The Common Good
August 2011

The Roswell Legacy

by Danny Duncan Collum | August 2011

How strange sightings, the Cold War, and the national security state add up to a truth we'll never know.

In the 1990s TV series The X Files, FBI agent Fox Mulder was on a quest to discover the facts about UFO sightings and alien abductions. "The truth," he insisted, "is out there." And in the series, that truth involved a labyrinthine conspiracy between some powerful earthlings and extraterrestrial invaders that went all the way back to the UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947.

Something definitely crashed at Roswell in 1947. Local people saw the wreckage and saw government men swoop in to remove it. Then the whole affair disappeared behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. Now a recently published book, Area 51, by an established mainstream journalist, Annie Jacobsen, has reopened the case. The book's title refers to an ultra-secret U.S. military installation in the Nevada desert to which, according to UFO lore, the craft and alien bodies recovered at Roswell were removed. And Jacobsen's book suggests that the truth is further out there than even Fox Mulder ever imagined.

It's always been difficult to separate myth from reality regarding the strange events around the Roswell crash. The UFO sightings of the era blend in history with all the mutant monsters and alien invaders that dominated so many popular movies of the time, from Godzilla to The Day the Earth Stood Still to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and beyond. There was, of course, a reason for all these fantasy mutations and incursions. America had just entered an undeclared war in which each side threatened to destroy all life on the planet. Nuclear radiation -- the silent, odorless, colorless, and tasteless poison that the atomic bombings of Japan had unleashed --  had entered the ecosystem through atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. And, according to the leading politicians of the day, the enemy -- The Communist -- was within, hiding among us, perhaps disguised as a benign left-leaning Democrat, or even a do-gooder clergyman.

It was a nightmare. And the movies, the collective dream life of our culture, showed it.

Mixed in with the nightmare of the Cold War, and its cinematic manifestations, were widespread real-life sightings of UFOs that began in 1947. If you don't want to believe that these were really extraterrestrial vehicles, then it makes sense to guess that these early UFO sightings resulted from a combination of Cold War high-tech weapons research (perhaps on both sides) and the Cold War-induced paranoia of the time. Most of Jacobsen's book includes painstaking research on secret Cold War technology.

But Area 51 suggests that there really was something strange going on in the skies in 1947 and that it bore a direct relationship to the Cold War. Annie Jacobsen's anonymous source on this topic, upon whom she is betting her professional life, claims that the Roswell vehicle was an experimental Soviet craft, made with technology captured from the Nazis, and those hairless pilots with big heads and strange eyes were really 13-year-old humans genetically and surgically altered by the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele. And, the source claims, the Soviet project was inspired by American science fiction, specifically Orson Welles' radio production of The War of the Worlds, which spread panic along the East Coast in 1938.

UFO buffs have noted that this sounds like the sort of cover story the government would give to mid-level people if they really were working on an alien craft. And the truth will never be known with certainty. Not when the U.S. government barely even acknowledges that Area 51 exists. All we can really know for sure is that, in the late 1940s and early '50s, a national security state was established in America. And the secrecy and deceit it required have poisoned our national life ever since.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His novel White Boy was recently published by Apprentice House.

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