UFOs and the Pentagon Budget
Once the Pentagon tried to quash all talk of UFOs but now they've gone X-Files. Why the shift?
Jack Kirby, Eternals #2, 1976 (pages 3 – 4) from Jack Kirby Museum.
UFOs are showing up in very strange and unexpected places. I don’t mean flying near naval bases or stalking airline pilots. That’s something that has been going on since the late 1940s (with even earlier sightings of “airships” in the late 19th century). Rather, the shock is seeing UFOs being openly discussed in the august pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker as well as on earnest news program 60 Minutes.
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, UFOs weren’t talked about in such hoity-toity venues. To find out about possible alien visitations, you had to scavenger through grubby tabloids like Weekly World News, schlocky paperbacks written by obvious quacks like Erich von Däniken, and low-budget shows like In Search Of….
How did UFOs become so respectable? Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s excellent and lengthy New Yorker article provides some useful context. What we’re seeing now is actually a return to an older norm; there was a golden age of UFOs in the late 1940s and early 1950s when mysterious encounters with flying objects were widely discussed in both government circles and by respectable media. In a 1952 press conference, Major General John Samford, the Air Force’s director of intelligence, spoke of “a certain percentage of this volume of reports that have been made by credible observers of relatively incredible things.”
The sheer volume of reports was seen as a problem, since it threatened to overwhelm the dominant narrative of a global struggle against communism. In 1953, Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports,
[T]he C.I.A. secretly convened an advisory group of experts, led by Howard P. Robertson, a mathematical physicist from Caltech. The “Robertson panel” determined not that we were being visited by U.F.O.s but that we were being inundated with too many U.F.O. reports. This was a real problem: if notices of genuine incursions over U.S. territory could be lost in a maelstrom of kooky hallucination, there could be grave consequences for national security—for instance, Soviet spy planes could operate with impunity. The Cold War made it crucial that the U.S. government be perceived to have full control over its airspace.
To stem the flood of reports, the panel recommended that “the national security agencies take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired.” It also suggested that civilian U.F.O. groups be infiltrated and monitored, and enlisted the media in the debunking effort.
UFOs never really went away—there have been a flurry of reported sightings all over the world for decades—but the pushback by the USA government made them a déclassé subject, stigmatizing UFO observes as crackpots.
If the Cold War made UFOs tawdry and embarrassing, then it’s possible that the end of the Cold War made it inevitable that the topic could be restored to polite society. Indeed, it’s possible that the UFOs could provide a substitute for the now vanquished Soviet threat. Certainly for organizations needing to justify large budgets on watching sudden aerial attacks, the existence of UFOs is convenient, perhaps even necessary.
The story Lewis-Kraus tells is a complex one, involving the efforts of activists like Leslie Kean pushing for disclosure and finding allies within the government, including former Senator Harry Reid. These government officials were interested in the topic for mixed reasons (a combination of curiosity and the possibility of lucrative boondoggles for constituents researching UFOs).
A 2017 New York Times article, co-written by Leslie Kean, was the pivot point in the contemporary discourse. It made it into the Times as a political story (Reid had set up a secret fund for UFO research) but also included startling unclassified videos. The rash of subsequent stories has made it clear that the Pentagon has moved on from a hush-hush approach. Now the Pentagon was openly touting UFOs (or as they are now called “unidentified aerial phenomena” or UAPs) as part of their remit.
Last Sundays 60 Minutes report made me suspicious of the whole UAP business as a possible way for the Pentagon to expand its budget. Historically, 60 Minutes has been a show that is ready to serve as mouthpiece for the military-industrial complex, and the framing of the show on UAPs suggested there is a possible threat, one requiring government action.
Consider this exchange between 60 Minutes reporter Bill Whitaker and Former Navy pilot Lieutenant Ryan Graves:
Ryan Graves: I would say, you know, the highest probability is it's a threat observation program.
Bill Whitaker: Could it be Russian or Chinese technology?
Ryan Graves: I don't see why not.
Bill Whitaker: Are you alarmed?
Ryan Graves: I am worried, frankly. You know, if these were tactical jets from another country that were hangin' out up there, it would be a massive issue. But because it looks slightly different, we're not willing to actually look at the problem in the face. We're happy to just ignore the fact that these are out there, watching us every day.
The segment also has Senator Marco Rubio opining, “Anything that enters an airspace that's not supposed to be there is a threat.”
What are we to make of all this talk about UFOs and UAPs?
Absent any game-changing information, the following principles apply:
Unidentified means what it says: These are objects that fit no existing taxonomy or pattern. If the released videos are taken at face value, they indeed show objects doing things no known natural or man-made object can do. That doesn’t mean alien: it just means we don’t know.
The universe is large, with many suns and planets. It is highly likely that there are technological advanced civilizations on other planets, including species far in advance of humanity. But, the universe is large. Travelling between suns is extremely difficult and would take a long time if the speed of light cannot be outrun (as, for all practical purposes, is the case, at least for existing humanity). So, that makes the possibility of extraterrestrials visiting earth also extremely unlikely.
While perhaps one of the non-Extra-Terrestrial explanations (a secret Pentagon program, advanced Chinese or Russian technology) might be factual, they also seem unlikely based on what pilots are reporting. We’re talking about technology many decades ahead of what currently is publicly known.
We live in a science-fiction saturated culture so are quick to fill in uncertainty with theories about extraterrestrials. But since we really don’t know, why not let the imagination run riot in other directions? Time travellers, beings from other dimensions, hidden technological civilizations that have lived in parallel with humanity, space Gods? (The forthcoming Marvel movie Eternals, based on a 1970s Jack Kirby creation, might fuel speculations along those lines).
So we are left with a mystery. As Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “What is true, and I'm actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are.”
Mysteries can be exploited, sometimes for justified reasons.
The history of UFOs and the Cold War is suggestive. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left the American political elite in desperate need of an enemy to justify global hegemony and unify a fractured society. Destabilizing polarization has been the norm in America since the early 1990s.
The Global War on Terror briefly served that unifying function from 2001-2006 but the public soon soured on. The War on Terror morphed into the Forever Wars, something few see as helping improve America’s global status or forge national unity. The interminable futility of the Forever Wars fuelled Trump’s rise, demonstrating how utterly George W. Bush’s bid for a military-based national unity had failed. There are now attempts to turn disagreements with China into a new Cold War. This also seems like an uncertain project, given cross pressures from big business to continue doing business with the world’s second largest economy.
UFOs or UAPs might serve as a good back-up plan: a nearly invisible enemy, surrounded by an epistemological cloud, which can serve as a permanent threat.
But there are parties outside the military-industrial complex with renewed interest in UAPs. There’s a wider cultural hunger that these unexplained phenomenon excite. My friend Jessica Johnson and I will talk about this in a future podcast.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler).
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