Herb Strentz, a frequent contributor to Bleeding Heartland, wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Northwestern University on media coverage of flying saucers/unidentified flying objects. He was also a research associate with the Department of Defense UFO Project conducted by the University of Colorado in the late 1960s.
I offer some UFO trivia and storytelling as part of the 75e anniversary of the beginning of the flying saucer phenomenon. This is generally believed to be June 24, 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot from Boise, Idaho, reported seeing disc-shaped objects over the Cascade Mountains.
Incompatible from birth
Just a month after Arnold’s sighting, the US Air Force was established as a separate branch of the armed forces on July 26, 1947, and is said to be haunted by the saucer phenomenon even to this day.
A nagging question was “Why couldn’t the most powerful and expensive air force in the world explain to its citizens what they saw in the sky?”
Saucers, however, have become a scientific and political issue, not a military one.
After all, the two givens of the phenomenon are (1) At least 95 to 97 percent of sightings are natural or man-made phenomena and (2) After a few years, and certainly after 75 years, it is safe to say that whatever may constitute the few confusing reports is not hostile, does not constitute a threat to national security.
Nevertheless, the Air Force was tasked with explaining, not investigating, saucers or unidentified flying objects for at least 20 years officially – and even after the closure of its Project Blue Book operation at the base of Air Force Wright-Patterson in Dayton, Ohio, in 1969.
Project Blue Book operations headquarters, photographed by Herb Strentz during a 1968 visit
Little Green Men?
These supposed UFO pilots do not appear in Air Force reports, or in any accounts of supposed contact with extraterrestrials. The little green men abound in “news” articles or commentaries.
Perhaps the first press link between saucers and “little green men” was in a humorous July 9, 1947 column by Associated Press writer Hal Boyle. The color tag stuck – so much so that when two men reportedly saw metallic silver aliens near Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in August 1955, they were nevertheless widely reported as “green”.
The stereotype was reinforced by pointing out its absence. Thus, a news article might note that “no little green man was seen” – reinforcing the fiction.
Maybe green made sense because it’s not a human complexion, and “little” black, brown, or yellow men could threaten white people. Moreover, racial supremacists would not tolerate white men being “short.”
UFO? No. CPU? Yes, but…
Every once in a while, a reporter might check with the North American Air Defense Command, asking if NORAD has detected UFOs in its sky surveillance. As expected, the news was that NORAD had seen no UFOs.
This was correct because NORAD had no UFOs. However, NORAC had UCTs (uncorrelated targets) – blips that were ignored or excluded from the defense system.
UCTs were presumed non-hostile because they were slow or did not follow a ballistic trajectory. At a UFO symposium in July 1968, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the Air Force scientific consultant on UFOs, said the number of CPUs destroyed by NORAD was probably several hundred per month. . No UFOs, though.
No hoax needs to be applied
Major and then Lieutenant Colonel Hector Quintanilla was director of Project Blue Book from 1963 to 1969. I had correspondence and conversations with him for two or three years. He was always frank and open.
For example, on the political front, he said the Air Force was very reluctant to call a UFO sighting a hoax, even when it was.
Well, the approximately 12,000 UFO reports that Blue Book has dealt with came from US citizens. Citizens are voters. Voters have members of Congress, who vote on defense appropriations. They might not appreciate the Air Force calling a voter a liar or a crook.
So, with his team of four or five other people, including a secretary and the scientific consultant, Quintanilla did his best to explain the causes of the UFO sightings. He lacked the resources to investigate many. And anyway, an investigation can be a lost cause, when all you have to do is “I saw something in the sky”.
Flying saucers: A cover for the commies?
After four or five years, when it was obvious that the saucer reports themselves were not a military problem, the Air Force had a chance to get rid of the flying saucer albatross. A panel of respected scientists, the Robertson Panel, met in January 1953 to examine the role of the Air Force and offer advice on what to do.
The Central Intelligence Agency had recommended such a review after a wave of UFO sightings in August 1952 over Washington, DC. CIA representatives at panel meetings expressed concern that panic or other public reactions to flying saucer reports might serve as a distraction or cover for Soviet action against us.
So, instead of relieving the Air Force of UFO matters, it was decided that the best solution would be for the CIA to “debunk” the flying saucer phenomenon and educate the public to reduce their interest in it. (The Gallup Poll had found that as early as the summer of 1947, public awareness of flying saucers was higher than any other topic the poll had ever covered.)
Back to the drawing board
The fascination of the public and the press for saucers has not waned. As UFO reports continued, in 1966 the Department of Defense contracted the University of Colorado for a recommendation on what to do next. This two-year, $500,000 project resulted in a January 1969 recommendation, giving the Air Force a way out:
“…further study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the hope that science will progress…”
Thus, the Air Force would no longer be a convenient source of information for journalists for easy, readable stories about “little green men.”
Earth in quarantine?
Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was among the best-known scientists of the 20e century, thanks to his genius in exobiology – his description of his field – and as a television personality. (His range of interests and public fame may explain why, in 1968, he was denied tenure at Harvard. He was warmly welcomed to Cornell – Ithaca University, New York, and not Mount Vernon College, Iowa.)
Sagan visited the University of Colorado project in the summer of 1967. In his whimsical yet believable style, he offered this tongue-in-cheek take on flying saucers:
Our technological advancements meant that we could not hide in the universe. So, Sagan suggested, perhaps saucer-riding scouts traveled to see if Earth might be suitable for intergalactic government. They replied, “No. Too violent. Earth was so determined to self-destruct that it would pose a threat to galactic peace and tranquility. Thus, Earth was and continues to be quarantined, off-limits to civilized societies. of the universe.
Nothing in the past 55 years has dampened Sagan’s fantasy.
Our Congress, unable or unwilling to address climate issues, gun control, domestic terrorism and other concerns, recently held a hearing on UFOs, after some puzzling reports renewed interest.
But listen again to Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is something to bear in mind, given the certainty that UFO reports will continue.
We already have enough eyes in the sky to provide extraordinary evidence when the time comes.
And on top of that, the issue of visits from space may be moot if we’ve been quarantined.
Author’s Note: Readers seeking further information on US Air Force involvement in flying saucers may enjoy a PowerPoint created by Herb Strentz, available here.
Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and a professor until his retirement in 2004. He served as executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 until 2000.