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1 june 2024

I love books about UFOs. When I was a kid I devoured them, books about abductions, conspiracies and coverups, incidents at Exeter and interrupted journeys, cheap paperback collections of mysterious reports of the airships back in 1897. "For anyone who didn't live through it, it is hard to imagine just how widespread and intense saucer excitement was during the mid- and late 1960s," said ufologist James Moseley (204). I lived through it.

My interest continued into adulthood. I read Berlitz and Moore's Roswell Incident (1990). I was the natural audience for The X-Files. But I also read debunkers. I plowed through the Prometheus list of books discrediting UFOs (and all sorts of monsters and paranormal phenomena). I wrote a fan letter to the late great debunker Phil Klass, and he sent me an inscription on a sticky label so that I could paste it inside one of his books.

For people like me, Garrett Graff's' UFO is the ultimate reading experience. Graff charts the entire history of American involvement with UFOs, from science to military secrecy to fraud to sheer mystery. (Phil Klass gets one mention in UFO, a nod to his discrediting of one forgery by detecting an excess comma in a document. To such footnotes are entire lives of work ultimately reduced.)

Graff interweaves the UFO story with that of SETI, the search for communications from distant aliens. I previously reviewed two books about SETI here – by Seth Shostak and by Paul Davies – so I was at first a little dubious about Graff's project to tell both stories together. I think I remain dubious, though I read the whole book with interest.

There is certainly enough material here for a book on UFOs that barely mentions SETI. But the two topics are related. Little grey men, if they are visiting us, are extraterrestrial intelligence by definition, even if we haven't sought them out. Both ufology on the fringe of science, and SETI, a more mainstream undertaking, have drawn derision and struggled for funding.

Graff's approach is chronological. Though visitors from the skies are an ancient legendary tradition, and found modern avatars in the 1890s, pervasive interest in UFOs did not burgeon till after the second world war. Atomic fears, the terror of conventional air warfare, and suspicion of huge secret government projects all fed postwar UFO mania. It had not been long since German scientists really had developed unprecedented flying weapons; the V-1 and V-2 projects were mirrored by the Swedish "ghost rocket" phenomenon of 1946. At the time, it was all too plausible that Soviet rocket research had picked up where the Nazis left off.

Roswell followed in 1947, but didn't become Roswell, if that makes sense, till the 1990s. In 1947, news reports rather prosaically described recovering the wreckage of a UFO. By contrast to nearly all close encounters reported since, there are pictures of of the debris, which would become iconic. The story was that it was a weather balloon, which was so boring that it was immediately suspect. The real story was that the Roswell debris was from an intelligence-gathering balloon, which is nearly as boring. But the government's penchant for secrecy has always fueled conspiracy theory, and continues to do so.

A case in point is the Tehran incident in 1976, when Iranian Air Force pilots reported playing cat-and-mouse with incredible spacecraft. The "spacecraft" were probably meteors. But the U.S. Air Force clapped a lid of silence on the story, making it seem that extraterrestrials had to be involved. But Graff reports that

the only reason the government's records were classified was to protect the fact that US intelligence personnel had spoken directly to the Iranian pilots—the US didn't want it to leak back to the Shah that it had sources directly inside his military. (306)
In such a culture, the fragmentary nature of reporting on UFO sightings is guaranteed to fuel conspiracy theories. Such theories, though I love them in The X-Files, suffer from the same problems that plague JFK-assassination theories, stolen-election theories, Bigfoot and the like: too many explanations, too much reliance on random anomalies, too great a faith in the ability of thousands to go to their graves keeping absolute silence about schemes that remain forever undocumented.

The SETI folk in Graff's book, like Carl Sagan and Jill Tarter, are models of intellectual curiosity. The UFO folk are more troubling. J. Allen Hynek, for decades the public face of respectable ufology, is perhaps the central character in Graff's history, and ultimately a sympathetic one.

Hynek had strong credentials as an observational astronomer. He helped the US construct a formidable network of satellite trackers that was a key development in the Space Age. But he also kept an open mind about the nature of UFOs, an agnosticism that boiled over into frustration when it became clear that the government would not respect anyone interested in serious UFO research. Hynek found himself increasingly in the wilderness, even though his own attitudes never hardened into delusion.

Astronomers are said never to report UFOs. (Not by Graff; I learned this factoid elsewhere.) If this is true, and it probably isn't absolutely true, but might be a general rule, it's telling. People who spend the most time looking at the sky and figuring out what they're looking at are the least likely to spot esoteric spaceships. Hynek supervised hundreds of skywatchers; it might have told him something when none of his people watching the skies found the things he was most interested in.

Conversely, though, military pilots and radar operators see tons of UFOs, and they would seem to have impeccable ethos. You can try to say that fighter pilots are confused by weather balloons or Venus or smudges on their windshields, but pilots themselves will tell you that they see mundane things all the time and know quite well what they look like. Events like the "Tic-Tac" UFOs seen by the crews of the USS Princeton and other ships and planes in 2004 remain the hardest to explain. But military aviators are not unconfusable; radar equipment can develop glitches (as Graff suggests here), and popular delusions can develop on shipboard. Unfortunately, the framework in which we discuss these intriguing unknowns is the legacy of nearly 80 years of paranoia.

Graff, Garrett M. UFO: The inside story of the US government's search for alien life here — and out there. New York: Avid Reader [Simon & Schuster], 2023.