Michael Swords and Robert Powell. UFOs and Government: A Historical Enquiry, with contributions by Clas Svahn, Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, Bill Chalker, Barry Greenwood, Richard Theme, Jan Aldrich and Steve Purcell. Anomalist Books, 2012.

Ufologists have long had a troubled relationship with their various governments, and many of them suspect that their governments have secrets (whether reports or artefacts) that would prove that the ufologists, or at least those of their number who believe that some UFO reports are produced by intelligent ‘anomalous’ or ‘exotic’ stimuli, are right.

Let me start off by saying that anyone expecting any dramatic earth shaking revelations in this huge 500+ page book are going to be disappointed. There is one very scary story I have never seen in print before, and it does not come from the United States.

The book commences with brief historical looks at the foo-fighters and (by Clas Svahn) on the Scandinavian ghost rockets. The section on the foo-fighters is rather superficial, and does not mention the studies by Andy Roberts and others, probably due to the lack of knowledge of European literature.

The largest portion of the book is devoted to a painstaking study of the United States Air Force and its various official investigations of the flying saucer mystery since 1947. Clearly a huge amount of work has gone into recovering documents, memos, letters and the like, which add a good deal of extra detail to this narrative, but at the end of the day they do not alter substantially what was already known about these topics. That is to say the apparent original open-mindedness under Sign, the turn to a more debunking phase under Grudge, followed by the opening up in 1950-52, then the path to wholesale debunking, and the conflicted relationship between the Air Force and various civilian advocacy groups such as NICAP.

The attitude of the US Air Force clearly annoys Swords and Powell, and it has to be said that they are far too close in time and emotion to conduct an unbiased historical study, and their account frequently descends into polemic. I rather suspect they are more interested in attacking the alleged deficiencies of the various US Air Force investigations than in pursuing the reasons why certain decisions are taken. In their introduction, Swords and Powell disclaim any presumptions about UFOs, and say they are not writing a history of the phenomenon, but of the investigations and the decisions behind them.

However in practice a significant amount of their narrative is devoted to providing details of, at least superficially, puzzling cases, with the constant refrain as to how inadequate or how much in bad faith the Air Force was, calling various spokespersons ‘liars’ at several points. They do not provide a single example of a superficially puzzling case for which the Air Force came up with a correct conventional explanation. It is a relentlessly hostile account.

Clearly the USAF often went in for superficial, careless and incorrect explanations, and this puzzles the authors. They seem to think that this was because they feared mass panic, although studies of civilian reposes to air raids in Britain and Germany showed they failed to undermine morale and did not lead to ‘mass hysteria’ despite the fears of the British government to the contrary in the 1930s. Of course one thing is obvious from this dismissive response, neither the Air Force nor their superiors had any crashed flying saucers nor any real evidence which would suggest that there was a serious danger that this strategy would come back to bite them.

The most plausible interpretation is that while romantics in the Air Force and elsewhere might toy with ideas about extraterrestrials, these speculations never really invaded the realms of reality wherein lay wallets. Particularly as the Cold War intensified, the interest of the Air Force as an institution was solely focused on whether any ‘unidentified flying objects’ were from the Soviet Union. If they weren’t they were of no great interest. The newspapers were full of such stories, most turned out to have a conventional explanation, probably all would if enough time and money was spent on investigating them, and that would be time and money diverted from what they saw as their sole purpose, the defeat of the Soviet threat. Better sweep everything under the carpet lest any of it take our precious funds away.

Others might find popular interest in ‘flying saucers’ to be useful, perhaps as suggested here, to get people looking at the skies for the incoming Soviet bombers. Of course, things got out of control, and the CIA and its friends started to worry that if hoards of people were reporting every vague light in the sky to the Air Force as potential alien spaceships, then the real Soviet bombers would sneak in as just another lot of UFOs. Better dampen down the interest lest that happen.

It wouldn’t matter if some UFO reports were very strange indeed, as long as they didn’t involve the Soviet Union, or pose such a grave and immediate threat that it warranted time and money being taken away from defending against the Soviet Union. Remember this was the age of McCarthy and fears of communist infiltration everywhere. There would have been those who could easily have got the notion that “this flying saucer business” was all being dreamed up by Soviet agents to divert attention from incoming Soviet bombers or to spread fear among the population.

Swords and Powell seem to grasp this at times, but like many micro-historians, the outer world rarely intrudes on their vision. They seem to be aware of the problems caused by contactees with some strange political views (usually a mixture or far-right and far-left populism with big dollops of anti-Semitism), but there have always been hints that there was a vast hinterland of rumour circulating in the popular press, men’s magazine’s and the like. Was there something out there, known at the time in the Air Force, but now lost to history, which suggested there could be real problems if the ‘flying saucer business’ wasn’t dampened down?
What comes out from Swords and Powell’s study is that there was indeed suspicion of civilian UFO investigators, particularly those with a technical background, so given this, it was probably unfortunate that the most public American ufologist, Donald Keyhoe (left) spent so much of his time and energy on badgering Congress and the US Air Force, rather than building up the capacity for detailed scientific study of its own. NICAP’s investigations strike me as little more than folklore-gathering, valuable enough in itself, but not producing anything like the detailed evidence that would be needed to convince the general scientific community that there was anything worth investing time and money into investigating.

It strikes me that this conflictual relationship explains a lot as to what has continued to be the position in the United States. It drove both parties into their bunkers. The more groups that like NICAP pressed them, the more the Air Force strove to dispose of UFO reports, lest they persuade anyone to divert their precious funds to their study; and the more the Air Force explained away cases with reckless abandon, the more civilian ufologists adopted the position that any explanation of puzzling UFO reports (or at times any UFO report) that did not involve the ETH or some esoteric variant thereof, was by definition debunking. This caused them to adopt a kind of fundamentalist world view, the doctrine of the inerrancy of eyewitness testimony. This is clearly still in evidence throughout American ufology, and certainly so here. Swords and Powell constant refer to “credible witnesses” and take eyewitness testimony at face value. They make little distinction between observation and inference, to say nothing of the distortions of perception, memory, recall, narration (even to oneself) etc. Alan Hendry’s UFO Handbook of 1979, shows how conventional stimuli can generate some spectacular reports, and see also Jenny Randles Vendetta with Venus for how a misperception of Venus ends up with a close encounter with physiological traces.

Having traced the Blue Book studies up to 1963 in minute details, for some reason the editors jump right over 1964-66 onto the Condon Enquiry. They present some interesting facets of the personnel and their numerous problems, not least the incompatibilities amongst the various members of team, many of them reflecting the wider social and generational divisions of the period.

Here again the author’s micro-history blinds them. Someone with no knowledge of US history at this period could read this chapter without once realising that the Condon Enquiry took place against the background of one of the most troubled periods of that nation’s recent history: the era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the student movements, occupations of universities, the siege of Chicago, youth antinomianism and so forth. These outside events, particularly the disputes around universities and education, intrude into the disputations among the panel members. They are central to the increasingly belligerent attitude of Edward Condon himself, in particular his exasperation over school pupils getting class credits for projects based on UFO books. This was part and parcel of the wider cultural clashes on both sides of the Atlantic between proponents of ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ education. I should point out that using popular UFO books for science projects would have been unthinkable in my school in 1967.

Swords and Powell argue something happened to Condon at the end of June and the beginning July 1967 which made him much more hostile to the subject, something that perhaps made UFOs become metaphors for the chaos and disorder of the times. Condon had been in New York for a conference on June 22-23, on June 26 there was the first of the large number of race riots of that summer, at Buffalo, New York, in which 14 people died. Perhaps events like that made him fear for the future, and gave him the same apocalyptic visions as Jerry Clark or John Keel.

Again and again the outside world would intrude on the study and the disputes among its team members echoed the disputes in wider society. Furthermore it must have started to look all terribly irrelevant.

Swords and Powell come to a more nuanced view than many other commentators about the infamous Lowe memorandum with its reference to a ‘trick’ . Essentially they argue he was dissembling to critics of the enquiry (and its waste of money), by taking a much more negative line than his own personal beliefs. Regarding Lowe, they regret that Condon did not go to Britain while Charles Bowen and Aime Michel were there and meet them. I suspect such a meeting would have contributed little to Condon’s temper, what with Charles Bowen’s growing interest in the paranormal and Michel’s insistence that the ET’s were essentially beyond human comprehension.

Swords and Powell reveal one important detail from the Condon Enquiry discussions which I have not seen before, but which is of the highest significance, though neither they, nor either Condon or David Saunders grasped it. It was psychologist Michael Wertheimer’s argument that the ETH was neither refutable nor, bar the massive landing, (or, and this shows how time and technology of have changed in 45 years truly alien DNA) provable. However exotic a UFO report, however resistant to conventional explanation, that cannot prove it represents ET, how do you know it isn’t a ‘framasand’. Framasand was a nonsense word that he coined to represent the unnamed and unnameable, the unknown unknowns. If some UFO reports are generated by something truly exotic, why should we assume that it is going to be something that human beings can imagine or name?

The trouble with all the various exotic explanations for UFOs - space ships, time travellers, brane-hoppers, shape shifting boggerts, demons, the inhabitants of the hollow earth or the lost city or whatever, psychic projections from the collective unconscious, mass telekinesis and so on - is that they are things that human beings can and have imagined. We read about them in books, see them in films, talk about them. They are all products of human culture.

The trouble with the ETH is that is a negative, it assumes that some UFO reports represent ‘craft’ and ‘technology’, largely because that is the inference people make about things they can’t explain they see in the sky or on land, because most things we see in the sky that aren't birds are craft. Having made the assumption that X is a craft and a technology, then saying it isn't ours (how would you absolutely know that), it isn’t theirs (ditto), it must be ET. The trouble is that the ‘advanced technology’ is what a past generation imagined the technology of ‘now’ would be like, and it changes with time and culture.

I think that Condon (left) was quite right in not including old cases in his study; they would have been just too old and subject to the changes in memory that time brings. Nor are they quite as dramatic as the authors think. Take the Red Bluff case. This involves some sort of light “like a big (American) football” estimated at about 50m. wide. It goes up and down, back forth, often very slow, sometimes stands still. Every time they try to approach it recedes, it stops and “comes closer” It is in sight for two hours, after which it joins another light “high in the sky”. There are exotic features, strange interference on a car radio, and an “indescribable” red light. They ‘estimate’ that it comes down to 50m. then goes up tom 200. But look at some core features: the light that moves about and returns to its original location, that recedes when you approach it, that hangs about for two hours, moves up into the sky. Most British ufologists today would recognise that as an astronomical misperception. Some of the exotic bits might suggest that some very strange things start to happen when you stare at a distant light for long enough. Compare this with cases in Hendry's book.

The other sections much more briefly cover other countries, Clas Svahn traces the history of Sweden’s UFO investigation back to the ghost flyer cases of the 1930s, which are very different from modern UFO stories, but have the same background in the misperception of conventional stimuli. Sweden’s UFO research, even more than that of the United States was dominated by fear of the Soviet Union, a very near neighbour, and this did not just include UFOs but USOs mystery submarines, rumoured to be of Soviet origin. Svahn presents his short history in an objective fashion.

Bill Chalker’s study of the Australian government involvement shows similarities with the American situation, and clearly demonstrates the cultural influences of the US on that country. However it is clear that relations with amateur ufologists have been far less conflictual, and their files have now been released. There are some interesting quite ‘British’ characteristics, and I note that a former Public Relations Officer in Canberra Ken Llewellyn follows in the Royal Air Force tradition of ‘Stuffy’ Dowding and Victor Goddard, having an involvement in Spiritualism, and publishing a paranormal book Flight into the Ages.

There are a number of interesting cases discussed, including the Father Gill case - did you know that Rev. Lionel Browning who helped publicise the case twice stood as a Liberal (in UK terms Conservative) candidate for the Australian Parliament? It is from Australia that the one really scary story comes. This is not the Valentich nonsense, when a strange black sphere intruded into the territory of a US intelligence facility on the tip of Western Australia on the evening of 11 October 1973, as the world stood on the edge of nuclear conflict resulting from misunderstandings over Soviet intentions during the Yom Kippur war.

Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos is a veteran Spanish ufologist, who has had a much more positive relationship with his Air Force, creating and taking charge of a team to evaluate the 122 released reports. Of these only nine remained unexplained, which Ballester is careful to point out does not necessarily mean unexplainable. His critical stance is similar to that of David Clarke in Britain, and one which has become more sceptical over the years, a contrast to attitudes in the USA.

Ufology in Spain developed in a rather different direction. Until the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1975-81, Spain was an authoritarian society, but not a totalitarian one. Ufologists were free to write books, investigate cases and so on, but it would not have been wise to engage in polemics against the military, so this conflictual history did not develop. Ballester makes the interesting point that the most puzzling cases always seem to be the older ones, probably because data gathering and research methods were less well developed, and suggests that this is the case in other countries. It certainly seems to apply to the USA where ufologists always trot out the classics from the 1950s and 1960s.

Ufology in France in many ways has developed as a reverse of ufology in the USA. In the latter the sceptical authorities are challenged by believer private ufologists; in France largely uncritical official figures have been challenged by often sceptical private ufologists. It is not clear who has written this chapter, it is not a French speaker, and I suspect that the history of official involvement and interaction with private ufologists is much longer and more complex that the uncritical study of GEPAN here.

There are brief discussions of periods of UFO research in Brazil and the former Soviet Union, One of the significant figures of early Brazilian ufology mentioned here was J Escobar Faria, editor, along with Richard Hall, of UFO Critical Bulletin for which our own John Harney was a correspondent back in the day.

The most obvious omissions from this study are accounts of the government investigations in Britain and Canada, both of which have had idiosyncratic elements, so I don't take the editors’ excuse that these were “too similar to the USA” at face value. Does the real reason have to do with the editors’ relationship with David Clarke and Chris Rutkowski, respectively?

This must now be a study of a closed historical period; particularly in the age of financial austerity there will be no more official UFO investigations in the foreseeable future. It is doubtful if any reasonable sum of money thrown at the subject would make much progress, and I don’t see any billionaires willing to risk it.

This is an important contribution to the history of ufology, but it is not the definitive one, and the authors of the American section in particular eventually could not decide whether they were writing history or polemic. In some ways it is too near to the time, too tied up in the heat of battle, but in other ways too late, in that few of the participants were available for interview. The true definitive history may be just too complex to be writeable, it would need social historians from many countries, studies of hundreds of newspapers and thousands of little magazines, hundreds of books in dozens of languages. The starting point will have to be the AFU archives in Sweden. So if you are a twenty-something multi-lingual social history student with an interest in ufology, there’s a starting point for you. – Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

  1. Chris Rutkowski, Canada's reasonable ufologist, gets UFO reports sent to him by the government. Perhaps that makes him suspicious in the eyes of true believers.

    > the doctrine of the inerrancy of eyewitness testimony

    I was a casual reader of psychology before I looked into UFOs, so I was surprised to find this long-discredited view. UFO researchers constantly clamour for science to take sightings seriously, yet on UFO Updates there is an inexhaustible hostility toward memory research in particular and psychologists in general. Many ufologists just pretend such research does not exist, or is the result of pure bias. Meanwhile, UFO fandom actively promotes a parallel folk psychology which, being improvisational, tends to get comically absurd. You saw an alien peeping in your window? Correct! You saw a cat peeping in your window? Wrong, it was a screen-memory of an alien!