If extraterrestrials were really visiting the Earth, you probably would have read about them on social media already. Telltale video, shot by one of billions of people with a camera phone, would be “liked” like no video has ever been “liked” before. Then you’d see the Upworthy version: “This Spacecraft Landed in a Cornfield, and What Happened Next Will Blow Your Mind.” Finally, you’d click on the inevitable BuzzFeed listicle —“9 Space Aliens who Literally Couldn’t Even” — and decide for yourself whether to believe it.
Until recently, Americans had to rely on the authorities. Flying-saucer stories are all in fun for those of us raised on cheesy science fiction, but from the late 1940s until the late ’60s the US military took them seriously enough to investigate them, most notably in a classified effort called Project Blue Book. Though made public years ago, the more than 100,000 pages of documents from these investigations became easily searchable online only this month, thanks to UFO buff John Greenewald and his website The Black Vault.
Beyond prompting lots of warmed-over “X-Files” jokes, these Cold War-era documents also illustrate how official secrecy invites deep public suspicion. And they hint at how, once a conspiracy theory of any sort gains a foothold in the culture, there’s almost no getting rid of it. Project Blue Book shut down in 1969 without announcing proof of extraterrestrial activities, fueling decades of speculation that the government was covering up something juicy.
When Air Force officials first began soliciting reports of UFOs, they got plenty of leads, and not just from credulous average citizens. Among those spotting unusual objects over Massachusetts were knowledgeable military veterans, a Logan Airport control tower employee, and MIT weather radar researchers.
One notable report came from a Beacon Hill man named John who, while gazing at the stars before dawn one morning in 1948, spotted three low-flying aircraft. His account is almost poetic: “The planes had no lights, but city lights made them visible like three pale moths.” He added, with an underline, “There was no sound.” Channeling the mood of the early Cold War years, a Colonel W.R. Clingerman thanked John for his “patriotic interest and prompt action in reporting this incident to the proper authorities.”
Even now, private citizens witness remarkable things whose meaning isn’t immediately clear. Sohaib Athar, a Pakistani IT consultant, unwittingly live-tweeted the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011. But in looking back on the Project Blue Book era, you wonder: What was it about the public mood, in an era when emerging superpowers were testing out secret aircraft and nuclear annihilation was an ever-present threat, that convinced some Americans that ominous things in the sky came from — outer space?
Let’s not be too smug. Even when yesterday’s paranoias fade, new ones keep emerging. Since last month, long after measles became preventable, dozens of people have caught the disease in an outbreak that began at Disneyland — a sign of how many parents are refusing to give once-standard immunizations to their children because of unfounded fears. This is an anxiety that, like UFO theories, flourishes in that strange political space where the New Age left meets the anti-government right.
It can’t be a coincidence that UFO accounts have receded in the public mind as the number of cameras in the world has multiplied. Today we’d demand proof. You have Facebook friends who let no moment go unphotographed; why would their close encounters be any different? Late last month, the CIA cheekily needled both UFO buffs and the spy agency’s contemporary critics. “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ’50s? It was us,” declared the official CIA Twitter account. An Internet-era stargazer, unlike John on Beacon Hill, would play it cool: Sure, I saw three aircraft with no sound, but I was, like, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The Project Blue Book documents now online, jarred loose by Greenewald’s prodigious use of public-records laws, may not change many minds. They may just provide grist for more Internet drollery; in just a few clicks, you could write a listicle on “5 Dogs that Totally Knew ETs Were Out There.” But nothing does more than a free flow of information to dispel whispers about nefarious doings in secret.