Every so often the release of archive documents throws up another gem from the bygone era when flying saucers really were taken seriously by world governments.
The most recent turned up in a collection of papers produced by Irish diplomats in Washington DC who reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin circa 1948-51.
The opening of these files is a joint project of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Royal Irish Academy and the National Archives of Ireland.
One document includes a telling reference to the creation of a foundation stone in today’s UFO myth. Interest in UFOs sighted over the United States was intense during the summer of 1950 and Irish diplomats sent a briefing to politicians in Dublin.
This told how an American Airlines pilot landing at Washington Airport was circled three times by a UFO that was not seen on radar. Hints about a cover-up were already implicit in the story: ‘…the papers here carried the report in the first edition and after that it was dropped out of every edition and did not appear anywhere else.’
More fuel was added to this fire by rumours that a recent announcement by the State Department about the formation of a ‘scientific branch’ to exchange information with foreign countries ‘is supposed to have something to do with this “flying saucer” scare…’
These rumours coalesced in a narrative form with the publication of retired Marine Corps major turned pulp-fiction author Donald Keyhoe’s book The Flying Saucers Are Real.
The book sold over half a million copies and is still regarded as a classic by many of today’s UFOlogists. Keyhoe reached three conclusions based upon information he claimed came from highly placed sources in the US government.
Firstly ‘the earth has been under periodic observation from another planet, or other planets, for at least two centuries.’ Secondly, this scrutiny suddenly increased in 1947 following the series of atomic bomb explosions, resulting in Kenneth Arnold’s sighting and the UFO crash at Roswell. Thirdly these observations were set to continue indefinitely ‘as the spaceman’s plans are not complete.’
Keyhoe claimed his information was based on official tip-offs from contacts high up in the US Air Force and Pentagon who believed flying saucers came from outer space.
But the newly released Irish government briefing – dated 15 June 1950 – reveals that ‘it has been said here that the publication of the book…was inspired by the U.S. authorities so that the people here might be accustomed to the idea that there is a possibility of the inhabitants of another planet visiting this one.’
In effect a very early version of the popular conspiracy theory often called ‘the acclimatisation programme’. Proponents of this believe that films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind have been deliberately engineered by a secret cabal that knows ‘the truth’ to acclimatise the public to the reality of the alien presence on Earth. They constantly drip-feed us with images, movies and TV programmes about aliens so that when open contact does occur it will seem inevitable. Truther groups like The Disclosure Project thrive on this sort of collective wish-fulfillment.
Back in 1950 Irish diplomats were keen to distance themselves from the stories they heard in Washington. One sent a copy of Keyhoe’s book to Dublin with a covering note that read: ‘…the Department will understand that I do not in any sense commit myself to believe in any of the views expressed in regard to these “flying saucers”‘.
So is the ‘acclimatisation programme’ factual or mythical? Was the whole story fed to Keyhoe part of a clever psychological experiment engineered by the Mirage Men? And which came first, the movies and TV programmes or the idea? The answer lies within the question.
In 1967 a book entitled Report from Iron Mountain became a best-seller in the US and caused a major stir in the media. It purported to be the work of a covert Special Study Group composed of academics, scientists and economists. The report claimed they had been commissioned by the US government ‘to determine, accurately and realistically, the nature of the problems that would confront the United States if and when a condition of “permanent peace” should arrive, and to draft a programme for dealing with this contingency.’
On page 98, under the section heading ‘Substitutes for the Functions of War‘, the report says:
‘…this is where the space-race proposals, in many ways so well suited as economic substitutes for war, fall short. The most ambitious and unrealistic space project cannot of itself generate a believable external menace. It has been hotly argued that such a menace would offer the “last, best hopes of peace” etc., by uniting mankind against the danger of destruction by “creatures” from other planets or from outer space.’
The idea of rival countries uniting in the face of a common threat from outer space had a long literary pedigree dating back to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. In 1947 it led Britain’s Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to declare that the nations of the world would only be united ‘when they have someone in Mars to get mad against.’ And in 1987 President Ronald Reagan was reported to have told an astonished Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the UN General Assembly ‘how quickly our differences would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.’
Colin Powell, deputy national security advisor at that time, was well aware of Reagan’s preoccupation with ‘little green men’ and believed he got the idea from the plot of the 1951 science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still. This appeared at the height of the first flying saucer scare (source: Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The role of a lifetime, Simon & Schuster, 1991).
In 1967 Report from Iron Mountain claimed that:
‘….experiments have been proposed to test test the credibility of an out-of-our world invasion threat; it is possible that a few of the more difficult-to-explain “flying saucer” incidents of recent years were in fact early experiments of this kind…’
In 1972 satirist Leonard C. Lewin revealed he invented the entire Iron Mountain report as a spoof. One source claims the book was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘Most Successful Literary Hoax‘. Inevitably some conspiracy theorists believe it is the work of an real top secret committee set up by the US government much like the one imagined by the Disclosure Project. In this version Lewin’s story was needed for damage control when the contents leaked out.
Report from Iron Mountain joins a long list of literary hoaxes including the infamous MJ-12 papers that appeared in 1987. They purport to be part of a secret briefing for president-elect Eisenhower on the crash of a spacecraft at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 by a super-secret cabal known as ‘Operation Majestic-12.’
Despite the amateurish nature of the MJ-12 documents some prominent UFOlogists – such as Stanton Friedman – continue to act as advocates for their contents. Their commitment to the narrative reflects a deeper truth of the type imagined by Donald Keyhoe in 1950.
The appearance of deeper truths are one of the key features that identify this type of story as part of a wider myth. A scholar of religion, Professor Robert Segal, of the University of Aberdeen, says that to qualify as myth it is not necessary for a story to be true or false. But it must express a conviction ‘held tenaciously by its adherents’ and be impervious to scientific scrutiny. Much like the acclimatisation programme itself.