For more than seven decades, highly credible witnesses and sophisticated sensors observed mysterious objects flying in ways that defy easy explanation. But until recently, former presidents, top intelligence officials, members of Congress and pilots had never spoken so openly about UFOs — or the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Largely unknown, however, is that the UFO taboo – and an array of outlandish alien conspiracy theories – are vestiges of Cold War paranoia.
According to a declassified Air Force document, the sheer volume and geographic distribution of sightings meant that the UFO phenomenon “cannot be disregarded.” A 1947 memo from a top Air Force general noted that UFOs are “real and not visionary or fictitious.”
With striking parallels to more recent encounters, Air Force analysts determined that many UFOs exhibited “extreme rates of climb, maneuverability … and action which must be considered evasive when sighted or contacted by friendly aircraft and radar.” Such characteristics, the Air Force concluded, suggest that “the objects are controlled either manually, automatically or remotely.” (A CIA director would go on to state that UFOs “are operating under intelligent control.”)
Adding to the mystery, a 1948 Air Force intelligence memo stated that UFOs “are not of domestic origin.” At the same time, the Air Force assessed the likelihood of the Soviet Union developing such advanced technology as “extremely remote.”
Unsurprisingly, the Air Force was not the only government entity with an interest in UFOs. An urgent 1952 memo from the CIA’s scientific branch to then-director Walter Bedell Smith sounded the alarm: “Reports of [UFO] incidents convince us that there is something going on that must have immediate attention.”
According to the CIA, UFOs “are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles.” Moreover, they were observed “at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major U.S. defense installations.”
A 1952 FBI memo notes that analysts were “fairly certain that [UFOs] are not ships or missiles from another nation in this world.” Mirroring frequent reports of UFOs evading nearby aircraft, the FBI learned that “when the pilot in [an intercepting] jet approaches the object it invariably fades from view.”
In short, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that intelligently controlled objects – often flying in restricted airspace and capable of eluding fighter jets – were not developed by the United States or any foreign power.
If the government’s assessments are accurate, the list of possible explanations shrinks considerably.
Another FBI memo notes that after years of Air Force study, “a small percentage of extremely creditable [sic] sightings have been unexplainable.” As a result, “some military officials are seriously considering the possibility of interplanetary ships.”
But such objective, open-minded analysis was not to last.
Amid intensifying Cold War hostilities, America’s spies and defense planners worried that mass UFO sightings could again overwhelm emergency reporting channels, giving the Soviet Union “a surprise advantage in any nuclear attack.” Officials also feared that the Soviets would use “UFOs as a psychological warfare tool” to sow “mass hysteria and panic.”
The agency began by recruiting academics to join a “Scientific Advisory Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects.” The group, which – importantly – was not shown the most compelling UFO data, recommended a “broad educational program” to “debunk” UFO reports and “train” observers “in proper recognition of unusually illuminated objects.”
According to the panel, the “training” program would “result in a marked reduction of [UFO] reports.” At the same time, the “debunking” effort would decrease “public interest in ‘flying saucers’” and reduce Americans’ “susceptibility to clever hostile propaganda.”
But the “debunking” effort had extraordinary consequences.
According to James McDonald, one of the world’s leading atmospheric physicists, the Air Force began applying “meteorologically, chemically and optically absurd” explanations to UFO sightings. Widespread public and congressional anger soon followed.
Perhaps worse, as astronomer and long-time consultant to the Air Force’s UFO project J. Allen Hynek bluntly stated: The CIA panel “made the subject of UFOs scientifically unrespectable.”
Vice Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the first director of the CIA, summarized the situation: “Through official secrecy and ridicule, many citizens are led to believe [UFOs] are nonsense.” “Behind the scenes,” however, “high-ranking Air Force officers are soberly concerned.”
To be sure, classified U.S. aircraft accounted for some UFO sightings. But once-secret aircraft were almost certainly not behind the most compelling historical UFO incidents. Indeed, dozens of credible witnesses and multiple sensor platforms observed objects engaging in movements that no American or Soviet plane was capable of.
Unsurprisingly, the Air Force’s bungling attempts to explain away UFO sightings led to accusations of a sweeping cover-up. This dynamic created fertile ground for an array of conspiracy theories.
But far-fetched claims of alien autopsies or a vast government plot to conceal extraterrestrial visitation are not supported by historical context and must be viewed with utmost skepticism.
Ultimately, instead of a nefarious cover-up, the government was guilty of a “grand foul-up” on UFOs. This conclusion is substantiated by the two scientists who spent decades studying UFOs while enjoying extraordinary access to government records.
James McDonald, the renowned atmospheric physicist, was particularly infuriated by the government’s shoddy work on UFOs, stating “I have never seen such superficiality and incompetence in an area of such potentially enormous scientific importance.”
Indeed, much of the Air Force’s effort to catalogue and analyze UFO reports was crippled by a woeful lack of interest and resources. Perhaps worse, it was managed by an ever-rotating cast of low-level officers determined not to “rock the boat.” The shift from investigating to discrediting UFO sightings only made matters worse.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.