In his monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all. This month, he explores the sudden rise in UFO sightings after World War II.
America had its head broken open during World War II, and out came the visions. Visions of global power, infinite markets, ideological struggle, and exotic flying machines. It’s not clear if the number of UFO sightings actually spiked in the years that followed or if it was just our imagination, but something changed. What had been a trickle of encounters dating back to the pioneering days of aviation became a torrent. Often described as saucers, these noiseless, shimmery machines were seen above highways and wheat fields and supermarkets in Forth Worth, Texas; Great Falls, Montana; Monmouth County, New Jersey; Salem, Massachusetts; Carson Sink, Nevada; Washington, D.C.; Miami, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia—the list goes on and on—in the late forties and early fifties. The timing makes it impossible to consider such phenomena without also considering the cataclysm that, more than any set of founding documents, gave birth to our colossal, unknowable, world-striding modern nation. In other words, before you can grapple with UFOs, you have to ask yourself: what the hell did that war do to America?
Dreamers have seen things in the heavens since time out of mind. You can go back to 228 B.C., when the Roman historian Livy recognized portents of doom in the “phantom ships” he saw “gleaming in the sky.” Or when Pliny the Elder, an ancient scribe, recorded something that sounds like a Steven Spielberg UFO: a spark that “fell from a star and grew as it descended until it appeared to be the size of the Moon.” Such visions, which usually came in times of stress, were taken as a sign from God. Ezekiel’s fiery wheel, witnessed on the road to Babylon, was possibly a flying saucer. People have always had visions, but the language changed. In the religious age, it was angels and demons. In the scientific age, it’s intergalactic dream machines, hot rods cooked up by gearheads from across the inky vacuum. As the holy book says, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”
The Germans put the first jet plane in the air in 1939. The first rocket that could touch space went up in 1942. Called the V2, its target was not space but London. Chuck Yeager, flying the bullet-shaped Bell X-1, broke the speed of sound (767 mph) in October 1947. Ten years later, the Soviet’s launched the first artificial satellite. That was followed by the first man in space, the first man in orbit, the first man on the moon. One result of the aerospace boom was UFO mania. If we could do it, it was only logical to think aliens could do it, too. Roswell, New Mexico, where the air force was said to have recovered a flying saucer and a crew of dead aliens in 1946, was just the most famous encounter—there were hundreds of others during the Cold War. In 1949, government officials were said to have captured the crew of an alien craft that set down, in the cool of a desert evening, on a plateau in Aztec, New Mexico.
What explains this sudden intergalactic traffic?
Some suggest it was the first atomic bomb, which was detonated as part of the Trinity test, in White Sands, New Mexico, at 5:35 A.M. on July 16, 1945. According to this view, the blast sent a shock wave across the universe. It registered in distant solar systems as deep-sea earthquakes register with us. It was a clarion call. It said: DANGER! It meant the previously harmless human race had gotten ahold of matches that could immolate all of creation.
In 1952, the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb, which was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb. The neutron bomb, which kills people but leaves buildings standing, was developed soon after. In each instance, the Russians followed. We were in the midst of a nuclear arms race, and no one knew what sort of weapon would come next. It made sense that the aliens would want to keep a reptilian eye on the situation. That’s why so many sightings happened in proximity to military installations. These were usually circular craft, whispery and huge, floating with no visible means of propulsion. “In 1967, a glowing red oval-shaped object hovered over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, and all 10 of the facility’s underground nuclear missiles became disabled almost simultaneously while the U.F.O. was present, according to interviews with witnesses and official government reports,” the New York Times reported. On October 23, 2010, a similar ship appeared without warning above Warren Air Force Base, a missile facility outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. As the craft lingered above the silos, the nuclear warheads went off-line one by one. On its departure, that UFO moved in a manner familiar from many stories—at incredible speed, bounding across the sky like the light of a laser pointer.
If you believe such stories are true, you also believe that our inept, inefficient government has maintained a nearly perfect cover-up across thirteen presidential administrations. Because they’d have to know—there would be pictures, eye-witness accounts, alien hardware, alien DNA.
Bob Lazar, a possible nuclear physicist and propulsion expert most recently known from the Netflix documentary Bob Lazar: Area 51 and Flying Saucers, has, since 1989, claimed that he worked on an alien spaceship in a classified facility called S-4, which sits astride Area 51 in the Nevada desert. He says he’d been hired to reverse engineer the ship’s propulsion system after other scientists had failed. The higher-ups hoped Lazar’s hobby (he goofs with engines, strapping jets on bicycles and whatnot) would suit him for such a task. Lazar said he counted nine alien ships in the desert hangars, though he was allowed to work on only one, a small saucer that functioned, as if by magic, without batteries, wires, or tubes. When various pieces of the engine were placed in proximity, it hummed to life. Lazar believed these were the components of a nuclear reactor powered by an element then unknown on earth: element 115, which, once dismissed as fantastical, was synthesized into existence in a Moscow lab in 2003. (Lazar believes a scientist who worked on the project before him died from exposure to the nuclear core.) Now and then, says Lazar, pilots took the craft into the sky above Area S-4. Lazar’s description of how they moved match the testimony from many UFO sightings. He believes the ships, ancient relics unearthed in the course of an archeological dig, travel via warp—that is, they create a wave in space/time, then ride down the face of that wave like a surfer. This would explain the silence of the crafts, the way they seemed to roll, turn on a dime, jump across the sky.
Lazar casts himself as a whistle blower. He wants the world to know. Why the cover-up? Two reasons. One: G-men fear the confirmation of an alien presence will cause panic. To realize that we are not alone, have never been alone, that the U.S. Congress is not the world’s most powerful legislative body and cannot protect you, would cause societal breakdown. Governments would fall, markets crash. Two: they want to keep the tech for themselves. The first nation to crack alien propulsion will rule the planet.
How do we know there’s a cover-up?
Because the government interviews witnesses, studies incidents, writes up findings, then marks it all classified. If there were no aliens, why spend millions studying the phenomena? People believe in witchcraft, yet there are no congressional subcommittees on warlocks. The FBI task force known as Project Blue Book (the real-life X-Files) began investigating flying saucers in 1952. It was the task force that swapped the definitive term “flying saucer” for the anodyne “Unidentified Flying Object,” which, having been tainted by fifty years of lunacy, is itself in the process of being replaced. “There’s a new name,” Hillary Clinton said during a 2016 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel. “It’s unexplained aerial phenomenon. UAP. That’s the latest nomenclature.”
Various heads of Project Blue Book came in as debunkers but left as agnostics, if not outright believers. The FBI explained away many sightings as hoaxes or confusions, but a percentage defied understanding. Under the leadership of astronomer J. Allen Hynek, Project Blue Book investigated 12,618 UFO sightings. Most were easily dismissed, but 701 could never be explained. In a briefing, Major General John Samford, the Air Force’s director of intelligence, told the FBI that it was “not entirely impossible that the objects sighted may possibly be ships from another planet.”
Project Blue Book was discontinued in 1970, at which point, assumedly, the U.S. government exited the UFO game. But according to the New York Times, which broke the news on its front page, the Feds had in fact carried on the work under new leadership and new names. The Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, funded at the urging of then Nevada Senator Harry Reid, looked into a handful of sightings, with special attention paid to a series of encounters between Navy fighter jets and UFOs. “The strange objects, one of them like a spinning top moving against the wind, appeared almost daily from the summer of 2014 to March 2015, high in the skies over the East Coast,” the Times reported on May 26, 2019. “Navy pilots reported to their superiors that the objects had no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes, but that they could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds.”
The craft, as described by Navy pilots and captured in gunsight videos, moved in just the way Bob Lazar had described: great speed with seemingly little effort. On a transcript, one pilot, sounding more than a little like Elvis, says to another, “Wow, what is that, man? Look at it fly!”
Fighter pilots do not tend to be of the muddle-headed variety. They are cynical, cool, and realistic. In other words, such reports are hard to dismiss. And yet, for whatever reason, I do. My relationship to UFOs is like my relationship to God. I want to believe, but find it hard. I don’t know why. Belief in UFOs is really no stranger than any other sort of belief, no stranger than a belief in prophets or ancient codes. But I just don’t feel it. I wish I could see one for myself, as I wish I could see the Virgin Mary floating above the yellow roses in my backyard. When I said this to my neighbor, who runs a blog called I Saw One Too, he shook his head sadly and said, “No you don’t. You really don’t.”
The experience undermined him in some way, made him feel cast out and disbelieved; people glaze over when he talks about it, yet he feels the need to talk about it. He’d been in the military when he saw the UFO. When I asked if it was possible that he’d seem a secret new military weapon, he said, “I’m as sure that what I saw was from another planet as I am sure that that is a bench.” (We were standing next to a bench.)
If we were being visited, I think we’d know, that’s all. I don’t think there’d be any doubt. Hiding it would be like Columbus hiding his “discovery” of the New World.
So what’s happening?
The answer can be found in our political history.
The spike in UFO sightings began after the Second World War and continued through the Cold War, when people were scared—scared of external invasion, scared of internal subversion. It’s natural that this fear would be objectified, turned into visions of otherworldly menace, turned into aliens, turned into silver ships, a blue light in the woods.
What about all the sightings near military installations?
Like I asked my neighbor: isn’t it possible that people were seeing experimental aircraft, the test flights of futuristic planes? Bob Lazar’s Area S-2 is near the testing ground of the stealth bomber. If you were driving at night from Barstow to Las Vegas and spotted that thing flying over the desert, what would you think?
But the big thing, the event that triggered the age of the UFO, was the detonation of the first A-bomb in New Mexico. The blast did send out a beacon, only it went from us to us. We were amazed at what we’d accomplished. Turning the atom into a bomb … people just knew it was a bad thing. We’d brought a new kind of evil into the world. In aliens, we are seeing ourselves through a glass darkly.
David Lynch, who deals in hidden worlds, conspiracies, and what adults get up to in the dark, is maybe the only American artist to express the importance of this moment in his work—the bomb changed everything. His show Twin Peaks centers on an FBI agent following up an investigation that began in the Project Blue Book days. The crux of the story comes in the eighth episode of season three (officially titled Twin Peaks, The Return) which aired on Showtime in 2017. In it, we see the creation of the new postatomic world, how it unleashed forces of good and evil on a formerly peaceful town (call it fifties America). The sequence opens with a title card: July 16, 1945, 5:29 A.M., White Sands, New Mexico. Then the countdown, then the bright light—the so-called flash-burn characteristic of the A-bomb, during which energy becomes radiant heat and light—then the explosion.
Physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, who was in the desert to witness the test, called it “the brightest light I have ever seen or anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever … altogether it lasted two seconds. Finally, it was over, diminishing, and we all looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew. It went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward one. A new thing had been born, a new control, a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.”
Lynch takes his camera inside the mushroom cloud, where those two seconds become eternity. We see the creation of a new universe within, or the rip in the fabric that opens a portal to the dark lodge that’s been there all along.
It’s all about technology. Knowing what we’ve done to the universe makes us imagine what a species with superior technology might do to us. Every alien invasion movie can be read as an expression of colonial anxiety—it’s about the fate of the indigenous people with the viewer put in their position. It’s all about the speed of change. It happened too quickly. In the span of a single human life. Take, for example, Henry Stimson, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war. Stimson was the one who told Harry Truman about the atomic bomb (the vice president had been kept in the dark) when FDR died. Stimson, who was seventy-seven at the time; who hated the bomb and argued against using it on Japan; who, when he lost that argument, took Kyoto off the target list, as he’d been in the city before the war and knew it to be beautiful; who spent time as a child with his great-grandmother, who in her childhood had been told stories by George Washington. That’s it. One life that connects the birth of the nation and its first war, fought with muskets and icy river crossings, to the atomic bomb, which can vanish islands and obliterate cities. When the first bomb detonated, Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project, quoted the Bhagavad Gita, saying, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It’s the hysteria of the modern. Too much, too fast. It’d make anyone see aliens.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.