most recent of the Roswell versions account for both the crash and the air force radar detector.

It is this level—that of scholars lending credence to the idea of a U.S. Air Force crash—that has prevented it from being accepted by the public as a legitimate explanation. Whatever “proof” is offered by the ufologists has involved changing the rules of evidence in such a way as to nullify claims of scientific knowledge.

The final image, of course, is the most romantic: true believers who claim that the government and/or powerful forces have combined to conceal the truth. Recent use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents has tied up government resources in providing records of past activities.

So far, to the extent that believers seek to elevate the Roswell incident to the same historical level as the Titanic, they have failed because the absence of evidence does not justify such a certitude.

The public knows of Roswell mostly through television, a dramatic medium, and the frequent use of “docudramas” to validate the claims of ufologists has produced a view of Roswell that is one-sided and unscientific, but full of drama. It is the quintessential modern myth and the ultimate cosmic urban legend.