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UFOs and the Cold War


For centuries, strange lights, objects and celestial wonders in the sky have warned of impending doom. This sense of unease at the sighting of extraordinary objects flying above rang especially true during the Cold War.

In the early 20th Century mystery lights over Great Britain were interpreted as being caused by German Zeppelins spying out the land in preparation for invasion, during WWI any unusual thing in the sky was regarded as an enemy aircraft and produced scares in South Africa, Canada, USA and Britain.

In the 1930s, ‘mystery aircraft’ were often reported, but with the coming of WWII strange objects viewed by Allied pilots, which followed their aircraft, were dubbed ‘foo fighters’. After the war there was a huge spate of ghost rocket sightings over Scandinavia, but sightings of odd things in the sky only became perceived as a truly global phenomenon with the arrival of flying saucers in June 1947.

The term ‘flying saucer’ was coined by newspapers after civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine glittering craft flying over Mount Rainier, Washington on 24 June 1947. He described them as thin, nickel plated, tailless, pie plate shaped objects with a convex triangular rear section. The objects flew in an unusual fashion like saucers skimming across water, travelling at an estimated 1,200 mph, a speed much faster than any known aircraft of that time.

This story from a reliable witness soon triggered many more sightings throughout the world. Yet, most people described seeing a disc or saucer-shaped craft in-line with what the term flying saucer inspires, rather than bat-shaped or tadpole like craft described by Arnold.

This was ‘coincidentally’ at the beginning of the Cold War. One of Arnold’s first thoughts was that he was seeing US jet planes. Yet, his sighting was so troubling he reported it to the media in an effort to find out what he saw.

When he discussed it with fellow pilots, he said “Some of the pilots thought it over and said it was possible. Some of them guessed that I had seen some secret guided missiles. People began asking me if I thought they were missiles sent over the North Pole. I don’t know what they were, but I know this — I saw them.”

Sonny Robinson, a former Army Air Forces pilot who was operating dusting operations at Pendleton, Oregon, told Arnold: “What you observed, I am convinced, is some type of jet or rocket propelled ship that is in the process of being tested by our government or even it could possibly be by some foreign government.”

However, a Washington, D.C., army spokesman said that guided missiles like the V2 rocket travelled too fast to have been responsible for Arnold’s sighting and in any case no experimental tests were conducted in that area at that time.

In secret the Army Air Force was worried about these sightings, and in July 1947, Army Air Force intelligence officers Lt. Frank Brown and Capt. William Davidson interviewed Arnold and were convinced that he was an honest witness. 

Inquiries were made to see if the Soviets had developed a saucer or flying wing aircraft using captured Nazi designs and scientists, but this drew a blank and it was equally clear that it wasn’t a US secret weapon either.

Debunkers soon turned to claiming such sightings as misperceptions or the product of Cold War hysteria while believers soon started thinking the saucers were extraterrestrial craft on a mission to save us from starting an atomic war.

Concerned that UFOs sightings would block essential channels of communication, and be used as a psychological weapon by foreign enemies, the policy of US government agencies soon turned to providing mundane explanations for sightings or covering them up, to prevent the outbreak of UFO hysteria.

Unfortunately, these tactics only made it seem that the US and other governments were covering-up the subject because they knew more about it than they were willing to say (such as being in contact with alien beings and/or keeping their crashed ships at Area 51). 

From a historical perspective, the subject of flying saucers offers a valuable insight into the impact of the Cold War on society, and also helps indicates how it has evolved and changed into the conspiracy led state ufology is in today.

By Nigel Watson

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