The Roswell Legacy
Fifty years ago this summer, the modern UFO craze began. Fed by fantasy, faddishness, and even outright fakery, the mythology has become so well nourished that it has begun to spawn bizarre religious cults like Heaven’s Gate. Earlier this month, as reported by the New York Times, the Roswell controversy reached out to involve U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond and a former aide, Philip J. Corso, in a dispute over an upcoming memoir by Corso for which Thurmond wrote the foreword. The book claims that the U.S. government used alien technology to win the Cold War. (“Thurmond Disputes Book on Purported Alien Spaceship,” New York Times, June 5, 1997)
This latest publicized controversy is sure to have a catalyzing effect on the planned fiftieth-anniversary hoopla, July 1-6, at Roswell, New Mexico, the site of ufology’s Holy Grail. From near Roswell, according to a burgeoning legend, in late June or early July of 1947, a crashed alien spacecraft and its humanoid occupants were retrieved and hidden away at a secret government installation.
The “Roswell incident” as it is popularly known, was propelled into history on July 8, 1947, by an unauthorized press release from a young but eager public information officer at the Roswell Army Air Base. He reported that a “flying disc” had been retrieved from an area ranch where it had crashed. (For a detailed account of the Roswell incident, see Kal K. Korff, ”What Really Happened at Roswell,” Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 1997.)
This came in the immediate wake of the first modern UFO sighting, the famous string of “flying saucers” witnessed by private pilot Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947.
Just such sightings had long been anticipated by pulp science-fiction magazines, like Amazing Stories, and by the earlier writings of a crank named Charles Fort. Called “the world’s first ufologist,” Fort reported on unidentified objects in the sky that he believed indicated visits from space aliens; his reports were based on old newspaper and magazine accounts.
Soon after the press release made headlines around the world, the young officer was reprimanded and new information was released: The unidentified flying object had really been a weather balloon, said officials, and photographs of the “wreckage” — some flexible, silvery-looking material — were distributed to the press.
In 1949 came the first of the crashed-saucer hoaxes. It involved a science-fiction movie, The Flying Saucer, produced by Mikel Conrad, which allegedly contained actual footage of a captured spacecraft; an actor hired by Conrad posed as an FBI agent and swore the retrieval claim was true. The following year writer Frank Scully reported in his book Behind the Flying Saucers that the U.S. government had in its possession no fewer than three alien spaceships, together with the bodies of their humanoid occupants. Scully was fed the story by two confidence men who had hoped to sell a petroleum-locating device allegedly based on alien technology.
Other crash-retrieval stories followed, as did photographs of space aliens, living and dead: One gruesome photo merely portrayed the charred body of the pilot of a small plane, his aviator’s glasses still visible in the picture.
In 1974 Robert Spencer Carr began to promote one of the crashes from the Scully book and to claim firsthand knowledge of where the pickled aliens were stored. According to the late claimant’s son, Carr was a spinner of yarns who made up the entire story. (See “Son of Originator of ‘Alien Autopsy’ Story Casts Doubt on Father’s Credibility,” Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 1997.)
In 1977 a pseudonymous “Fritz Werner” claimed to have “assisted in the investigation of a crashed unknown object” in Arizona. This included, he said, his actually seeing the body of one four-foot-tall humanoid occupant that had been placed in a tent. Unfortunately there were suspicious parallels between the Werner and Scully stories and other evidence of hoaxing, including various inconsistencies in Werner’s tale.
In 1987, the author of a book on Roswell released the notorious “MJ-12 documents” which seemed to prove that a saucer had indeed crashed near Roswell and that its humanoid occupants really were recovered. The documents purported to show that there was a secret “Operation Majestic Twelve” authorized by President Truman to handle clandestinely the crash/retrieval at Roswell. A “briefing document” for President-elect Eisenhower was also included. However, MJ-12 was another Roswellian hoax, the documents merely crude paste-up forgeries that utilized signatures cut from photocopies of actual letters and documents. The forger even slipped one document into the National Archives so it could be “discovered” there. (The Archives quickly cast doubt on its authenticity.) The NBC series Dark Skies is based on the MJ-12 pseudohistory.
In 1990 Gerald Anderson responded to an Unsolved Mysteries telecast about the alleged 1947 UFO crash (placing it in western New Mexico). He claimed that he and other family members, including his uncle Ted, were rock hunting in the desert when they came upon a crashed saucer with injured aliens among the still-burning wreckage. Anderson released a diary that his uncle had kept which recorded the event. Alas, examination by a forensic chemist showed that the ink used to write the entries did not exist in 1947 but had first been manufactured in 1974. (Anderson claimed that the tested pages were copies, but he never made the alleged originals available.)
The boldest of the Roswell hoaxes came in 1995 when an “alien autopsy” film surfaced, showing the purported dissection of a retrieved humanoid corpse. Attributed to an anonymous former government cameraman, the film was distributed by a British marketing agency that formerly handled Walt Disney products, and it was promoted during prime time on the Fox network. Although the film was supposedly authenticated by Kodak, only the leader tape and a single frame of film had been submitted, and Kodak refused to be taken in by the obvious ploy. In time, the film’s bogus, non-military codemark and various anachronisms led it to be declared a hoax — even by most ufologists, who let it be known there were limits to their credulity.
More recently, there was the Roswell “UFO fragment” of 1996, a piece of swirly-patterned metal that turned out to be nothing more than scraps discarded by a Utah jewelry artist. And so the hoaxes continue. Many ufologists have heralded the Roswell incident as providing the primary evidence for the UFO invasion of planet Earth. Supporting evidence, of course, purportedly comes from myriad UFO reports (most of which eventually become IFOs: identified flying objects) and “alien abductions” (experiences that skeptics have shown are fantasy-based).
Ironically, the government’s claim that a weather balloon instead of a “flying disc” landed at Roswell was honest but mistaken. It was not, of course, the grandiose coverup of extraterrestrial visitation that conspiracy theorists now imagine. The best current evidence indicates that the crashed device was in reality a U.S. government spy balloon — part of a 1940s secret operation called Project Mogul, an attempt to monitor sonic emissions from anticipated Soviet nuclear tests.
As a consequence of these sordid events, the Roswell incident has left a half-century legacy of bizarre cult mythology, anti-government conspiracy theories, and unrelenting skywatching by self-styled ufologists who seem to fancy themselves on the brink of a momentous discovery. The latest book or television program to the contrary, what crashed at Roswell was the truth, plain and simple.