“a triumph of sober, conscientious scholarship unlikely to be equaled for years to come” – a reviewMarch 16, 2021
A Book Review By Jerome Clark
Among the most discussed issues in UFO history, dating back to the advent of flying discs in the latter 1940s, are these: What does the U.S. government know about UFOs, and is it concealing earth-shaking secrets?
The issue formed the core of the first two UFO-themed books ever published, Behind the Flying Saucers by Frank Scully and The Flying Saucers Are Real by Donald Keyhoe, both from 1950. In Keyhoe’s view the Air Force had deduced that saucers were visiting from another planet, probably Mars (which even astronomers then thought a possible abode of an intelligent race), from its analysis of sightings by reliable observers including its own pilots and other trained personnel. Scully’s book, based on what turned out to be bogus claims by two notorious grifters, anticipated later allegations that UFOs had crashed and been recovered in New Mexico. Scully’s yarn was situated near Aztec, not near Roswell, but the tale was the same in its broad details: extraterrestrial craft, alien bodies.
Today, according to the occasional poll taken on the subject, even the casually interested American is likely to suspect that the government knows more about UFOs than it’s willing to own up to. It’s hardly irrational to harbor suspicions of that sort. Decades of puzzling sightings from credible citizens of all conceivable backgrounds – sometimes backed up by multiple or independent witnesses as well as sophisticated instrumentation – render so dubious the routine official denials that one can easily conclude that government sources are being much less than forthcoming. It’s also true that the Air Force and its Project Blue Book resisted furiously – and successfully — when a civilian group, Keyhoe’s National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), lobbied for Congressional hearings on UFOs in the late 1950s and 1960s.
These facts and considerations have generated a considerable literature, most of it more speculative than factual. At one end are relatively conservative Keyhoe-like notions; at the other extreme are stories of government/ET contacts and comparable face-to-face interactions. Roswell-based theories are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.
For those curious about these things, UFOs and Government: A Historical Inquiry by Michael Swords and Robert Powell (San Antonio and Charlottesville: Anomalist Books, 2012, 579 pages, $29.95, paperback) ought to be required reading. After all this time it is possible to glean some perspective on what governments, our own and others, have and have not done about the UFO sightings that came to their respective attentions. Most of this fat volume is taken up with the history of American officialdom’s UFO policies and practices, but other chapters interestingly survey related matters in Sweden, France, Spain, and Australia.
The authors – Clas Svahn, Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, Bill Chalker, Barry Greenwood, Richard Thieme, Jan Aldrich, and Steve Purcell also contribute in a secondary role – draw on the extensive documentation that has become possible through releases of documents by various governmental agencies. Interviews with those willing to speak on the record supplement the paper trail. What results is as thorough and accurate recovery of the record as is possible in the early 21st Century.
The story is a riveting one. Americans, of course, will be most concerned with what was happening within our national boundaries. The answer: a whole lot of deeply puzzling sightings versus many years of official apathy punctuated with active hostility. Official interest was (and it is correct to refer to it in the past tense) sporadic, lasting at a perhaps too-generous estimate no more than three years. The first official body to take on the problem, Project Sign, decided after a few months of inquiry that the flying discs were probably extraterrestrial in origin – which was definitely nothing its Pentagon superiors wanted to hear. The succeeding Project Grudge, barely active for much of its existence, devoted its time to minimal investigation while conjuring up absurdly inadequate solutions to reports. Between late 1951 and mid-1953 Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt led the project, retitled Blue Book in March 1952, and tried to do the job right. These were Blue Book’s golden years, never to be repeated. From then on, it was full-tilt debunking until the project shut down in 1969.
The full history of those useless years is still a fascinating one, however. Those looking for sinister government machinations can find it in the recommendations of the CIA’s Robertson Panel, which convened for less than a week in January 1953 but laid down recommendations that drove official policy forever afterwards. The panel’s scientists dismissed the reality of UFOs practically on the spot, but they thought sightings and beliefs influenced by reports constituted the true menace to national security. The panel urged that people be discouraged from making those reports by manipulation of popular opinion, and it advocated the monitoring of private UFO groups. Sightings would be quickly explained, and even if people didn’t stop making them, they would at least be discouraged from talking about them.
How American officialdom went about doing its dismal deeds comprises much of the narrative of UFOs and Government. If it’s discouraging, sometimes infuriating, reading, the book is yet full of life and color. The heroes are few, albeit not nonexistent, and the villains are many. The drama never flags, even when the good guys – those who advocated real investigation and empirical analysis – are frustrated at nearly every turn by Blue Book, the Pentagon, and an insanely compliant press which embraces official pronouncements, however spurious or laughable on their face. Meanwhile, the book continually highlights mostly little-known, seriously enigmatic, yet well-documented reports which make it depressingly clear what was not being accounted for or addressed all the while.
Before this, only three books have sought to address the official history in a responsible, grounded fashion: Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956), David M. Jacobs’s The UFO Controversy in America (1975), and Lawrence Fawcett and Barry Greenwood’s Clear Intent (1984). UFOs and Government supersedes all of these fine works, not only by bringing the story up to date but by filling in the early record with what we have learned since.
How could this have happened? How could what is surely destined to be seen as among the major scientific questions of the 20th Century been so irresponsibly neglected? UFOs and Government can’t answer that question, which will take up a fair amount of space in the future literature of science, sociology, and psychology. At least among military and intelligence decision-makers , however, it appears reasonably evident that once they observed that UFOs didn’t act like an imminent threat, they could be ignored while more pressing Cold War anxieties consumed policy-makers’ attention.
Of course, nobody wanted to put it that crassly when so much of the public was demanding something more substantive than rote statements of rejection. So eventually, often unconsciously, an evolving mind-set declared that UFOs were being essentially ignored because the sightings didn’t amount to anything – a judgment the military was not actually entitled to make, but which it did anyway because contrary pressures (from civilians and UFO organizations) could easily be contained. As for the dismissive scientists, no excuse is imaginable, and history will render its verdict, sure to be harsh, in due course.
Where does this leave intriguing controversies like the Roswell incident? UFOs and Government handles that question as well as any astute observer could, with agnosticism. Yes, it concedes, the official explanation (a balloon employed in a secret intelligence experiment) is unconvincing to most. At the same time, no evidence exists that so colossal an event as the recovery of an alien spacecraft affected official policy, which it would have pushed in a radical direction. To every available appearance, Roswell and its aftermath vanished into a black hole. If something is being covered up, whatever that something is, it remains for all practical purposes invisible. It doesn’t play a role in any detectable history.
UFOs and Government is a triumph of sober, conscientious scholarship unlikely to be equaled for years go come.